Shortstop preview: Risky players scattered throughout even top tiers
Shortstop is the most important position on the field in real life. If you, like me, believe infield defense creates the coolest, most impressive highlights in all of sports, you likely love watching people play the position.
I mean, where else are you going to see something like this?
Of course, most of its cachet is tied up in defense, which we don’t really care about in the fantasy community. Offense is our primary concern here, and the position, as usual, is bereft of it this season. The elite tier is once again very good. On a per-game basis, Troy Tulowitzki has been one of the best players in the majors over the last two seasons. Hanley Ramirez still carries 25/15 potential with a strong batting average and OBP. Ian Desmond is the only player to go 20/20 in each of the last three seasons. All three are likely to be off the board within the first 25 picks of a typical draft.
Every single shortstop thereafter has at least one major question mark, and that ignores Tulowitzki's and Ramirez's significant injury risk. After all, the reason why Tulowitzki needed the per-game basis qualifier in the paragraph above is because he has missed 107 games in the last two seasons. The last time he sat out fewer than 20 games in a season was 2011, and he was out for 19. Ramirez, meanwhile, missed a combined 110 games in '13 and '14. Both players will likely give you big-time production when they’re on the field, but it’s a serious gamble to spend a high pick on either of them.
From there, we move into the soft underbelly of the shortstop position. You can read detailed thoughts on Jose Reyes in his player profile, but in short, he no longer carries reliable double-digit homer power and he has curtailed his running in the past few seasons, yet he still carries a high draft-day price. Last year felt like a ceiling for Alexei Ramirez, and he’s unlikely to match those home run (15) or batting average (.273) numbers again. Starlin Castro is Ramirez's near mirror-image on the other side of Chicago, with slightly more power, less speed and the possibility that he’s still improving, given that this is his age-25 season. You probably couldn’t pick the stat lines of Elvis Andrus, Jean Segura and Alcides Escobar out of a line-up, and that’s not a good thing. Xander Bogaerts and J.J. Hardy flopped last year. Jimmy Rollins is a batting average sinkhole. I could keep on going, but you get the picture.
The biggest question facing fantasy owners at shortstop is whether spending a high pick on Tulowitzki or Ramirez is worth it, given their health concerns. That’s deserves much greater attention than it can get here, and will be the subject of an upcoming entry in our Burning Questions series. What should already be clear, and will be discussed even further a bit later, is that there is very little value in the middle of the starting class. There just isn’t enough practical difference between the consensus middle (Castro, Ramirez, Andrus) and the guys at the back-end of the group (Rollins, Bogaerts, Erick Aybar, et al.) to justify burning a pick in the eighth round when you can wait until the 12th or 13th for, essentially, the same impact on your team’s bottom line.
I know what you’re saying. Yes, Desmond has already broken out over the last few years. Like with first base, however, there’s no real shortstop breakout candidate. We already discussed Javier Baez’ obvious appeal as a sleeper in our second base primer. Placing Xander Bogaerts in this space would be based on nothing but his prospect profile, as he earned every bit of his dreadful .240/.297/.362 line last season. Therefore, Desmond gets the nod since he could easily be the top fantasy shortstop this season.
As mentioned earlier, he’s the only player in the majors to go 20/20 in each of the last three seasons. Strikeouts were largely responsible for dragging down his batting average and OBP, but don’t guffaw at that .326 BABIP. He has bested league-average BABIP for each of the last five seasons. If he can cut his strikeout rate back to his career 22.3%, the batting average should come back up. He hits in the middle of a potent lineup, meaning he should be a plus in both runs and RBI. A .265-20-70-80-20 season is well within reach, and would make him a top-20 fantasy player.
We touched on this in our player profile of Jose Reyes, but it’s worth repeating here. If you miss out on the top tier of shortstops, it makes all the sense in the world to bide your time and try to find a value in your draft or auction. Perhaps no shortstop presents a greater opportunity for that than Rollins. With an average draft position of 162.66 and average auction value of $7 at press time, Rollins comes at about one-fifth the price of the Tulo-Desmond-Hanley contingent, and is typically less expensive than Andrus and Bogaerts.
He’s not going to help your batting average or OBP, but he contributes in every other category. Rollins has at least 16 homers in three of the last four seasons, and at least 22 steals in all those years. Leaving Citizens Bank Park for Dodger Stadium may curb his power a bit, but 15 homers is still realistic. Moreover, he’ll be on top of what could be a very good lineup, with Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the order. Age could be a general concern, but over the last four years, his age-32 through age-36 seasons, he has averaged 149 games played per season. Rollins is a bankable asset that you can likely get in the 12th, 13th or 14th round of a 12-team league.
The entire baseball world has been hearing, perhaps since Jose Reyes left Queens, that the Mets were in desperate need of a shortstop. While the New York media spent much of the early part of the off-season dreaming up trades for one of the Cubs’ trio of shortstops that didn’t appear to have any basis in fact, it’s possible the answer was already in place.
Flores, just 23 years old, got 274 plate appearances under his belt last year, hitting .251/.286/378 with six homers. He shined in Triple-A Las Vegas in 2014, slashing .323/.367/.568 with 13 bombs in 241 plate appearances. He didn’t walk much last year, but his 11.3% strikeout rate was far better than league average. He was also victimized by a .265 BABIP that was 46 points lower than his expected BABIP. Flores showed enough glove to stick at shortstop, and the Mets should give him a long leash this year. Assuming his batted-ball rates remain flat, his BABIP should increase this season, thereby bringing up his batting average, and also carries a 20-homer ceiling. If you end up going cheap at shortstop, do yourself a favor and throw one of your last picks at Flores as a backup.
Let’s check out the Steamer projections for two shortstops who will undoubtedly be starters in 100 percent of mixed fantasy leagues on Opening Day.
Player A: .236/.305/.353, 12 homers, 71 runs, 52 RBI, 20 steals
Player B: .266/.300/.379, 11 homers, 65 runs, 63 RBI, 17 steals
Not a whole lot of difference between the two, right? Player B enjoys a distinct advantage in batting average, but Player A will make up some of that ground in homers, steals and runs, the latter of which is always hard to find. Yet somehow, Player B, Ramirez, is coming off the board about 70 picks earlier than Player A, Rollins. Ramirez is a fine player in his own right, even though he hasn’t been better than league average in wRC+ since 2008, his rookie year. This simply drives home the point that you can afford to wait on the position once the elite guys are off the board. Ramirez 96.24 ADP is similar to that of Gerrit Cole, David Ortiz, Matt Holliday and Kole Calhoun. Rollins’ ADP has him in the same neighborhood as third-tier closers, starting pitchers ranked in the 40s at the position, and Brandon Moss. Which opportunity cost would you rather pay?
There’s no shortage of options, as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor all could lay claim to this spot. Correa is still probably a year away from the majors, and Lindor is likely a step or two behind the others offensively. That’s not to say that Russell lands here by default. After all, some view him as a better overall prospect than Kris Bryant. He split his time between the Cubs’ and A’s’ farm systems last year, compiling a .295/.350/.508 slash with 13 homers in 280 plate appearances. He spent most of his time at the Double-A level in 2014, and is expected to open this season at Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs have a logjam in the infield, with Starlin Castro at short, Javier Baez at second, and, soon, Kris Bryant at third. Once Russell ascends to the majors, they could move things around. It’s possible Bryant moves to the outfield, creating a spot at third base, or there could be a trade in the offing, though that’s all speculative at this point. What we do know is that Russell is expected to hit for both power and average in the majors, and that he could be a wildly valuable fantasy asset for the next 12 years. No disrespect to Correa, Seager or Lindor, but Russell is the gem of the current crop of shortstop prospects.
1. Troy Tulowitzki
2. Ian Desmond
3. Hanley Ramirez
4. Jose Reyes
5. Starlin Castro
6. Jimmy Rollins
7. Alexei Ramirez
8. Elvis Andrus
9. Javier Baez
10. Ben Zobrist
11. Erick Aybar
12. Xander Bogaerts
13. Alcides Escobar
14. J.J. Hardy
15. Danny Santana
16. Jhonny Peralta
17. Chris Owings
18. Jean Segura
19. Jed Lowrie
20. Brad Miller
21. Asdrubal Cabrera
22. Andrelton Simmons
23. Josh Rutledge
24. Jordy Mercer
25. Yunel Escobar
26. Brandon Crawford
27. Addison Russell
28. Didi Gregorius
29. Everth Cabrera
30. Jonathan Villar
31. Corey Seager
32. Jung-Ho Kang
33. Francisco Lindor
34. Jose Iglesias
35. Stephen Drew