Not to belabor the point, but Dustin Pedroia‘s 2006 spring training did not go as expected. One look at the Red Sox statistics from Fort Myers says it all: one game, one at-bat, one strikeout. It was the swing on strike three in his first plate appearance of the year when Pedroia felt the pain. “I felt it immediately in my left shoulder,” said Pedroia over the phone from Florida. “You always think the worst in that situation and I was pretty scared, but I got an MRI the next day and it was a just a strain, nothing serious.”

Unable to begin swinging a bat until last week, the Red Sox showed their commitment to Pedroia’s future by keeping him in big league camp, where he worked out with the major league club and participated in fielding drills. However, come game time, Pedroia was stuck on the bench. With many healthy players talking about the monotonous grind of spring training by the end of March, not being able to play in the games can make it that much harder. “It was tough just sitting there watching everybody play but me,” said Pedroia. “I could do everything but swing a bat.” As usual, his baseball-rat mentality took over to get him through the time on the bench. “Believe it or not, I learned a ton here. I watched every pitch and every play and walked away with a lot of things that I can improve upon.”

For the most part, the offseason had been filled with good news for Pedroia when it came to his long-term future in Boston. The Red Sox will feature a new double-play combination at the big league level, and both shortstop Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Mark Loretta are not under contract after this year. In addition, Boston traded their top middle infield prospect, Hanley Ramirez, to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett deal, subsequently opening up Pedroia’s path to the big leagues at two positions. Although moved primarily to second base last season out of deference to Ramirez, Pedroia was a shortstop at Arizona State.

As a result, while it’s no shock that Pedroia will begin the year at Triple-A Pawtucket following his spring of inactivity, it is a slight surprise to find out that he’s moving back to the left side of the infield, reporting to the PawSox as a shortstop in a couple of weeks after he gets 25-30 at-bats in extended spring training. “I’m starting the year at short and I’ll play there primarily, but they’ll still have me at second once or twice a week to keep me fresh there as well,” said Pedroia. “It doesn’t matter much which position I play–whatever it takes is fine by me.”

It’s a typically low-key reaction from Pedroia, a player who has every reason to play with a chip on his shoulder, yet doesn’t. At Woodland High School, about 20 miles west of Sacramento, California, Pedroia was one of the top prep players in the country, and a starting shortstop for Team USA’s junior squad. He was recruited by nearly every college powerhouse in the nation, including Miami, Texas and Tulane. At 5’8″, and at least 20 pounds under his current listed weight of 180, pro scouts stayed away, and that plus his strong desire to go to college left him completely undrafted in 2001. “I was definitely going to college no matter what, but I really don’t know what happened,” said Pedroia. “I wasn’t really even contacted by any teams.”

Pedroia hit the ground running at Arizona State, batting .347/.417/.432 as a freshman to earn his first of three all Pac-10 selections. It was during his time with the Sun Devils that Pedroia honed his on-base skills under the tutelage of head coach Pat Murphy. “Coach told me that I could get on base anytime I wanted. He gave me a real approach to hitting that helped me a ton,” said Pedroia. “He taught me how to lay off bad pitches and avoid stuff on the corners, and that a true hitting philosophy didn’t revolve completely around getting hits.” The evolution of Pedroia’s patience is apparent in the numbers. After walking 24 times across 236 at-bats as a freshman, he drew 36 free passes to go with 297 at-bats as a sophomore, setting the pace for an outstanding junior year in which he hit .393/.502/.611, with his nine home runs nearly doubling the total from his first two seasons.

Pedroia avoids talking about his size, or the scouts who see him as lacking tools, but he does admit to being conscious of his draft status entering his junior season. “I knew I had to have a big year because of my size,” said Pedroia of his final college year, in which he finished just two hits shy of becoming the first player in Sun Devils history to reach 300 hits in three years. “At one point late in the season, I realized I was hitting about .420, and I stopped thinking about it.” The Red Sox snagged Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 draft (the team’s first selection). Always confident, Pedroia didn’t spend much time thinking about where he would go in the draft, or the fact that some teams would pass him up. “I don’t know about any teams that didn’t want me, but if they are out there, then they didn’t want a winner,” laughed Pedroia. “The Red Sox did, and I was thrilled to get picked by them.”

Pedroia’s pro debut was a stunning success by any measurement. After batting .400/.474/.560 in 12 games at Low-A Augusta, Pedroia continued to succeed in the pitching-friendly Florida State League, batting .336/.417/.523 in 30 games for Sarasota. Pedroia attributes his immediate success to his two college stints with Team USA, where he was able to work on one of the most difficult adjustments for any drafted player: going from aluminum to wood bats. “As a freshman with Team USA, I did absolutely nothing with wood,” joked Pedroia. “I wasn’t strong enough and I knew it. I had to cheat on pitches constantly and barely hit .200. It was a huge lesson.”

It looked like 2005 would be Pedroia’s year. Starting the season as Hanley Ramirez’ double-play partner at Double-A Portland, Pedroia hit .324/.409/.508 in 66 games for Portland. With the big league team getting little production from Mark Bellhorn and Alex Cora at second base, a promotion seemed imminent, and the Red Sox sent Pedroia to Triple-A Pawtucket to prepare. Then, in his first week with the PawSox, Pedroia was hit in the hand by a pitch, and the injury stuck with him the rest of the season. Never fully comfortable at the plate or in the field, Pedroia limped to a .255/.356/.382 mark in the International League. “It was awful,” said Pedroia. “I couldn’t lift weights at all and I really just started to run out of energy.” More importantly, the chance to play at the big league level would have to wait. “It was a little upsetting and I know I didn’t deal with it very well,” reflected Pedroia. “I felt like I missed my chance.”

Despite the setback this spring, Pedroia understands now that he did not miss his chance, he simply missed that chance. While he enters 2006 with no self-expressed expectations, he has adjusted his overall long-term goals. “Look, I’ve worked very hard to get there, but I’m only 22 and there will be lots of opportunities. It’s not about getting there. In the end it’s about doing what it takes to stay there.”

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