Fantasy baseball shortstop primer: Breakouts, rankings and more
The shortstop position experienced a changing of the guard last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was launched from Houston.
One year ago at this time, this position was enjoying its deepest draft crop in years. Troy Tulowitzki had a late-first round average draft position, while Hanley Ramirez, Ian Desmond and Jose Reyes all went off the board between picks 20 and 40 in a typical draft. Desmond’s failings received the most attention, but all four fell well short of expectations last year. Carlos Correa, meanwhile, exceeded even the most bullish projections in his rookie season, and has already turned himself into one of the best real-life and fantasy players in the league.
Yes, this is a shortstop primer, but allow me to focus on a guy who should be one of every true baseball fan’s favorite players. Correa got the call from Houston in early June last season after terrorizing Pacific Coast League pitching for two months, and he hit his first home run in his second game with the Astros. He hit his second bomb two games later. He did this. A lot.
All told, Correa slashed .279/.345/.512 with 22 homers, 14 steals and 68 RBI in 432 plate appearances, en route to the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Extrapolated over a 162-game season, those counting stats translate to 36 homers, 23 steals and 111 RBI. Correa may never win a Gold Glove simply because he shares a league with fellow shortstop wunderkind Francisco Lindor, but his defense is always going to be well above average. That’s great news for his fantasy future, given that a player of his size—Correa is a strapping 6' 4" and 210 pounds—often moves to third base. Correa, however, should stick at shortstop for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard for anyone to break into the “best player in baseball” discussion when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are doing what they do, but Correa’s offense and defense at the sport’s most important position place him in that discussion at the ripe old age of 21.
And yet, Correa isn’t the only youngster ushering in a new guard of shortstop. The top-five shortstops for 2016, by ADP, are Correa, Tulowitzki, Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts and Lindor. The four newcomers are all 23 years old or younger.
It isn’t simply the youth of the new shortstop set that is striking—it’s how good all four of them already are. Correa is a legitimate first rounder and one of the best players in the league, but Seager, Bogaerts and Lindor all have National Fantasy Baseball Championship ADPs between 56.31 (Seager) and 64.49 (Lindor). Seager and Lindor made sterling debuts last season, while Bogaerts found his stroke in his second full season with the Red Sox, hitting .320/.355/.421 with 35 doubles and seven homers. He also mixed in a degree of efficient speed, swiping 10 bags while being caught just twice.
We talk a lot about how baseball is in great hands with the influx of young talent over the last four or five seasons, and the shortstop position is a great reflection of that fact. It’s never going to be deep from a fantasy perspective, but the new blood at the top of the position has made it one of the most intriguing spots on the diamond in 2016.
We saw glimpses last year of what Seager can be when he reaches his full potential. After watching Jimmy Rollins slog through five months of his age-36 season playing replacement-level shortstop, the Dodgers finally promoted Seager, who had long since showed he had nothing left to prove in the minors. In 113 plate appearances with the big league club, he hit .337/.425/.561 with four homers, eight doubles, 17 RBI and two steals.
We all know his brother Kyle in Seattle, and by all accounts, Corey is the better of the two—he has the highest future ceiling of any shortstop this side of Carlos Correa. If Seager, who’s expected to hit second in the Dodgers’ lineup ahead of Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig, remains on the trajectory he set last year, he should score a ton of runs while jumping a level at the shortstop position. We could be talking about him as the second best fantasy shortstop, trailing only Correa.
Marte split his 2015 season between Triple-A Tacoma and the majors—he logged 247 plate appearances with the Mariners, slashing .283/.351/.402 with eight steals in 12 chances. Marte does two things very well: hit for average and steal bases, and both of those translated immediately upon his promotion to the majors. He’s not going to make an impact in the power categories, but his on-base ability and presence atop the Seattle lineup will make him a weapon in the runs scored category.
Marte, at just 22 years old, profiles as a strong three-category contributor this season and for the foreseeable future. The one red flag is his stolen base success rate, which was just 72% in the minors. The good news, however, is that the Mariners should free him up to run nearly as frequently as he likes. A season of .290/.350/.400 with 80 runs and 25 steals is well within his reach.
Deep sleeper: Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
Suarez got a chance to start last season after Zack Cozart suffered a season-ending knee injury, and while his glove may never be as good as Cozart’s, he was an immediate upgrade at the plate. In 398 plate appearances, Suarez slashed .280/.315/.446 with 13 homers, 19 doubles, 48 RBI, 42 runs and four steals. Suarez never hit for much power in the minors, but last year, in his age-23 season, he showed the sort of growth that looks like as a new normal.
Suarez spent 57 games with Triple-A Louisville, belting eight homers in 238 plate appearances. The 12.1% HR/FB ratio he amassed with the Reds could be sustainable, and if he plays a full season with similar batted-ball rates, he’ll have a chance to hit 20 home runs. In fact, if his 38.4% fly-ball rate, 23.6% strikeout rate and aforementioned HR/FB ratio from last season remained flat at 500 at-bats, he’d leave the yard 23 times. That is, undoubtedly, a best-case scenario, but it is within reason. He’ll move over to third for the departed Todd Frazier with Cozart back healthy, but he retains shortstop eligibility.
This pains me because Tulowitzki has long been one of my favorite players to watch, both at the plate and in the field. However, if you draft him, plan for him to miss at least 30 games—Tulowitzki hasn’t played at least 140 games since 2011. If you’re going to take a shortstop inside the top 50, as Tulowitzki’s ADP suggests, you need to be absolutely sure about him.
Not to dissuade you or anything, but all his peripheral numbers went significantly in the wrong direction last year. His ISO plummeted to .160, his strikeout rate climbed to 21.3%, and his walk rate dipped all the way to 7.1%. His HR/FB ratio was a career-worst 12.2% (yes, just one-tenth of 1% better than Suarez).
Now, he’s still a supremely talented player with a high ceiling who happens to be in arguably the league’s best lineup. But it must be noted that Tulowitzki’s coming off the board in the “lock-in-high-floors” area of the draft. His injury history precludes him from being a high-floor guy.
There won’t be much to get excited about in Philadelphia this year, but Crawford’s development could be one of the few bright spots. The No. 1 shortstop prospect in the majors (not including Seager) could be with the big league club as soon as this season, but he’s unlikely to be fantasy-relevant in redraft leagues. He should still be on your radar, especially from the “baseball-is-fun” standpoint.
His glove could already play at the major league level, and his bat isn’t too far behind. Crawford—Carl’s cousin, in fact—isn’t ever going to hit for a ton of power, but he slashed .265/.354/.407 as a 20-year-old in his first exposure to Double-A last season. He’s expected to begin this season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and if he makes strides early, don’t be surprised if he’s up by the middle of the summer.
The only player standing in his way is Freddy Galvis, who hit .263/.302/.343 in 603 plate appearances last year. In other words, the only thing keeping Crawford in the minors is development and service time concerns. Once he shows he’s ready—and that could be sooner rather than later—he’ll get the call.