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September 13, 2013

Fantasy Fool's Gold

Shortstops

by Craig Goldstein

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As we continue our way around the infield (in as abstract a way as possible), we land on the most physically taxing position outside of catcher. This of course lessens the burden on the bat in basically every aspect, from contact to power to whatever else you may be looking for. What matters so much in real life, though—the ability to stay at shortstop—is so much less relevant to any prospective fantasy owner.

While the offensive shortstop is a rare unicorn (quiet, Russell) indeed, even in the fantasy realm, prospectors don’t care so much that they stay at the vaunted position as they do that the bat is real. Javier Baez could be a monster shortstop, but if he can hit and play third? Well, we’ll gladly accept it.

The list below includes players who either overstated their prospect status statistically or are likely to move off the shortstop position and in so doing, will significantly damage their prospect stock. As with the other iterations of this column, many of the observations below come from the BP Prospect Team.

Marcus Semien, Chicago White Sox
Drafted out of the University of California in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, Semien burned through the minor leagues along with former Cal teammate, Erik Johnson, with both earning call-ups this September. Semien wasn’t on many radars entering 2013, but a strong performance in Double-A started to generate buzz, and his promotion to Triple-A only intensified it. While Semien’s performance was certainly noteworthy in and of itself, it was aided by the fact that he was producing strong numbers in a White Sox system that saw many of it’s top prospects struggle, and was generally regarded as one of the lower tier systems in the league.

Over 105 games, the 22-year-old Semien put together a .290/.420/.483 slash line showing off his plate discipline while also displaying solid pop. His 17 percent BB rate helped him walk right into the hearts of statheads, especially when compared to a 14 percent strikeout rate. Semien’s production wasn’t the product of luck either, as his .317 BABIP was right in line with his career norms. Upon his promotion to Triple-A, we saw Semien add to his career high in home runs, ending the year with 19 between the two levels. He did suffer a drop in batting average; from .290 to .264, while also seeing his walk and strikeout rates go in the wrong direction. Don’t take the Triple-A numbers too hard though, as the sample size is only 142 plate appearances. Despite the hit in the slash line numbers, Semien maintained a semblance of his power, as well as a 10 percent walk rate and a strikeout rate that was elevated, yet manageable.

Semien’s fantasy future is a bit clouded. The White Sox seem unwilling or unable to let go of Alexei Ramirez (an extremely high-quality defender) and/or Gordon Beckham (great name…? I guess?), leaving Semien without a place to play everyday. Evaluations on his capabilities, even if he was guaranteed a spot, range from utility man to bottom-end second division player. Despite the usefulness of his package in real life, the impact is lacking to make him someone to target in fantasy leagues.

Zach Walters, Washington Nationals
A ninth-round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2010 draft, Walters was acquired by the Nationals in a trade for Jason Marquis just prior to the 2011 trade deadline. At the time of his acquisition, Walters was putting up a slash line of .302/.377/.485 as a 22-year old in Low-A. The Nationals immediately bumped him to High-A, where he acquitted himself with a .293/.336/.371 line.

Somewhere between the Arizona and Washington systems though, Walters lost the ability to take a walk. With a walk rate at 10 percent at the time of the trade, it dropped four percentage points to six percent upon joining the Nationals - much of which can be explained by a bump in competition. It dropped even further in 2012, and reached it’s lowest point yet this year, checking in at a tick under 4%. All the while, his strikeout rates have remained above 20%, with his 2013 mark set at 26%. In raw numbers that comes out to a 134/20 strikeout to walk ratio. A switch-hitter, Walters loves to swing, and it did him well in 2013. He smashed 29 home runs and 32 doubles, with the home runs representing a career high (by 17, no less). It’s hard to make a case against a shortstop who can play the position, and slug .500 plus, but if one can be made it’s due to Walters’ .286 on-base percentage. Given the rate at which he swings and the rate at which he makes contact, it is hard to see much hope for this aspect of his game improving.

In Walters’ favor is that the league average slash line for a shortstop is .255/.308/.368, so while he’ll give back a bunch of points on his OBP, he would add even more on the slugging end. I don’t doubt that Walters could be a second division shortstop with solid pop if he had the chance, but with Ian Desmond entrenched in the majors and Anthony Rendon set to man the keystone, there isn’t much of a spot for Walters to play. He’s athletic enough to man a corner outfield position and could be pushed into some sort of utility role, which would all but sap any fantasy value one could scrounge up. He’s not worth a roster spot at the moment, but if he walked into full time ABs and one was desperate for power, you could make a case for him.

Jace Peterson, San Diego Padres
Peterson doesn’t draw a lot of attention in fantasy prospect circles despite some very intriguing stat lines. He’s never posted a walk rate below 11 percent and he’s never struck out more than 16 percent of the time. Add in that he plays a premium position competently (for now), and you’d think people would be ranting and raving over a player like this. There are some mitigating factors of course. As much as we praise certain players for their age relative to their compensation, it is a double-edged sword. Peterson is 23 years old and has only advanced to High-A, so while his statistics are impressive, there is reason to believe he’s beating up on younger competition.

Like any intriguing story though, there are reasons for Peterson’s developmental delays. Peterson was a football player at McNeese State, so not only did that push back his entry into a professional organization but it also delayed the onset of “baseball skills”. He’s flashed these skills before though, prompting Jason Parks to write in 2012 “For all the pomp about his multi-sport athleticism and newfound focus on baseball, his overall feel for the game gets lost in the hype. Peterson has legit baseball instincts and legit baseball skills”. Those baseball skills continue to display themselves and resulted in a .303/.382/.454 slash line this year at Hi-A. Despite a slash line that received a big bump in SLG, Peterson’s wRC+ actually decreased by one, because he went from the Midwest League to the California League, where the run environment is significantly higher.

The reason Peterson is fools gold in this situation is not because he’s not an interesting prospect, he is that and then some. The issue is his age relative to his level, as well as the concern that his increased power output is a result of the offensive environment he played in as scouting reports have his power at below-average raw and say that it plays down in-game. There is also fear that he’s a bit of a tweener who might not have the bat for another position if he gets pushed off short. Peterson absolutely has value as a fantasy product, but perhaps not the type of value his slash line will dictate. He’s high speed (93 stolen bases over the last two seasons) slap-hitter who knows how to take a walk. His season ended early in 2013, but 2014 should see him in Double-A, a big test for the former hand-egger.

Darnell Sweeney, Los Angeles Dodgers
Not exactly a household name, I’m trying to head this one off at the pass. True, Sweeney put together a solid .275/.329/.455 line in 2013, playing shortstop for the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, at least until Corey Seager arrived. That season also included a stunning 61 extra-base hits (34 2B, 16 (!) 3B, 11 HR) to go with 48 stolen bases. A shortstop who can pack a punch and swipe close to 50 bags in 134 games? “Sign me up, right?” Notsomuch.

Let’s make one thing clear: Sweeney can run. That much isn’t in doubt. The rest of the package is, though, as he reminds scouts of Dee Gordon in all the wrong ways (get back to me on what the right ways are here, I need some time). Sweeney has always excited scouts initially only to let them down in the end. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, he doesn’t have the body to project the type of power he hit for this year. Throw in the 25 percent strikeout rate and the Cal League helping him out, and it’s likely that Sweeney reverts back to a normal prospect at midnight.

Rosell Herrera, Colorado Rockies
One of my favorite prospects to hype (along with Arismendy Alcantara) this season, Herrera absolutely exploded in the Carolina League, recording a .343/.419/.515 slash line over the course of 126 games. This following a brutal 2012 that saw him hit .202/.271/.272 in 63 games at the same level, causing a demotion to short-season Tri-City.

The switch-hitter not only laid waste to the Carolina League by taking advantage of his generous home park in Asheville, but by getting his walk and strikeout rates trending in the right direction. He pushed his walk rate into the double-digits for the first time, taking it from a tick under nine percent to just over 11 percent. He also decreased his strikeout rate from a concerning 21 percent to under 18 percent, impressive given the increase in his power output. One reason behind his success could well have been his BABIP of .401, but then again, a well-struck ball is more likely to be a hit, so we can’t explain it away as simply as that. Herrera also bested his previous career high in home runs by 10 (16 total) and added 21 stolen bases, showing off his versatility as a potential fantasy performer.

Similarly to Peterson, Herrera’s inclusion on the Fool’s Gold list isn’t to tell you he’s not a prospect. He’s an intriguing flier in deep leagues right now, but it’s to say that the line you saw in 2013 isn’t representative of his skills as a baseball player, though skills are present. He has power in his swing, though more from the left side and can generate impressive bat speed. He’s a skinny kid who can fill out to add even more power, though that could negatively affect his ability to stay at shortstop, something that is already being called into question. If he has to move down the defensive spectrum his fantasy stock takes a large hit, not because he doesn’t have the ceiling to make it as a third baseman, but the probability certainly lowers a bit. There is also some question as to why Herrera wasn’t promoted despite the epic season. Trevor Story’s presence at Hi-A gives us some idea, but with Story likely having to repeat High-A, the Rockies are in the same situation this offseason that they were in at mid-season. It will be interesting to see how they handle this going forward, but for now, Herrera is more flash than substance. If we scratch the surface and find there’s more there though, I’d be buying pretty quickly.

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

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