If Red Sox fans are agonizing about Marco Scutaro today, it’s probably about his baserunning in last night’s loss to the Orioles, not about his contract option for 2012 and role on next year's team. But at some point this month, the Red Sox front office will have to decide whether to retain Scutaro or let him walk in search of big name replacements or in deference to Jose Iglesias’ glove.
Scutaro’s option is more complex than most; here’s how it breaks down: Boston has a $6MM option as part of the two-year, $12.5MM deal they agreed to after the 2009 campaign. If the Red Sox don't exercise Scutaro's option, he can remain in Boston for $3MM instead of taking a $1.5MM buyout.
Earlier in the year, when Scutaro was struggling and it was easier to dream on Iglesias, there didn't appear to be much of a chance that the Red Sox would pick up their side of the option. Now that the season's over, Scutaro's numbers are impressive. He has career highs in batting average and slugging percentage for a .299/.358/.423 line in 445 plate appearances. It’s no one-year blip, either. Only seven shortstops have contributed more wins above replacement (12.7) since 2008, according to FanGraphs’ version of the statistic.
Scutaro has always had a fantastic eye for the strike zone and his disciplined approach continued this year. He had a career-best 8.1% strikeout rate, finished with more walks (38) than strikeouts (36) and only Juan Pierre swung and missed at a lower percentage of pitches (min. 400 PAs, Scutaro's contact rate was 94.7%).
Scutaro, who turns 36 this offseason, can handle shortstop, though he doesn’t have Iglesias' defensive reputation and he can contribute on offense, though he might not have the same offensive upside as Jed Lowrie. If the Red Sox decide they can do without Scutaro, they could offer him arbitration after declining his option and obtain a compensatory draft pick in 2012, assuming he turns arbitration down and signs a Major League deal with another team.
There are better MLB shortstops out there, but Scutaro’s ability to play a premium defensive position, make contact and get on base is worth a lot. He’ll have no trouble drawing interest if he hits free agency and would have a strong case for another multiyear deal on the open market (Omar Infante just got one). I expect the Red Sox to pick up the option, since Scutaro has proven to be a valuable everyday player and there’s limited risk on a one-year commitment.