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August 10, 2009

A Talent Drought

Missing Men Up the Middle?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Sure, Ryan Braun is cocky, but he tends to back it up when he steps to the plate. One aspect of the game that Braun is not cocky about-and with good reason-is his defense. A shortstop at the University of Miami, Braun was initially moved to third base as a pro, but that lasted all of 112 games in the big leagues before he went to the defensive wasteland of left field. The frustrating thing for many is that on a pure athleticism and tools level, Braun has everything required to be a solid if not an above-average player at the hot corner, but his defense has always, even in the outfield, been best described as indifferent.

He's certainly not the only prospect to befall such a fate. In the ten-year period from 1997-2006, 20 players were drafted in the first and supplemental first round as third basemen, but of those twenty, less than half (nine, to be exact) stayed at the position as professionals. That said, the position has created a surprising number of great players, as of the nine, four (Troy Glaus, Evan Longoria, David Wright, and Ryan Zimmerman) have become stars, and two (Alex Gordon and Ian Stewart) still have a chance to join that group. Among those who had to move, the list includes Pat Burrell, Mark Teixeira, and Billy Bulter in addition to Braun.

The lesson to take from that fact is that if you can mash, they'll find a position for you, but for some inside the game who are responsible for finding new talent, there is a bigger issue here: some believe that true left-side infielders are more hard to find than ever. The problem is even more profound at shortstop; fewer seem to be available with each passing year, as baseball has seen a steady decline in merely the number of shortstops selected in the draft:

        Shortstops Taken In Picks
Years     1-100    1-50    1-10
1965-69    16.2     9.2     1.8
1970-79    14.0     8.2     1.8
1980-89    13.6     6.7     2.1
1990-99    11.8     6.0     1.2
2000-09    10.6     5.3     1.1

Beyond the numbers of shortstops themselves is the fact that the position itself is often a misnomer. The best athlete at most high schools is usually the shortstop, but that rarely means it's a legitimate reflection of those players' eventual position; it's easy to forget that even Gorman Thomas was drafted as a shortstop. In draft history, 581 shortstops have been drafted among the first 100 selections; of those, 116 had major league careers spanning 500 or more games, but just 46 spent the majority of their career actually at shortstop. Put more simply, only about two out of every 25 players drafted as shortstops in the first 100 picks had anything resembling a career there.

The reasons for the decline are numerous. The loss of athletes to sports like basketball, football, and soccer continues to be an issue, and there's also now a mindset for many teams that tells them that up-the-middle players are better sourced from the international market, specifically Latin America. However, one scouting director noted that there's more of a lack of focus on the position itself when in comes to player development for young players in North America. "Part of the problem is that the kinds of players that play shortstop in college and high school aren't the kind of players that we see as playing there in the big leagues," one scouting director explained. "Often it's not the best athlete as much as it's the steadiest fielder playing there; we see that all the time, even in college, so often what teams are doing doesn't match what we're looking for."

Even more jarring is just the lack of work done on fielding itself. "It's an issue across baseball," the scout explained. "You go to a high school baseball game, and guys can't even play catch.  I know it sounds stupid, but when I was a kid, we played catch every day in our front yards, and now kids go to the cage and then go home and turn on their PlayStation. Defense is the last thing kids worry about these days, and it's very evident."

Five Prospects Who Might Have To Move (Or Have Already)

As has been noteed, Braun certainly isn't the only one out there who can't play the position he was drafted at. Here are five highly regarded prospects with the bat who leave plenty of questions on the defensive side of things:

  1. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates: The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez' bat has come alive at Double-A Altoona, but he's already committed 20+ errors in barely more than 100 games at the hot corner, and weighing in at nearly 240 pounds, his range is more than a bit limited.

  2. Todd Frazier, 2B, Reds: Originally drafted as a shortstop in 2007 out of Rutgers, Frazier has proven that he can hit at every level (he's currently at Double-A), but he's also been tried at nearly every position; after staying a shortstop during his pro debut, he's played at first base, third, and the outfield. Moved to second for the first time late last month, the Reds hope that he can find a comfort level there in order to developed into a Jeff Kent-esque player.

  3. Brett Lawrie, 2B, Brewers: Primarily a third baseman with Canada's national youth teams, the Brewers initially announced that Lawrie would be developed as a catcher when he signed, but that idea was tossed aside before he played a game there, and his defense at second this year has been quite poor. When one scout was asked what position he profiled Lawrie at for the future, he said, "Hitter."

  4. Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs: The top prospect in the Cubs' system as well as the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, Vitters is a wonderful hitter, but at third base his footwork and athleticism make him look downright clumsy at times, and his career fielding percentage at the position in under .900. Many scouts think he'll get better, but in a Jim Thome/Shea Hillenbrand kind of way, where he can at least get to the big leagues at the position, but he doesn't subsequently stay there for long.

  5. Brett Wallace, 3B, Athletics: The big prize in the Matt Holiday trade, Wallace is an on-base machine (fitting in perfectly with the A's style) with decent power, but defensively, he's very hard to get a good a read on. Unlike Braun, he's extremely sound fundamentally, with good hands and a solid arm, but his bulky build and well below-average speed had one scout comparing his lateral movement to that of a lawn ornament.

Thanks to Dan Malkiel for his research assitance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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