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July 27, 2006
Position Breakdown: Shortstops
When I ranked first and second basemen, I discussed how they were transitional positions, where players ended up when more difficult defensive assignments didn't quite work out. Shortstop is the opposite. It's where many players start, but few stay. Even looking at this list, as many as many as half could end up somewhere else on the diamond by the time they reach the majors.
To reiterate, players eligible for this list needed to meet three criteria:
1. Brandon Wood, Angels
Last year, you couldn't spend five minutes in prospect world without hearing about or talking about Brandon Wood. With good reason--he led the minor leagues with 43 home runs, was the first minor leaguer to accumulate 100 extra base hits since the Eisenhower administration, and followed that up by setting a new Arizona Fall League mark for with 14 home runs. This year, he hardly gets any attention, yet he's having another great year. He leads the minor leagues with 60 extra-base hits, and is among the Texas League top five in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. The season has not been perfect, however: his batting average is down 37 points from last year, and his strikeout rate is up significantly, but the good news is that his walk rate is too. This is an elite offensive performer who should be a consistent middle-of-the-order threat in any lineup. Defensively, he's similar to Cal Ripken in that he does not have a ton of range, but he makes the play on everything he gets to. The way things are shaking out in the Angels system, he may move to third base, where his defensive tools and plus arm should work well. If that happens, you're looking at a Scott Rolen doppelganger.
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Sometimes comparisons are thrown around too easily, but sometimes the easy ones are also the right ones. As a shortstop selected in the first round out of Long Beach State, comparing Tulowitzki to Bobby Crosby was inevitable, but how could one not? Both are 6'3" and a little over 200 pounds, both bat right-handed, both have good athleticism and plus power, and both have decent range and above-average arms. To look at write-ups on Crosby from four or five years ago and ones on Tulowitzki today, they might as well be the same player. Tulowitzki gets the advantage of playing in Coors Field, which could lead to some big numbers when he reaches his peak. The only minor knock against Tulowitzki are his platoon splits; he's batting .419 against left-handers with a .758 slugging percentage, and a much more tame .267 with a .414 slugging against righthanders. The Rockies record for home runs by a shortstop is 12, by Neifi Perez (believe it or not) in 1999. Tulowitzki has a shot at being the Opening Day shortstop in 2007--if that happens, Perez' record will be gone by the end of July.
3. Erick Aybar, Angels
If these rankings where based solely on most fun to watch, Aybar would win hands down. He's one of those guys who adds style and pizzazz to everything he does, and with his baseball skills, he can do an awful lot. He's spent six weeks in the big leagues as the team's 25th man, but ended up with more games played (21) than at-bats (20). Aybar is a contact hitter with surprising pop for his small, compact frame. With gap power and plus speed, he should be a consistent threat for baseball's triple-double, with 10+ triples and home runs annually (the doubles are assumed). With his tremendous plate coverage and an aggressive approach, he doesn't walk or strike out much, but he hits more than enough to make up for it. Defensively, he's tailor-made for SportsCenter highlights, with range, arm strength and a flair for the dramatic. A keen observer would note that in Aybar's time with the Angels, often being used as a pinch-runner, he never attempted a stolen base. There's a very good reason for that. The Angels have tried forever to hone his thievery skills, to little avail. Since 2004, he has an impressive 139 stolen bases, and an equally impressive (for all the wrong reasons) 71 caught stealing.
4. Reid Brignac, Devil Rays
Brignac's .264/.319/.416 showing is his full-season debut last year wasn't awe-inspiring by any measurement, but there was still much to like--15 home runs by a teenager in the Midwest League is an impressive achievement. Every part of his offensive game as taken another step forward this year. As the youngest player on the Visalia team, he's among the California League top five in runs, hits, home runs, and slugging percentage. Already the owner of plus-power from the left side, the key to Brignac's improvement has come with a more mature approach. He's curbed a tendency to chase breaking balls out of the zone, which has led to a dramatic drop in his strikeout total, while his walk rate has reached respectability. His offensive ceiling is higher than that of Aybar and even Tulowitzki, but his defense lags well behind. He's already a better shortstop now than he was in April, but most of those improvements have come in fielding fundamentals--there's little he can do at this point to improve his sub-standard range. Most scouts see a move in his future, but while the logical change would be to third base, the team just committed B.J. Upton to the hot corner, and 2006 first-round pick Evan Longoria plays there and is moving very quickly. Brignac has the arm strength for right field, but no matter where he ends up, the bat will be more than enough.
5. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
When going into this exercise, where Pedroia would end up was one of my first questions. I mentioned before that the most common question about my second base rankings did not involve any player actually on the list, but rather where Pedroia ranked. My common response was, "Pedroia will be ranked as a shortstop, as that's where he's played most of the year, and I'll be surprised if he makes the top 10." Yet in the end, here he is, as once you get past those four big time prospects at the top, there's a sizeable drop-off. That's not meant to be an insult in any way to Pedroia, who has recovered from a slow start to put up some pretty impressive numbers. In April/May he hit .255, but he's raked to the tune of .342 since. Pedroia's game is all about making contact and getting on base, and while his walk rate has declined as he has moved up in the system, he's a good enough hitter where pitchers still need to be careful. Defensively, he is what he is--the range is adequate, the arm is just enough, and he makes all the plays he gets to. There's no projection in him at all, and nothing about him is going to get better, but he should be an above-average offensive middle infielder (and no more than that), for a very long time.
6. Sean Rodriguez, Angels
In the second base rankings done two weeks ago, I played my hunch on Alexi Casilla of the Twins. Here's the shortstop hunch. Rodriguez has had an interesting career. A third-round pick in 2003, Rodriguez's full-season debut in 2004 was cut short when the Angels realized that they had something in Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick, so he moved backwards to the Pioneer League, but won MVP honors with a .338/.486/.569 showing. Back in Cedar Rapids last year, he hit just .250, but the secondary skills were in abundance, including 14 home runs, 78 walks and 27 stolen bases. This year, he's exploded in the friendly confines of Rancho Cucamonga, currently ranking sixth in the minors in total bases as he's finally found some consistency at the plate to take advantage of a lightning-fast bat. His power surge has led to some pull-happy tendencies, and his walk rate has plummeted this year (32 in 387 at-bats), but that has improved as the season has rolled on, including eight walks in his last six games. His arm and range are no more than average, and he can be dogged by inconsistency in the field, which has led to 26 errors on the year. Even with the league and the ballpark, this is still a breakout performance, though he probably profiles best as a good-hitting second baseman. Earlier this month, he had a spot start in center field, which offers even more interesting possibilities.
7. Ben Zobrist, Devil Rays
A quick note on the process: I spend hours coming up with these rankings, making a short list of possible candidates at each position, and then going through everything I have, on both a statistical and a scouting level, for each player before I rank. There's some statistical analysis in there, some scouting scores, and frankly, some gut calls. One thing I also do is throw the list at a number of friends in the industry to get some feedback. I had nearly this exact conversation with four different scouts when it came to Zobrist:
Scout: Really? Zobrist that high? I can't see that.
As an aside, if you think scouts really use the word 'crap', I admire your naiveté. At some point we have to quit worrying about the fact that he's 25, or has limited power, or really doesn't run very well or have a ton of range, and just admit that the guy is an on-base machine. In addition, this season isn't exactly out of character either; in 178 minor league games going into the year, his career averages were .324/.437/.451. Drafted as a college senior, and an older one at that, Zobrist is well behind the standard development curve, but with B.J. Upton moving to third, he's now the Devil Rays' shortstop of the future, a future that could come very soon.
8. Chris Nelson, Rockies
In 2004, Nelson was the ninth overall pick in the draft and went on to hit .347/.432/.510 in the Pioneer League. Then, because it's what we do, us prospect-beat folks all got a little too worked up about him. He followed it up in 2005 with a disaster, as a pulled hamstring and pulled groin limited him to just 79 games at Low-A Asheville. When he was "healthy," he was never 100% and hit a miserable .241/.304/.330. As with most extremes, the truth as to Nelson's abilities lies somewhere in between, and he has bounced back with a solid showing in his Sally League return engagement. While his season has been good performance-wise, his tools still offer plenty of projection, particularly in his power, as evidenced in the numbers by 31 doubles in 335 at-bats. He's not a spectacular defender, but he's more than good enough to stay at the position. This is a strong bounce back that in many ways is still going up.
9. Elvis Andrus, Braves
This is where I bet almost purely on tools and projection, though his statistics aren't bad at all when taken into context, as this is a player holding his own in a full-season league who would likely be a high school junior if he was American. Andrus' ceiling is difficult to define, as he projects well in many aspects of the game. He already has a decent approach, a pretty swing, and plus speed to go along with above-average defensive skills. Few doubt his ability to hit in the long-term, but his power potential is the subject of much debate. Long, lean, and wiry strong, some see him growing into a significant home run threat, while others see a swing that is line-drive oriented with little pull potential. Next year, he'll either be in the top five or off this list.
10. Chin-Ling Hu, Dodgers
The best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, and for some observers it's not even close. It's nearly impossible to talk to anybody who has seen him without the phrase "Gold Glove" entering the conversation at some point. Hu combines plus speed with fantastic instincts and first-step quickness to give him range that borders on inhuman. He plays with remarkable control for a minor leaguer, consistently make plays both deep in the whole and up the middle look effortless. Offensively, he's still a work in progress, but it's not like he has any sort of star potential with the bat. His .313/.347/.430 campaign at Vero Beach last year was a surprising step in the right direction, but this year he's regressed, though he draws a decent number of walks and rarely strikes out. Future offensive progress will end up defining his future, but he doesn't need to become much better at the plate to be worth starting for the glove alone.
Next Thursday: Corner outfielders.