Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Sox have stability up the middle

The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Every Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle infielders.

BOSTON -- To sum up the unpredictable way things went for Boston's starting middle infield last season, consider that Julio Lugo was the leadoff hitter on Opening Day and Dustin Pedroia was the No. 9 hitter.

By the summer months and well into October, Pedroia was the leadoff man while Lugo rounded out the bottom of the order.

In essence, Pedroia -- in winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award -- put forth the type of numbers (.317 average, 86 runs and .380 on-base percentage) that many people envisioned for Lugo after the veteran shortstop was signed for four years and $36 million.

While Pedroia sparkled in every way, Lugo could never get into one of those prolonged grooves at the plate, finishing his first year in Boston with a .237 batting average, eight homers, 73 RBIs and a .297 on-base percentage.

Still, the combination of Pedroia and Lugo stayed in place all year along, and in the end, it was good enough to help the Red Sox win a World Series.

And for the first time in the 21st century, the Red Sox will start consecutive seasons with the same double-play combination. Yes, the middle infield has been a revolving door for Boston for several years, but it appears that Pedroia and Lugo could stick together for a while.

The rise of Pedroia was one of the biggest stories of 2007. He will enter '08 as a core member of the Red Sox, a diminutive and scrappy player who proved his worth in both the regular season and the postseason.

Perhaps just as surprising as Pedroia's bat was how remarkable he was on defense. At second base, Pedroia was a stopper, showing agility and aggressiveness while always hanging in there on double plays.

One thing Pedroia does not lack is confidence, so don't expect him to be overwhelmed at the challenge of living up to the high standards that he set for himself in 2007.

Then there is Lugo, who should have a bounce-back year. As is the case with many players in their introductory seasons in Boston, Lugo pressed at times and he paid the price.

Boston Red Sox
Catchers: In Varitek we trust
Corner IF: Sox spoiled by success
Middle IF: Second season for combo
Outfielders: Talent all around
Starters: Beckett leads elite staff
Bullpen: Papelbon the captain
DH/Bench: Ortiz simply the best

Lugo did take advantage of Fenway Park, hitting .286 there compared to .190 on the road. His speed will again be an asset for a Boston team that isn't particularly swift.

Perhaps the strong World Series performance that Lugo had (5-for-13) will carry over into 2008. Lugo never seemed to get down on himself, and he was always one of the most upbeat members of the team.

Defensively, he was at times inconsistent, but overall, Lugo got the job done. His leaping snag of a line drive in Game 3 of the World Series helped save the game and was one of Boston's most underrated defensive gems of the season.

Thanks to the emergence of both Pedroia and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, it's doubtful that Lugo will be given a chance to be a primary leadoff man this season. But his speed might actually be more beneficial at the bottom of the order, because he won't be running with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez at the plate.

Without question, the Red Sox have one of the best middle-infield backups in the game in Alex Cora. The left-handed hitter is a heady player who is a plus defender at both second and short.

If Pedroia or Lugo suffer an injury, manager Terry Francona would be more than comfortable with putting Cora's name in the lineup for a week or two.

Cora has started strong offensively the past two years before tailing off. But he's adept at small ball and seldom makes mistakes.

Shortstop Jed Lowrie is one of Boston's top position prospects, and he could be heard from at some point this season. Lowrie is a disciplined hitter with the ability to find the gaps.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.