March 24, 2017
Sticking at Shortstop
Last weekend the Twins announced that their top prospect Nick Gordon, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft, would cease playing exclusively shortstop and begin spending some time at second base as well. Positional versatility is not a bad thing, but Gordon’s draft stock was based on the belief that he was a shortstop, period, so the fact that there’s uncertainty about his ability to stick there before he even got to Double-A is discouraging. As a rail-thin 21-year-old with a poor walk rate and just five home runs in 293 games as a pro, Gordon will likely need to have significant defensive value to be a big-league asset.
Gordon’s older brother, Dee Gordon, was also a top prospect as a shortstop who later moved to second base. Dee, who cracked BP’s top 101 prospects list in 2010 and 2011, remained a shortstop long enough to log 147 major-league starts there in 2011-2013, but then shifted to second base full time in 2014 and hasn’t played shortstop since. When talk of little brother Nick possibly moving off shortstop got louder a couple weeks ago, Dee spoke up, telling Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “I’m not their front office, but my brother is a shortstop and it’s going to be tough for him to play second.”
Twins manager Paul Molitor, who started his Hall of Fame career as a part-time shortstop and ended up playing mostly designated hitter and third base, was upfront about his view of Nick Gordon’s defense. “I would say he doesn’t have a plus arm,” Molitor told Berardino. “He throws well enough to stay over there. I’ve got a feeling he might even get better, given his youth. Still up for discussion. I think it’s pretty safe to say his bat’s probably a little ahead of his defense.” (Gordon slugged just .386 at high Single-A last year, so “his bat’s probably a little ahead of his defense” could be viewed as a pretty damning statement.)
Gordon, Gordon’s older brother, and Gordon’s manager all being moved off shortstop early in their careers got me thinking about just how often top-rated shortstop prospects actually stick at the position long term. Not all top prospects are created equal, of course. Some are valued more for their offense than defense, or vice versa. Some are in rookie-ball, years away from even sniffing the big leagues, while others are at Triple-A, knocking on the door to the majors. But in general, how often do top shortstop prospects—Gordon ranks 48th on the BP 101 this season after placing 62nd in 2016 and 70th in 2015—actually go on to play shortstop in the majors?
I looked at BP’s top 101 prospects list during the six-year span of 2007-2012, figuring that gives everyone enough time to reach the majors and provides a decent sample size. A total of 54 players cracked the top 101 as a shortstop from 2007-2012. Many of those were repeats, like Dee Gordon in both 2010 and 2011, so the sample size is 38 different prospects. Within that group, there were two ways in which they did not stick at shortstop in the majors. The first way was to switch positions, like Dee Gordon. The second way was to not even reach the majors or get there only briefly. Both versions are relevant to Nick Gordon.
Here are the 38 different top 101 shortstop prospects from 2007-2012, sorted by number of games started at shortstop in the majors through 2016:
Of the 38 shortstops on a top 101 list from 2007-2012, eight have never started at shortstop in the majors and a total of 20 have started fewer than 50 games at shortstop. Manny Machado has made just 49 starts at shortstop, but he’s a Gold Glove-winning, MVP-caliber third baseman and would certainly be one of the premier shortstops in baseball if the Orioles chose to play him there. Todd Frazier, Billy Hamilton, Miguel Sano, and Mike Moustakas never started a game at shortstop in the big leagues and were not capable of doing so, but are carving out solid careers elsewhere.
In fact, it probably makes sense to exclude Sano, Moustakas, and Frazier—plus Adrian Cardenas—from this discussion, because while they began their pro careers as shortstops no one really thought they had any kind of chance to stay there long term. In each case, BP’s write-ups at the time made clear mention of that. There are some other players, like Hamilton, for whom moving was discussed constantly, but I’d prefer to err on the side of considering someone a “shortstop prospect” as long as they were at least manning the position in the upper minors. Plus, some prospects became quality shortstops despite one-time calls for a switch.
Gordon may eventually be moved off shortstop completely, but he’ll play there at least semi-regularly this season at Double-A and there are many people—including some within the Twins organization—who still believe he can handle the position in the majors. In other words, this isn’t a Sano or Moustakas situation. It’s also worth noting that the Twins—albeit under different front office leadership—switched top shortstop prospect Jorge Polanco to second base full time last season, giving him zero Triple-A starts at shortstop, only to move him back to shortstop in the majors. He’s now expected to be their Opening Day shortstop.
By removing Sano, Moustakas, Frazier, and Cardenas, the new data set is 34 top shortstop prospects. Of those, four (Erick Aybar, Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus, Alcides Escobar) have started at least 1,000 times at shortstop in the majors. Three others (Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Jose Iglesias) seem likely to join them eventually. Starlin Castro shifted away from shortstop at 25 and is a full-time second baseman now, but he did spend six seasons as a starting shortstop. Let’s count him as a shortstop success story. And let’s do the same for Jean Segura, Jed Lowrie, Danny Espinosa, and Eduardo Escobar.
Toss in Machado and Javier Baez, who’d probably be playing shortstop for most teams, and there have been a grand total of 14 actual major-league shortstops produced out the 34 shortstop prospects on top 101 lists from 2007-2012. Some of the others are utility men capable of playing some shortstop and the jury isn’t totally out on the younger guys, but you get the idea. Of the 34 shortstops on a top 101 list from 2007-2012, at most 40 percent became legitimate shortstops. If your own definition of legitimate shortstop is more rigid—and it’s all somewhat subjective anyway—the number could be as low as 30 percent.
“Success” rates for all prospects are pretty low and playing shortstop in the majors is incredibly difficult. To transition from top shortstop prospect to starting big-league shortstop a player must field well enough and hit well enough, but also avoid injuries that sap speed, athleticism, or arm strength, avoid physically maturing too much to be an option, and get a clear opportunity. Approximately one-third make it through the fire and out safely on the other side, and a player like Gordon—with a mediocre arm, little power, and quite a bit more maturing left at age 21—is a prime example of the challenge of sticking at the position.