While many young players tend to get overhyped this time of year, Andrelton Simmons is a budding star who actually appears to be undervalued in fantasy drafts. Because the 23-year-old shortstop is still a rather unknown commodity, ESPN Fantasy has conservatively ranked him 17th among fantasy shortstops, and he's being taken in the 21st round, on average, in ESPN live drafts. But unlike a lot of these higher-ranked shortstops whose ceilings have already been reached, Simmons is still at the ground floor, and he has the natural ability to skyrocket into the top 10 (among shortstops) in his first full season in the majors.
To put Simmons' rookie numbers (194 plate appearances) into proper perspective, his 2.8 WAR in 2012 was better than Jimmy Rollins' and Hanley Ramirez's. His 4.87 Runs Created Per 27 Outs topped Asdrubal Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus. And his .127 ISO Power came in higher than Erick Aybar, Derek Jeter and Alexei Ramirez. All nine of these players are being picked ahead of Simmons.
The biggest boost that Simmons will enjoy is moving from the No. 8 spot in the Atlanta Braves' order last season to the very top of an even stronger Braves lineup in 2013. This should lead to more patience at the plate as opposed to batting eighth, a spot in which hitters tend to force themselves to swing at bad pitches rather than take a walk and have the No. 9-hitting pitcher end the would-be rally. Batting eighth in a National League lineup is a tough spot to hit in, as these hitters aren't likely to see as many hittable pitches with the light-hitting pitcher standing in the on-deck circle. However, Simmons handled himself as well as any in the No. 8 hole in his rookie season:
2012 NL batting leaders, No. 8 spot in lineup
Minimum 100 plate appearances (sorted by batting average).
As you can see, the only player above him in both hitting categories was Herrera. As is the case with most Colorado Rockies hitters, Herrera experienced a huge inflation of his stats at hitter haven Coors Field last year, posting a .784 OPS at home and a much more realistic .583 OPS on the road.
Many pundits believe the Braves' lineup is stronger than it was last season, when it finished a mediocre 17th in runs (700) and 21st in OPS (.709). This belief comes in part from the offseason addition of talented outfield siblings Justin Upton and B.J. Upton. Although the exact batting order is unclear at this time, once Brian McCann returns from injury, it will likely be these six players occupying the Nos. 2-7 spots behind Simmons. Check out what these six hitters have done, on average, over the past two seasons:
That's some serious run production there. And the only one of these half-dozen sluggers who is over the age of 30 is Dan Uggla (32), who just had his worst season as a pro and could very well bounce back in 2013. "Upside" may be an overused term, but this lineup certainly has plenty of it.
The million-dollar question is how Simmons will handle the bat in the leadoff spot? If his performance in the World Baseball Classic offers a hint, the answer is "just fine, thanks." In his first five WBC games, Simmons posted a slash line of .333/.391/.476 in 21 at-bats, all of them out of the leadoff spot. It's a small sample size, but it's definitely a good sign.
Granted, the reasons why we at ESPN have ranked Simmons cautiously are valid. He doesn't draw many walks and doesn't much power to speak of yet from his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame. He swung at 30.2 percent of first pitches with the Braves in 2012 and didn't swing at only 52.1 percent of the pitches thrown his way in the majors. All in all, he saw only 3.26 pitches per plate appearance last season, which ranked second to last in the league among players with at least 175 plate appearances, ahead of only Salvador Perez (3.24 pitches/PA).
With those negative vibes out of the way, let's focus on what he can do with the bat. Despite his low walk total in 2012, he's still a disciplined hitter, whiffing just once every 7.9 at-bats (21 K's in 166 ABs), a rate that should improve considering how stellar it was in the minors (a strikeout per 12.1 ABs). Also a good sign: The right-handed hitter hit just as well against right-handed pitchers (.333 OBP) as he did against southpaws (.338 OBP). Simmons also hit well with runners on base (.333 BA, .923 OPS), with two outs (.321 BA, .869 OPS) and with the combination of two outs and runners on (.345 BA, .406 OBP, .621 SLG).
Simmons performed much better at home (.656 OPS) than on the road last season (.537 OPS), but that kind of split is not uncommon for a 22-year-old rookie. And although Turner Field ranked 22nd in home runs in ESPN's MLB Park Factors last year, Atlanta's home did place third in doubles. This certainly fits with Simmons' skill set, as he hit 35 doubles (and only one home run) in his most recent full season in the minors (high-A ball in 2011).
The only real concern for Simmons' fantasy worth among his peer group of shortstops is stolen bases, as he attempted only one steal in 49 games last season. But since Fredi Gonzalez took over the managerial duties in 2011, he has allowed Atlanta Braves leadoff hitters to steal 81 bases in 113 attempts. Granted, most of this aggressive baserunning was due to having Michael Bourn, but others who added to the stolen base totals in the leadoff spot were Jordan Schafer, Nate McLouth, Martin Prado and Jose Constanza. In fact, only two other major league teams have attempted more steals from the leadoff spot in the post-Bobby Cox era:
Stolen base attempts by leadoff spot (since 2011)
And don't think that the gaudy amount of steal attempts was based on how successful each team was stealing bases, because all four of these clubs were among the bottom half of the league in stolen base percentage from the No. 1 hole. In fact, the Braves actually had the worst SB success rate of the bunch at 72 percent, placing them ahead of just six other major league teams.
If you've ever watched Simmons play, you'll know he's certainly not slow-footed. In his three minor league seasons he swiped 54 bags in 237 games, which averages out to 37 steals per 162 games. Fantasy owners are bound to be disappointed if they expect 37 steals at the major league level in Year 2, but our projection of 21 steals seems quite reachable for him. Only five shortstops are projected with 27 steals or more this season (Everth Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Dee Gordon, Jose Reyes and Alcides Escobar), and Simmons shouldn't be too far behind his peers in this category.
Lastly, Simmons is already a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, which may not mean a whole lot in fantasy, but it does help him get in the lineup every day, even during prolonged slumps. This will certainly boost his counting stats, which I expect to look like this upon season's end: 82 runs, 25 steals, 10 homers and 55 RBIs. Tack on a .285 batting average and you're looking at a top-10 fantasy shortstop.