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Red Sox deal Marco Scutaro in preparation for likely run at starter

01.21.12 at 6:44 pm ET

All offseason, the Red Sox‘ moves have been limited by the amount of payroll available to the team. On Saturday night, the team took a step to free up resources.

According to major league sources, the Red Sox agreed to a deal sending shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for right-hander Clayton Mortenson. But for the Sox, the $6 million in payroll that they freed is perhaps more important than the acquisition of the 26-year-old pithcer, who has a 5.12 ERA in 24 career big league appearances (13 starts).

With Scutaro’s $6 million off the books, the Sox can now consider upgrades to other areas of their roster, most notably, their starting pitching staff. At a time when Roy Oswalt — who finished the year looking like a legitimate mid-rotation starter on a contender — remains on the free agent market and open to a one-year deal (reportedly in the $8 million range), and when other options such as White Sox starter Gavin Floyd (due for a $7 million salary next year) might be available via trade, the Sox now have financial flexibility to pursue such alternatives.

Scutaro, who signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Sox after the 2009 season that included the $6 million team option that the Sox exercised in November, hit .284 with a .343 OBP, .401 slugging mark, .744 OPS and 18 homers in 263 games for the Red Sox over the last two seasons. Though limited to 113 games in 2011, he hit a career-high .299 with a .358 OBP, .423 slugging mark and .781 OPS, along with seven homers and 54 RBI.

His offensive marks ranked as above-average among AL shortstops, though his defense at shortstop was hampered by shoulder, neck and elbow injuries that limited him in the field and contributed to some of the 30 errors he committed in two years. In Scutaro’s absence, the Sox likely wil rely on Mike Aviles and Nick Punto to play short. Punto hit .278 with a .388 OBP, .421 slugging mark and .809 OPS in 63 games for the Cardinals last year. Aviles hit .317 with a .340 OBP, .436 slugging mark and .775 OPS in 35 games for the Sox after being picked up in a mid-year trade with the Royals.

That said, while the Sox are comfortable with proceeding with that duo (and almost certainly would not open the year with Jose Iglesias at shortstop), one source noted the the Sox will continue to pursue the possibility of upgrades at any position. (That said, this was a particularly weak class of free agent shortstops, so viable upgrades might be hard to identify in the near term.)

Mortenson, 26, has a 4-8 record and 5.12 ERA in 24 big league games (13 starts) over the past three seasons. A sandwich pick of the Cardinals in the 2007 draft, Mortenson was traded to the A’s as part of the deal sending Matt Holliday to the Cardinals in 2009 and then dealt by Oakland to the Rockies for minor league pitcher Ethan Hollisworth last year. He showed some promise with Colorado over the course of two and a half months in the majors last year, going 2-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances (six starts). Mortenson was 2-3 with a 4.15 ERA as a starter and had a 3.42 ERA in relief. The sinkerballer had command issues, walking 24 and striking out 30 in 58 1/3 innings.

One major league talent evaluator described the right-hander as a sinker slider pitcher with a build that allows him to project as a starter, but his stuff has seemingly plateaued, and he is likely to define himself either as a future back-of-the-rotation starter or a middle reliever given his grounder-inducing sinker and “fringy” secondary pitches.

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