The Jed Lowrie Question

BOSTON, MA - MAY 01: Jed Lowrie #12 of the Boston Red Sox heads for first after he hit a triple in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners on May 1, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Lowrie would score on a hit by Carl Crawford to win the game. According to reports December 14, 2011, the Boston Red Sox have traded infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland to the Houston Astros for closer Mark Melancon. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

How much stock should we put into the new Astros starting shortstop?

When Mark Melancon, the team's closer for the immediate future, was traded to Boston for Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland, most of us, including national outlets like FanGraphs, viewed it as a win for both sides. Houston got some young players who might break out and Boston got some late-inning help after losing Jonathan Papelbon and moving Daniel Bard into the rotation.

I liked the trade, said as much in a post the day it happened and liked where new GM Jeff Luhnow was taking the team. He was trading surplus value for something that will help the team and could provide more value down the road. That's the kind of thinking I've been waiting for since Gerry Hunsicker left town.

But, a lot of that hinges on Jed Lowrie and he's much more of an enigma that I'll probably let myself believe.

Why did Houston make this trade? Well, Boston needed a closer, but more importantly, the Astros were searching for a shortstop. They were picking through the bargain bin, but with every passing day, it looked like Angel Sanchez would be the everday guy.

Lowrie changes that...maybe. What he does show is how much more important offense is at the position and how defense is valued on the open market.

See, the Astros knew what was out there. They'd seen the Yuni Betancourts of the world and knew perfectly well how much they would have to spend to get mediocre production out of the position. There were only three shortstops on the market who could play the position and provide offensive value.

Jimmy Rollins signed for $33 million.

Clint Barmes signed for $10.5 million.

Jose Reyes signed for $106 million.

Even Rafael Furcal, who hit .194 in the playoffs, signed for $14 million.

Paying for a shortstop is an expensive proposition if you want any offense out of the position at all. Did you see those numbers above? Clint Barmes got $5 million a year and he's not really that good of an offensive player.

It's a tough market for a team trying to control costs and fill a vital hole on the infield. Plus, when you factor in Houston's position of having a shortstop at Double-A who's close-but-not-quite ready for the majors, they weren't ready to commit long-term to anyone at the position.

So, Luhnow goes and gets something that should cost more on the open market. He finds an offensive player who can line up at shortstop and not embarrass the team.

I'll show you how rare an offensive player can be at short. Bill James is projecting Lowrie with a weighted On Base Average of .341 next season. Only seven shortstops in the major leagues had a higher wOBA last season. Jamie Carroll, who signed for over $6 million with the Twins this offseason, had a .321 wOBA and 2.2 fWAR.

That's right, we haven't even discussed WAR in this debate. It's a tricky stat, because of the fielding and base running factors. Lowrie posted 1.9 fWAR in limited playing time in 2010 and then 0.3 last year. If he were to post 1.9 fWAR over an entire season, he'd be right in the middle of shortstops in the majors, as 15 players had over 2.0 fWAR last season. Of those, six had negative Fielding Runs, suggesting offensive shortstops can be assets even if their defense isn't good.

Now we're coming to the point when we discuss defense. Ever since Moneyball came out, people have obsessed over defense as the next big thing in smart teams capitalizing on market inefficiencies. The thing is, it's not really a market inefficiency. There are always going to be great defensive players out on the market, because most of them can't hit enough to stay in the lineup.

As important as a good to great defensive shortstop is to a team, if he can't hit, he can't help. Clint Barmes was pretty great, as was Adam Everett in Houston. Both of those guys were pretty dreadful on offense at times, but they hung in there by providing some value, hitting just enough to stay on the roster.

Can Brian Bixler do that? Probably not. That's why he was designated for assignment and is currently on the Oklahoma City roster.

Lowrie is important because he can hit. If he can play defense well enough to hold down the position, he could be a great find. If he can't, he'll transition into a utility role, not unlike Jeff Keppinger, Geoff Blum, Mike Lamb and Billy Spiers. Those guys are useful and all but one played shortstop at one time.

For Lowrie to break out and become a star, he has to play average to below average defense. Oh, and not get hurt.

For him to provide value in this trade, all he needs to do is hit.

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