Baseball is arguably the most difficult of all major sports, and if not the most difficult, at least the most failure-laden sport. A batter who fails 70 percent of the time is an All-Star nowadays, while a starting pitcher who surrenders a baserunner per inning is a borderline ace. Hell, the notion of failure is so embedded in baseball that it’s expected that young players crash and burn before finding their footing in the majors.
That’s why the current youthful state of the shortstop position is so fascinating. Five of the top seven fantasy shortstops—according to average-draft position—have played their rookie season in the past two years. The position is being led, not just bolstered, by a quintet of shortstops who haven’t yet seen their 23rd birthday. That’s incredible.
In 2015, the league-wide fantasy production from shortstops remained relatively stagnant, compared to recent years. They collectively clubbed over 50 more homers (408) than in each of the previous two seasons; however, the stolen-base totals dropped—as they have across all positions—by over 230 steals since 2011. The average slash line hasn’t changed meaningfully this decade, either.
It was more of the same in 2015, except for one important point: The shortstop position has a bright future in real-life and fantasy baseball. A few studs made the jump to The Show last year, and even more talent is on the way. What a time to be alive.
THE LEAGUE BREAKOUT
The National League ain’t playing around this year. The 21-year-old phenom Corey Seager is poised to take the reins in Los Angeles. He may not realistically retain shortstop eligibility for more than a year or two, but fantasy owners will be able to take advantage of his potential 20-homer power with a handful of steals, all while not sacrificing batting average. Seager hit .337/.425/.561 in the midst of a World Series chase. There’s a chance he could swing and miss a bit more than he has historically; however, the sweet-swinging shortstop is easily the no. 1 fantasy prospect in baseball. You’ll have to pay to acquire him on draft day, though. Don’t convince yourself otherwise.
A more realistic breakout candidate in the National League may be Trea Turner, who is currently being drafted as the 16th-overall shortstop in NFBC leagues. The former first-round pick mashed in Double-A and Triple-A last year, hitting .322/.370/.458 with eight homers and 29 stolen bases. Turner would be the talk of fantasy leagues everywhere had he entered the big leagues a few years earlier, but he’s being treated as a faceless back-up singer at the position. Shortstops who can hit double-digit homers with 20-plus stolen bases don’t grow on trees; there were only seven of them a year ago, and none of them stole 20 bases. If the Nationals unleash Turner on the basepaths, which isn’t a given by any means, he could vastly outplay his preseason draft position.
In the American League, guys like Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and Francisco Lindor get all the attention. However, it seems that Brad Miller is getting a lot of hype after his offseason trade to Tampa Bay. The 6-foot-2 utility man should have the opportunity to receive 500-plus plate appearances for the first time in his career, and he offers double-digit potential in both homers and steals. The question is whether he can handle lefties well enough to be an everyday player. He only hit .234/.261/.252 against southpaws with a brutal 0.19 BB:K ratio, so that’s not a safe bet. I don’t really see a true breakout season for Miller, as he is what he’s always been—someone who benefits from the strong side of the platoon and adds positional flexibility to the mix.
I’m not sure there really is a traditional breakout guy in the American League this year. Ketel Marte is interesting, but he’s currently being drafted as the 11th-overall shortstop, which is too rich for my blood in mixed leagues. Maybe Marcus Semien or Didi Gregorius if you’re reaching. If I’m being honest, I’m snapping up Tim Anderson near the end of drafts and waiting for the White Sox to realize that their in-house options at short are atrocious.
THE STRATEGY IN MIXED LEAGUES
If you’re not in position to grab one of the Big Three (Trout, Harper, or Goldschmidt), there’s a compelling argument for drafting Carlos Correa over anyone else available. Dude hit 22 bombs with 14 stolen bases in just 432 plate appearances, playing a premium position at just 20 years old on a team with postseason aspirations. Screw “strategy.” Don’t get cute. Take the bona fide superstar who could be the best offensive shortstop since A-Rod.
Outside of Correa, the true “value” propositions reside a bit lower down the totem pole. Ian Desmond could be a nice grab, but we don’t know where he’s going to play. If he joins a highly potent offense with a hitter-friendly ballpark, his value should jump. Jose Reyes is playing in Coors, which is a huge boost no matter how fragile his hamstrings may be, but his draft position has varied wildly depending on the league. I think he’s still a top-10 fantasy shortstop—more, if he somehow stays healthy for 500 plate appearances. Finally, I made my appeal for Trea Turner. I think he’s a smart grab in the mid-rounds.
Ultimately, your strategy should depend on roster construction, especially if targeting a shortstop outside the first six or seven rounds. Value someone like Alcides Escobar higher if you need stolen bases. Give Wilmer Flores a bump if your squad could use some extra power. If you’re solid across the board and want to swing for the fences, drafting someone like Trevor Story, Tim Anderson, or Jonathan Villar makes all the sense in the world. Actually, I like Villar to be a 25-stolen-base producer with the Milwaukee Brewers this year, so maybe that’s not really a “swing for the fences” kinda pick.
When valuations converge so dramatically, as they do in tiers one, two and three this year, it’s more about roster construction and personal preference, rather than production-in-a-vacuum. It’s important to not forget that.
THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
We haven’t seen this kind of youth invasion since Jon and Kate unexpectedly had eight children in the space of two years. Carlos Correa and Corey Seager (while he has shortstop eligibility) are a potent one-two punch atop the position, while we shouldn’t forget that Xander Bogaerts had one of the best age-22 seasons in baseball history. He’s easily a top-five fantasy shortstop for the foreseeable future. And, injuries aside, as long as Troy Tulowitzki is playing in Toronto, he’s a premium piece at the position.
The real question is what happens in the next tier. Addison Russell is promising, no doubt, but he struck out 28.5 percent of the time last year and doesn’t steal enough bases to make up for a low batting average. Can he make the adjustments and cull the 13.7 percent swinging-strike rate? Can Francisco Lindor really sustain a level of power that he didn’t show throughout his entire minor-league career? Is Trea Turner more of an Erick Aybar-type player than an in-prime Alexei Ramirez?
Those are all high-upside shortstops at a fantasy position that has been hemorrhaging production over the past five years. But it’s important to acknowledge that Tim Anderson and J.P. Crawford are also close enough to make noise on draft day. Orlando Arcia should pique some interest if he makes his big-league debut this summer, too.
There’s just so much young talent at shortstop. Correa and Seager are the cream of the crop. Bogaerts, Russell, and Lindor—in that order—are the next tier of long-term options outside of a veteran holdover like Tulowitzki. Where Anderson and Crawford fit in there is unclear, both because the latter two have yet to reach Triple-A and because the former trio have significant question marks. I don’t think that fantasy owners can really go wrong with these players, though. It really is the golden age of shortstops.
THE CLOSING HAIKU
A-Rod without the centaur.
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