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February 3, 2014

State of the Position


by Mike Gianella

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While some might think of shortstop as a weak position where you had best grab someone good early or face the consequences of a terrible auction or draft, the reality is that this hasn’t been the case for years. Twenty-three of the top 168 fantasy hitters in mixed leagues last year were shortstop-eligible. What the position lacked in 2013 in a top-tier superstar it more than made up for in terms of quantity at the back end. Only first base and outfield had more hitters among the top 168 last year than shortstop did.

This isn’t a paradigm shift either. Shortstop is more or less the same as it ever was going back to at least 2008. The days of seeing a $35-plus earner at the position might be over (Jose Reyes was the last player to pull the feat, in 2011), but the consistency and depth at the position endures.

Shortstop is a surprisingly stable position in 2014. Nearly every starter in the major leagues is an established veteran but not at the point where a post-peak drop off of a cliff is likely. Naturally, any player at any point on the age curve can completely fall off the map from a performance standpoint, but there aren’t a slew of players in their mid-30s who are “due” to fail. Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter are the only projected starters who are Age 35 or older.

Another “surprise” at shortstop is that there are very few multi-positional eligibles heading into 2014. This is especially true in standard mixed leagues. Ben Zobrist (SS/2B/OF) and Jed Lowrie (SS/2B) should be owned in all formats and that’s pretty much it. In deeper mixed leagues, there are cases to be made for Jordy Mercer (SS/2B) and Jose Iglesias (SS/3B). As Paul Sporer mentioned in his second base summary last week, there are more upside candidates at second base in 2014 than at shortstop. Because of this, if you’re starting any of these multi-position eligibles in any format, it’s recommended that you stick them at shortstop.

The League Breakdown
For the last few years, shortstop has been stronger in the National League and this holds true once again this year. Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, Jean Segura, and Ian Desmond are four of the top five shortstops being taken in early drafts. There is a definitive drop-off from the top tier to the next level. Starlin Castro, Everth Cabrera, and Andrelton Simmons make up the next tier; all three have boom or bust potential.

Over in the junior circuit, Jose Reyes is the class of the position with all of the risk and reward that comes with his style of play. What the AL lacks in top-tier or next-level talent it more than makes up for in depth. Elvis Andrus, Ben Zobrist, J.J. Hardy, Jed Lowrie, Alexei Ramirez, and Asdrubal Cabrera make up a solid cadre of useful hitters who are all likely to land somewhere in double-digit earnings in 2014 in any format.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
Amazingly enough, five shortstops are going in the top 50 picks in early mock drafts: Ramirez, Tulowitzki, Segura, Reyes, and Desmond. If you are committed to taking a shortstop in the first four rounds, while I might disagree with the order all of these players are reasonable selections. Andrus, Zobrist, and Cabrera are the only other shortstops going in the top 100, but there are a number of quality starting options going a few rounds later if you don’t want to take a steals only guy like Andrus or Everth Cabrera in a mixed.

In a standard mixed, some of the second and shortstop options are interchangeable for your middle infield slot. In a 15-team mixed league, I’d strongly prefer a second baseman for that position, particularly if I didn’t grab three strong options early. Rollins, Brad Miller, Jhonny Peralta, Jonathan Villar, and Erick Aybar are the shortstops falling in below the typical 12-team mixed cut-off. Rollins and Peralta are the safest options, and I’d lean Peralta due to where Rollins’ is on the age curve. If “safe” doesn’t sound appealing, consider that the next tier of veterans includes Zack Cozart, Yunel Escobar, and Jeter. Miller and Villar are the only young up-and-comers who appear to have clear paths to playing time. Miller’s 8 HR/36 RBI/5 SB in half a season in Seattle lead to visions of a 15 HR/10 SB season if he survives a full year with the Mariners. Villar’s 58 games in Houston make him look like a stolen bases only guy, but it’s possible that at least some of the minor league power makes an appearance with the big club this year.

The Long-Term Outlook
Shortstop is already a young, dynamic position. One-third of the projected starters at the position will be 25 years old or younger in 2013. A couple of these players are guys like Ruben Tejada and Adeiny Hechavarria, who are sad options even in NL-only, but most of the young ‘uns here range from useful to potential superstars.

Segura is already established, and whether he becomes a stud or not depends on if he can maintain or build upon his power. Xander Bogaerts is only third base eligible in most formats, but will start the year at shortstop and could be one of the best players in the game at any position in a couple of years.

Besides Bogaerts, four other shortstops were included among Jason Parkstop 10 prospects. From a fantasy perspective, Javier Baez is the most exciting of the four, although Castro’s presence in Chicago might mean a move to third base for the dynamic power prospect. The other three—Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, and Francisco Lindor—are more likely to stay at their future positions given their big league clubs’ current roster composition. Baez is closest to the majors, and a midseason promotion wouldn’t surprise anyone. The rest of this studly crop of future shortstops won’t be up until 2015 at the earliest. Correa is still a teenager, while Lindor and Russell are 20. They’re on track for the majors, but they’re for dynasty and keeper leagues with farm systems, in other words.

If you’re looking for someone a little bit closer to the Majors who might make a tangible impact, Chris Owings is your best bet. He’s listed behind Didi Gregorius on the Diamaondbacks depth chart by some, but Arizona GM Kevin Towers said in November that he expects an open competition for the SS job in spring training. A 10 HR/20 SB season is what Owings’ owners will hope for in 2014, although Triple-A Reno has inflated its share of numbers in the past.

The strength of shortstop—both in the present and in the future—always hinges upon whether or not young prospects and aging veterans stay at the position. It is a physically and athletically demanding spot on the field. Not all young players can maintain the agility and size to stay there, and many older players must eventually move off of the position to keep their careers viable. While the position is already solid, the exciting young quartet of prospects on the rise could make shortstop the goldmine it was years ago when Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez roamed the position in the mid-1990s.

The Closing Haiku
Jeter make you sad?
There are still studs playing here
Watch great ones emerge

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

2 comments have been left for this article.

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