National League shortstop might be the most wide-open position group we’ll cover across the AL-only and NL-only landscapes here at Baseball Prospectus this year. The top earners in 2015 didn’t earn much compared to other positions. This year’s crop of NL-only shortstops looks similarly thin at the high end, with a lot of uncertainty throughout the ranks.
Three of the top 10 players in Mike Gianella’s bid limits going into the 2015 season have moved to the AL. Troy Tulowitzki was the top dog in the NL last year at shortstop, going into the season at $30, but he ended his year on the losing side of the American League Championship Series with Toronto. Starlin Castro had the third-highest bid limit ($21) at SS in the NL last spring but will be manning the keystone for the Yankees in the AL in 2016. Andrelton Simmons and his middling, will-he-or-won’t-he-hit-for-power profile had the seventh-highest bid limit at SS in the NL in 2015 ($12). He’ll be making GIF-able stops and insanely perfect throws in front of the rockpile in Anaheim in 2016.
In addition to those three defections to the junior circuit, two more players from the top 10 in terms of pre-auction bid limits in 2015 are unsigned through the second week of February this year. Ian Desmond’s bid limit was $29 going into 2015 and Jimmy Rollins’ was $16. It’s safe to say that if one or both lands in the NL this year, their bid limits will be significantly lower than they were last year.
What about earnings? According to Mike Gianella’s valuations, the top NL SS earned only $20, which was the lowest top earner at any position in the NL by a wide margin. The next-lowest earnings to top a position in the NL was Buster Posey’s $27 at catcher. The top earner every remaining position in the NL earned at least $34 (3B, Nolan Arenado).
So who led the weak crop of NL SS in 2015? None other than Yunel Escobar, of course. Here are some Yunel Escobar facts:
- He has a career OPS+ of exactly 100 in his nine-year career, making him the mediocre-swinging embodiment of an average offensive player.
- He was 32 years old in 2015, well past most players’ prime years. He will be roughly one year older in 2016.
- He didn’t play shortstop once in 2015. He was signed to play 2B and ended up playing mostly at 3B after the injury to Anthony Rendon.
- He won’t be in the NL in 2016 after being traded to the Angels for young middle reliever Trevor Gott.
The biggest surprise at shortstop in the NL in 2015 was probably Brandon Crawford, who had a bid limit of $10 prior to the season and ended up earning $19. That profit was almost entirely driven by his career-high 21 home runs, more than double his previous career high of 10. But can he do it again? The unsatisfying answer is maybe. He made some changes to his approach, attacking fastballs more aggressively while swinging at offspeed stuff and pitches outside the strike zone less frequently. He also made some mechanical changes, allowing him to drive fastballs in the zone with more authority. Those changes are likely sustainable.
However, the change in Crawford’s batted-ball mix suggests that some of his power spike will not carry over into 2016. For the most part, flyballs are the one type of batted ball that yields home runs. In 2015, Crawford more than doubled his HR count while his flyball rate decreased from 42 percent to 34 percent and his groundball rate increased from 38 percent to 48 percent. Even if Crawford is being more selective and swinging harder, it’s hard to get around the fact that players usually don’t hit a lot more home runs by hitting a lot more groundballs.
So who is the top SS to target in the National League? If you prefer veterans, it would probably be Jose Reyes. There are a lot of reasons to want to steer clear of Reyes, though. His value comes mostly from his speed and speed does not age well; he turns 33 in 2016. He also has a lengthy injury history. On top of that, like Aroldis Chapman, he is facing a potentially lengthy suspension under MLB’s new domestic violence policy. Reyes is also a significant trade risk, since he’s an older player with a big contract on a team not expected to be anywhere near contention. Depending on your league’s rules, if Reyes is traded to the AL, you might be stuck with a dead spot at shortstop.
If you prefer younger players, you probably have your eyes on either Addison Russell or Corey Seager. Russell spent most of 2015 in the majors, so he’s probably made his way past the initial adjustment to MLB and could be ready to produce like a seasoned veteran. Seager received a cup of coffee or two at the end of 2015, so he may require some time to adjust to the majors. His ceiling, though, is much higher than Russell’s. Seager wasn’t named the no. 1 prospect by the BP prospect staff for his glove. His bat should play anywhere. The only question is how long it takes for him to adjust to major-league pitching and start approaching that ceiling. For what it’s worth, aside from 27 games in High-A at the end of the 2013 season, Seager hasn’t had any problems adjusting to new levels. He hit .337/.425/.561 in 113 PA for the Dodgers at the end of 2015. Don’t expect that line in 2016, but don’t be surprised if he’s the top earner at SS in the NL by more than a dollar or two. Still, Russell and Seager are both young players, and the ranks of the mediocre middle class of rotisserie players are filled with guys who were once top prospects. They’re good bets, but they’re not sure things.
The uncertainty with Jung-ho Kang stems from the significant knee injury he suffered last September on a hard slide by Chris Coghlan. In case you haven’t seen it, don’t look it up. Kang had surgery in September to repair a fracture and ligament damage and has been rehabbing since. His combination of batting average and power at shortstop was a significant source of profit for roto owners last year as he exceeded most people’s expectations in his first year stateside. If he regains his 2015 form when he returns from the DL, he could be a significant source of profit for roto owners. He is expected to return to the Pirates lineup in mid- to late-April barring any setbacks in his recovery.
If you prefer to target certainty, Jhonny Peralta is your man. In the last three years, he has earned $16, $17, and $17, according to Alex Patton’s valuations. He’s a fantasy metronome—he just keeps doing exactly the same thing, over and over, for as long as people keep putting him out there.
What follows is a list of shortstops who will be owned in deeper NL-only leagues and a consideration of whether or not they will be worth owning in 2016. The 5×5 NL-only dollar valuations shown can be found here.
Zack Cozart – Reds ($8)
Despite playing in only 53 games last year before missing the rest of the season due to a knee injury, Cozart managed to turn a $4 profit in 2015. He’s not terribly exciting and presents some risk after a disappointing but healthy 2014 and an injury-shortened 2015, but he’s still fairly close to his prime years and has legitimate 12-15 home run power. If you look at Cozart through reds-colored glasses, you would see that before the injury last year, he was on track to shatter his career high of 15 home runs. And while defense doesn’t matter directly when it comes to rotisserie baseball, it can help a player’s value indirectly by keeping him in the lineup despite a slump, giving good defensive players a bigger margin for working through dry spells. Cozart’s glove should keep him in the lineup through any rough patches despite the fact that as Bret Sayre noted on the last Flags Fly Forever podcast, there are a lot of former shortstops occupying other positions for the Reds going into 2016. He should be completely healthy for spring training.
Jonathan Villar – Brewers ($6)
Villar is not terribly slick with the glove at short but he is fast, which makes him interesting for fantasy purposes. With top prospect Orlando Arcia waiting in the wings, Villar is not likely to be the Brewers’ starting shortstop by the time rosters expand in September, but he could provide some sneaky fantasy value for his owners if he gets on base enough to rack up some cheap steals. Once Arcia is promoted, expect Villar to return to the role he played for the Astros last year as a utility player. He’s a decent SB gamble at $1-$2 but shouldn’t be chased past that point.
Jedd Gyorko – Cardinals ($10)
The biggest problem for Gyorko this year will be playing time. The Cardinals’ infield was set before he arrived, leaving him as a super-sub for Kolten Wong at 2B, Jhonny Peralta at SS and Matt Carpenter at 3B. Gyorko had a disastrous first half in 2015, but improved on his first-half OPS of .621 to .739 in the second half, blasting 13 home runs in the second half after hitting only three in the first half. Gyorko would have been interesting as a potential bargain if he had a clear starting position in 2016, but unless one of the Cardinals’ other infielders suffers a significant injury, he won’t.
JP Crawford – Phillies (has not made major-league debut)
As a Philadelphia resident and lifelong Phillies fan, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to write about JP Crawford. While his billing as the next Jimmy Rollins is unfair, Crawford could definitely make an impact for his roto owners in 2016. He has tremendous contact skills and excellent strike zone judgment. While he doesn’t offer much yet in the way of home-run power, he has the speed to provide stolen bases, especially if he gets on base as effectively as he has throughout the minors. The question with Crawford is his arrival date in Philadelphia. He might not make his major league debut in 2016, but if he performs well in the high minors in the first half, Phillies management won’t let Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez block his way.
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