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Thursday, February 3, 2011
Coming up short at short

By Peter W Hjort III

Back in December, Sports Illustrated's Tim Marchman had an interesting idea about how a creative GM could leverage a talent drought at shortstop into an opportunity:
Stop and think about this question for a moment: How many really good shortstops are there in baseball right now? Troy Tulowitzki is pretty great. So is Hanley Ramirez. Who is the best in the game after those two? Derek Jeter and Marco Scutaro are good, and also old. Yunel Escobar has nice numbers, but was traded for a 33-year-old Alex Gonzalez who struggled to slug .330 in the middle of a pennant race last year. Stephen Drew and Alexei Ramirez are nice players, and not quite stars. Elvis Andrus and Starlin Castro are years from their primes; Jose Reyes has been injured during his.

The point here is just that while good, sound, solid, harmless shortstops would seem to have some value these days, they apparently don't. The Minnesota Twins, by anyone's reckoning a strong contender, rid themselves of J.J. Hardy in exchange for the oft-traded "live arms," the same types that are also involved in a deal (which may or may not ever happen) that would move Jason Bartlett from the Tampa Bay Rays to the San Diego Padres. From this one can infer that we're just in a bit of a positional drought right now. Everyone other than the greats is part of a drab gray mass.

Here lies opportunity! You'll often hear it said of this or that infielder --Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, say, or free agent Adrian Beltre -- that he could handle shortstop. Someone should put the theory into practice. There just aren't a lot of top shortstops around right now. Make one of your own and you'll have one.

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman likely has the skills to play shortstop.
Historically, teams have done their best to put a good defensive player at shortstop. Professional baseball's recently rediscovered interest in improving defensively means there's some discounted talent to be had if you're willing to sacrifice a bit in that department.

Looking at second and third basemen who could potentially make a shift down the defensive spectrum to shortstop, Mark Ellis is the second-highest rated second baseman over the past three years according to Dewan, but -- in addition to the fact that the 34-year old Mark Ellis wouldn't be much of a star anywhere on the diamond -- he probably doesn't have the arm strength required to play shortstop every day. Chase Utley, Aaron Hill, and Dustin Pedroia also rate highly according to Dewan, but there isn't a whole lot to be gained by moving one of those players to shortstop, considering how their respective rosters are constructed.

At third base, the aforementioned Zimmerman and Beltre lead the way. With Ian Desmond at shortstop and Danny Espinosa at second base, the Nationals have their infield set. Beltre is no longer a free agent, having signed with the Rangers to play third base. I wonder how Beltre and his agent Scott Boras would have responded if a team approached them about Beltre moving to short.

Another interesting note: Boras originally shopped one of his other high-profile clients, Jayson Werth, as a player capable of shifting down the defensive spectrum to center field.

Though there isn't much of a tangible opportunity to see Marchman's idea immediately put into action, it's an interesting thing to monitor. Zigging while others are zagging can lead to an undervalued asset, and I'll be watching for teams to shift a player down the defensive spectrum in the future, especially if teams continue to emphasize defense.

-- Peter W Hjort III writes the Capitol Avenue Club, a blog about the Atlanta Braves.