Aledmys Diaz, Dansby Swanson among promising young shortstops struggling in 2017
- Aledmys Diaz's demotion to Triple A was the latest instance of a young, promising shortstop struggling in the 2017 season.
The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010, but they appeared to have struck gold with Aledmys Diaz, a Cuban defector whom they'd signed in March 2014. Taking advantage of the early season absence of Jhonny Peralta, the 25-year-old Diaz put a claim on St. Louis’ shortstop spot while earning All-Star honors and finishing fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He hasn't been able to re-create that magic this year, however. On Wednesday, the slumping Redbirds optioned him to Triple A Memphis.
While 2016 NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager has taken his place alongside Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts among the game's great young shortstops, Diaz—who admittedly is a bit older than that group (and missed the 2013 season for falsifying his birth date)—isn't alone among those who made a splash last year but have taken their lumps in 2017. Call this a six-pack of scuffling young shortstops; they’re listed alphabetically.
White Sox SS Tim Anderson
A 2013 first-round pick out of a Mississippi community college and a consensus top 50 prospect heading into last season, Anderson was recalled in June once the White Sox realized that Jimmy Rollins had nothing left in the tank. Though prospect hounds loved his plus-plus speed and plus hit tool, they voiced concerns about both his defense (mainly his hands and footwork rather than his arm) and his overly aggressive approach at the plate, particularly his vulnerability to breaking balls.
In his age-23 season, Anderson hit for a respectable 100 OPS+ via a somewhat lopsided .283/.306/.432 line. His power (nine home runs) and speed (six triples) boosted his hacking approach that produced just 13 walks in 431 plate appearances. That 3.0% walk rate was the second lowest among AL hitters with at least 80 plate appearances, while his 9.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the worst among those with at least 200 PA. Even so, his defensive metrics were favorable (+6 runs via both DRS and UZR), and his 2.8 bWAR outdistanced every AL rookie except Gary Sanchez.
Thus far this year, however, Anderson has flailed his way to a .249/.274/.372 line and a 73 OPS+. His strikeout-to-walk rates hasn't budged by much from last year (it sits at 8.56 ratio), and his 39.7% rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone is the AL's seventh worst, up from 36.4% last year, 18th at the 400 PA cutoff. Sliders have been a huge problem; he's whiffed on more than 36% of them in both seasons, and where he hit .183 and slugged .256 on the 82 he put into play last year, he's at .117/.156 on 77 in play this year. His defense (-4 DRS, -7 UZR) appears to have taken a big step back as well, though sample size caveats apply. Still, his performance adds up to just 0.3 WAR—the kind of showing that would merit a Triple A refresher course, particularly for a rebuilding team that's not playing for anything in 2017. On Tuesday, manager Rick Renteria said that the 24-year-old shortstop will begin wearing corrective lenses. We’ll see if that helps.
Cardinals SS Aledmys Diaz
Diaz hit a robust .300/.369/.510 with 17 homers and a 134 OPS+ last year en route to 3.5 WAR, but he's slumped to .260/.293/396 for an 80 OPS+ this year. His power has receded somewhat (seven homers in 288 PA), he's making far less hard contact (from 31.5% of all batted balls to 23.5%) and his walk rate has been halved (from 8.9% to 4.5%). Like Anderson, his O-Swing% has blown a hole in the ozone layer: 38.5% (seventh in the NL), up from 28.2% last year. The defensive metrics are split; he's gone from -3 DRS/-8 UZR to -9/1, which means that the two version of WAR view him somewhat differently (-0.6 via Baseball-Reference, +0.5 via FanGraphs), but it remains a significant step down.
The Cardinals, now 35–41, haven't been shy about making moves to try to jump-start their season; they traded Matt Adams to the Braves (a move that's come back to bite them), farmed out slumping Randal Grichuk and released Peralta, who has since signed with the Red Sox. None of that has reversed their course. In fact, they were 24–23 when they sent Grichuk down, and went 9–17 in his absence before recalling him last weekend. They'll have to hope for better results with Diaz's demotion, because 2017 is slipping away from them.
Cubs SS Addison Russell
The most experienced of this group in terms of major league playing time, Russell hit .238/.321/.417 with 21 homers and a 97 OPS+ last year, his age-22 season, and produced 4.3 WAR while helping the Cubs win their first championship in 108 years. He's hitting for less power and walking less this year (.230/.298/.404 with seven homers and an 83 OPS+), though strong defense (+11 DRS) continues to bolster his value (1.7 bWAR). He remains, however, one of several young Cubs—along with Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez and the recently demoted Kyle Schwarber—whose offense has taken a significant step back. Worse, he's under investigation by MLB for a domestic violence allegation—made by one of his wife’s friends on Instagram—and could face a significant suspension if the league finds substance to the charges.
Rockies SS Trevor Story
With two homers in his major league debut and seven in his first six games, Story made all kinds of history last year. The tale was even more remarkable because the 23-year-old, who had just one season in the upper minors, was pressed into major league duty by the suspension of Jose Reyes. Taking advantage of Coors Field's hitter-friendly environment, he bashed 27 homers (16 at home) in just 97 games while batting .272/.341/.567 for a 122 OPS+ overall before a torn ligament in his left thumb ended his season in late July; without the injury, he might have topped Frank Robinson's NL rookie record for 38 homers.
Story got off to a wretched start this year, hitting .180/.289/.396 before being sidelined for two weeks by a left shoulder strain. His production has improved somewhat since, but his .222/.304/.403 line is still good for just a 72 OPS, and even with solid defense he's been worth a meager 0.4 WAR. His extreme fly ball approach is producing far too many pop-ups, his hard contact rate has dipped from 44.9% to 32.9%, and his already high strikeout rate has climbed from 31.3% to 33.9%. Adjustments are in order; improvement can only help the surprising Rockies in a bid for their first trip to the postseason since 2009.
Braves SS Dansby Swanson
The number one overall pick of the 2015 draft by the Diamondbacks and then the centerpiece of a heist by the Braves just six months later, Swanson reached the majors in time to play 38 games last year, hitting it .302/.361/.442 with three homers and three steals while falling one at-bat short (129) of exhausting his rookie status. A consensus top-three prospect coming into 2017 and a popular pick for NL Rookie of the year honors (this scribe included), the 23-year-old stumbled out of the gate (.156/.200/.233 in April), and while he's steadily improved (.216/.336/.341 in May and .308/.354/.418 in June), his overall performance (66 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR) serves as yet another reminder that not every top prospect flowers as quickly as Seager. Still, Swanson's steady defense and improved play have helped the rebuilding Braves to a surprisingly solid 37-39 mark thus far. Credit to both the player and the team for not panicking, though we all expect more from Swanson.
Nationals SS Trea Turner
Despite getting a cup of coffee in 2015, Turner spent all but a few days in the first half of 2016 back in Triple A. What's more, the Nationals' preference for Danny Espinosa at shortstop led the team to give the 23-year-old first-round pick a crash course in centerfield. Nonetheless, Turner came up and quickly proved an electrifying presence, hitting .342/.370/.567 with eight triples, 13 homers, and 33 steals in 39 attempts en route to 3.6 WAR, second among all rookie position players. He picked up where he'd left off in April (.317/.348/.556), but has scuffled since; his .274/.314/.417 line is good for just an 88 OPS+. It's not all bad news, however. His meager walk rate has inched upwards (from 4.3% to 5.5%), his defense at short has been acceptable, and he leads the league with 33 steals. He's produced a solid 1.6 WAR for a team that's running away with the NL East, but when you've dazzled as he did last year, that feels like a disappointment. (Update: Alas, Turner will be out for an unspecified length of time, as he suffered a broken right wrist on Thursday when the Cubs’ Pedro Strop hit him with a pitch.)