Last week, I started a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for players I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, and I won’t make any promises that a player's OPS will spike and help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that he will wind up below the Mendoza Line or go on to lose his jobs. In fact, these aren’t particularly fantasy-targeted assessments because I don’t think about RBI totals or batting average very often.
These are established players whom I’ve studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury and entry into or exit from the prime age range of 26-29 may all come into play. Thus far, I’ve covered catchers, first basemen, second basemen and third basemen, so I'll finish off the infield with shortstops.
In a marked contrast to the era of the Holy Trinity (Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez) -- now a decade in the past -- the talent level at the position is at something of a low tide, at least offensively. Last year, shortstops hit for a combined .249 True Average (a measure of his runs produced per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments), which was the position's lowest mark since 1998. Age and injuries have cut into the production of so many top shorstops that finding ones who have put together two excellent, healthy seasons back to back is no small task, and those aren't the players I'm focusing upon in this series anyway — I'm looking to find which direction a handful of players closer to the middle of the pack are headed.
NOTE: The players are listed alphabetically within each category.
Stephen Drew, Red Sox: Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 in 327 plate appearances overall last year, but his age-29 season was tumultuous enough that he probably deserved a pass. He missed nearly a year of major league action after breaking his right ankle and tearing three ligaments on July 20, 2011, an injury that required surgery, and got the bum's rush from Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick while working his way back, with the desert Steinbrenner-wannabe questioning the speed and sincerity of his rehab efforts.
Not surprisingly, Drew didn't hit well for Arizona upon returning, and after just 40 games back, he was traded to the A's in late August. His bat rebounded enough for him to hit .250/.326/.382 in 172 PA down the stretch, a reasonable approximation of his career productivity given the drastic difference between the offensive environments in Phoenix and Oakland; his .267 True Average was right on target with his career mark of .265.
Given another offseason to heal and a move to Boston, he should be able to more closely approximate his career levels as an above average hitter and more or less average defender for a shortstop, which will be a boon to a team that received just a .241/.278/.365 line at the position, even if he does give some of that back on defense.
Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers: It may seem weird to consider a three-time All-Star to be something of a breakout candidate, but Ramirez has been through two relatively subpar seasons in a row amid injuries and the bad vibes in Miami which greased the skids for his exit via a midseason trade to the Dodgers. His overall numbers (.257/.322/.437 with 24 homers) were well below his 2005-2011 performance (.306/.380/.506), but with another offseason of distance from his September 2011 shoulder surgery as well as some security in Los Angeles, I think his bat will rebound, as do most projection systems. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasts him for a .278/.355/.459 line, which will require him to recover some of his lost plate discipline (8.8 percent unintentional walk rate as a Marlin., 5.1 percent as a Dodger), but if the power holds, pitchers will have to approach him more cautiously.
The bigger question is whether he can reverse the trend at shortstop after last year's ill-fated move to third base. Given that he's just 29 and has a bit of extra motivation to focus on his glovework, I think he'll be at least passable in the field, if not average.
Jean Segura, Brewers: The most major league-ready of the three players the Brewers received from the Angels in last summer's Zack Greinke trade, Segura quickly found his way to Milwaukee, making the jump to the majors after just 109 games above High-A. His performance with the bat (.264/.321/.331 in 168 PA) didn't bowl anybody over, and he's probably better considered in the context of rookies than established veterans. Nonetheless, I'm struck by the advances in his game since I covered him for Baseball Prospectus a few years ago; in moving from second base to shortstop, he's convinced talent evaluators that he can handle the tougher position defensively while being an above-average bat there as well — a package that was good enough to place him in the middle of the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list twice (ranked 57th in 2011, 55th in 2012).
He's just 23, and may need a bit more time to grow offensively, particularly in the power department, though the ZiPS projection system forecasts him for a solid .278/.326/.402 line with nine homers. Even if he doesn't quite reach that level, I'm more confident in his total game than that of the Braves' Andrelton Simmons, who's six months older, with around the same level of major league experience, and a better arm and glove but a worse bat. For comparison's sake, Simmons ranked 92nd on BA's list coming into last year and played just 44 games at Double-A before jumping to the majors. In this context, I'll take Segura.
Rafael Furcal, Cardinals: When Furcal went down with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in late August, he figured to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery and miss the early part of the 2013 season, so it raised some eyebrows when he avoided the operating table and was said to be feeling no lingering effects as he approached game-readiness late last month. Fast forward a week, and Furcal has been shut down due to a significant setback; an exam revealed that he's dealing with inflammation around a Grade 2 tear of his UCL. He's now headed to visit Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion — a 10-word phrase that usually suggests impending doom.
Furcal has become notoriously fragile in his 30s, averaging just 98 games a year over the past five seasons. He's now 35 years old, has hit just .251/.314/.347 in 450 PA over the past two years, and may well miss time due to surgery. If there's a reason for optimism here, I can't find it. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox: Now 31 years old, Ramirez is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Though he's an above-average defender by most measures, his performances at the plate have been all over the map. Though he lost just four points of batting average from 2011 to 2012, his on-base percentage declined by 41 points, his slugging percentage by 35, to a brutal .265/.287/.364 line. His batting average on balls in play remained stable, but it bore the impact of bad luck nonetheless via a 5.1 percent rate of home runs per fly ball, half of his previous career rate. Worse, his unintentional walk rate plunged from 7.3 percent to 2.3 percent, as his rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone jumped from 32.0 percent to 40.8 percent. While I expect him to shore that up somewhat, both a variety of projection systems and I are skeptical that he'll ever be an above-average bat at the position again.