2012 Position Preview: Shortstop

Updated: February 20, 2013, 3:58 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

If you're an optimist, you can look at last season's fantasy performance at shortstop in general and sing the position's praises. After all, seven shortstops ended the year among the top 50 hitters on the ESPN Player Rater. Then again, if you're a pessimist, you're likely quick to point out that Jose Reyes was the highest of that group, and he was only No. 18 on that list.

Throw pitchers into the mix and the news seems even more dire, with Reyes falling to No. 28 overall and the position thinning out mightily after Alcides Escobar checks in at No. 70.

So it is a weak position even toward the top, or are there enough of 'em to satisfy standard-league owners? The answer lies somewhere in between. The league-average production per team at this position in 2012 was a .257 batting average, 12 homers, 61 RBIs, 75 runs and 16 stolen bases. That's pretty much the kind of production that major league teams got from the second base position as well, but the difference for fantasy owners is that you can actually find this "average" output far deeper in a fantasy draft.

For instance, Alexei Ramirez, who possibly wouldn't even be drafted as a starter in a 14-team league, might well give you something close to that stat line in 2013, and he's barely among the top 200. Take the stolen bases out of the mix and Jhonny Peralta could get you there, too, yet he might not even be drafted in an ESPN standard league.

So while there's certainly a top tier at this position, in my mind there's no reason to go overboard and spend a first- or second-round pick on Troy Tulowitzki or Reyes, because you're probably going to have the opportunity to catch up to the rest of league ownership at the shortstop spot in your lineup, even if you ignore the position until the last possible moment.

Cream of the Crop

Tulowitzki's surgically repaired groin appears to be fine now, so there's no need to fear a repeat of the disappointing 2012 season, when the Colorado Rockies shortstop was limited to just 203 plate appearances. It was the third straight season in which Tulowitzki played fewer than 150 games, but we're still talking about a shortstop who, when healthy, can be counted on for 25 home runs. Besides, even with that missed time, he had finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for three straight seasons prior to 2012.

[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez batted just .257 in 2012, but he still clubbed 24 homers and stole 21 bases.

The best part of Hanley Ramirez's in-season trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers was the fact that one week after the deal he moved back to shortstop after playing the hot corner in Miami. A 20-homer/20-steal season with a batting average under .270 at third base would make Ramirez "just another face in the crowd." At shortstop, however, the power-speed combo elevates him to the ranks of the elite at the position, and as an added bonus, he retains that third base eligibility, giving him an extra flexibility that only adds to his fantasy appeal.

Jose Reyes got a taste of playing indoors on a regular basis inside the retractable roof of Marlins Park, and he seemed to like it, hitting .311 in 2012 under a roof versus .264 with a visible sky. So the move to Toronto and its indoor stadium (Rogers Centre) should spell good things for Reyes, though a move to artificial turf, given the shortstop's hamstring injury history, does give us a little pause. Still, he played 160 games in 2012 and could well hit .300 with 30 steals in 2013. Those numbers are hard to pass up.

The Next-Best Thing

Starlin Castro is sometimes accused of a lack of focus, which manifests itself in the form of three consecutive seasons with at least 27 errors and a caught-stealing rate of 34 percent for his career. But keep in mind we're still talking about a 23-year-old who has exhibited steady growth in both his power numbers and his stolen base totals since his 2010 debut. There's no reason to think his learning curve won't continue to ascend.

Perhaps the home run breakout from Ian Desmond last season was a bit of a mirage. After all, his HR/FB rate skyrocketed from 6.0 percent in 2011 to 18.2 in 2012. But even if he regresses a bit in that department, a 20-homer/20-steal season could easily be in the cards for the Nationals shortstop. After all, he was easily able to reach those benchmarks last season despite playing in only 130 games (he missed time with an oblique injury). An extra month of at-bats could well make up for any minor step backward.

Which Asdrubal Cabrera will we see in 2013? Is it the one who hit .286 in the first half of the season with 11 home runs and an OPS of .832, or is it the one who hit just .251 with 5 homers and a .676 OPS after the All-Star break? A 6.7-percent increase in strikeouts in the second half seems to indicate that Cabrera was pressing. Perhaps a clean slate will allow him to put together a solid six months this time around.

Where's The Ceiling?

Elvis Andrus is a tough guy to figure out from a fantasy perspective. On the one hand, he hit .286 in 2012 without seeming to truly have a firm grasp on the strike zone; he swung at only 54.5 percent of strikes, a good 10 percent lower than the league average. Sure, some of that could be a function of him batting second in the lineup, but it's not like Ian Kinsler was always on base in front of him. The good news, though, is Andrus hit .350 with runners in scoring position, good enough to put him in the top five in the American League. With Jurickson Profar lurking, the window may be slowly closing on Andrus in Texas.

You'll probably never get any power from Alcides Escobar, who saw his ground ball/fly ball rate climb all the way to 2.25 in 2012. That likely makes his .293 batting average in 2012 a bit of a mirage as his typical 30-point gap between his BABIP and his actual average climbed all the way to a 50-point difference in 2012. Basically, it comes down to the stolen base total for Escobar. If he finishes the year closer to 40 swipes rather than 20, he could sneak into the top 10 among shortstops. But when we're looking at what could be a one-category wonder, it's hard to sing his praises too loudly.

Andrelton Simmons' biggest asset at the plate is his ability to make contact with pitches in the strike zone, connecting with 94.3 percent of all "good pitches" he saw during his 182 plate appearances in 2012. Sure, it's a small sample size, but it certainly adds some legitimacy to the .289 batting average he posted in his rookie season. Simmons will get the playing time because of his glove, but if his bat can avoid embarrassing him, then perhaps some serviceable stats are in the offing.

Time To Grab That Rocking Chair?

Not once in the past four years has Jimmy Rollins managed to hit his career average, a very reasonable .270. In fact, in three of those four years, he didn't even top .250. Part of the "problem," though, is that Rollins is consistently launching fly balls at more than a 40-percent rate, which does help explain why he's one of only four shortstops to have hit more than 60 home runs since 2009. Since he's also one of only four shortstops to have at least 100 steals over that same time, we're not willing to write Rollins' fantasy baseball obituary just yet.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Jason Szenes/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter's 216 hits last season was 11 more than the second-highest number (Miguel Cabrera, 205).

Derek Jeter is old (in baseball terms, anyway). We get it. But so what? Since he turned 30 back in 2004, he has played 150-plus games in all but one season, and last year's major league-leading 216 hits certainly has to keep Jeter's name in the conversation at shortstop. No, you're not likely to get more than a 15-homer/10-steal combo from the good captain, but if he does that and hits 40 points higher than someone like Zack Cozart, he's well worth having on your fantasy roster.

Alexei Ramirez is coming off a season in which he had career lows in batting average (.265), home runs (9) and runs scored (59). Even though he was saddled by a nagging wrist injury, it's not like he missed any time, playing in 158 games for the Chicago White Sox. He never has been able to recapture the magic of his rookie season (2008), when he hit .290 with 21 home runs, and we doubt he'll do it in 2013. But if he can split the difference between those two seasons (2008 and 2012), he'll at least do enough to earn consideration for a bench spot on your fantasy roster.

Will to Power

J.J. Hardy could, and probably should, lead this position in home runs. Yet after hitting 30 homers in 2011, Hardy hit just 22 round-trippers in 2012 and posted a meager .238 batting average. That decline was fueled by an awful home-road split, including a slugging percentage that was 144 points lower away from Camden Yards (.462 versus .318). That's reason for concern with trade rumors already circling the shortstop because of Manny Machado's looming presence.

After Jed Lowrie left Boston and was given a chance to be an everyday shortstop in Houston, his power numbers started to take flight. Before getting injured, Lowrie had a home OPS of .856 and was well on his way to a 25-homer season until he was forced to miss two months of the season. Now he has packed his bags again and likely will be shuttling around the Oakland A's infield. At least he'll get a shot to hit against that Astros pitching now. If he can stay healthy, 20 home runs is not outside the realm of possibility.

Cozart is one of only 15 shortstops in the history of the game to have hit 15 or more home runs in both of his first two seasons in the majors. That's the reason for optimism in terms of his power potential, though must look at the whole picture here. Few scoring formats are going to look kindly on a player with a .288 on-base percentage, and when you have only four more RBIs than walks (35 to 31) in a season, it's easy to see why the jury is still out here.

The Need for Speed

Switching from the No. 8 spot in the lineup to the leadoff position was just what the doctor ordered for Everth Cabrera. Batting ahead of the pitcher's spot in San Diego yielded a .279 average and just eight steals. Once hitting at the top of the order, though, his batting average improved to .282 and he swiped 23 bases from Aug. 19 to the end of the season. For those of you looking for the "next Juan Pierre," this is your guy.

Jean Segura made the leap from Double-A after being sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Zack Greinke deal and actually had seven multi-hit games in September as he got his feet wet in the majors. He's probably someone who could use a bit more seasoning in the minors, but instead he will be learning on the fly. Eventually he could be a 15-homer, 30-steal player, but for now, only the speed portion of the equation is likely to happen.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireDee Gordon had 32 stolen bases in just 87 major league games in 2012.

Dee Gordon averaged a stolen base every 10.3 plate appearances last season, so if he were to get a full season -- say 600 plate appearances -- then he'd be good for 58 steals were he to maintain that pace. The problem is that he's unlikely to get a full season of major league at-bats. He's a man without a position in the majors, as the Dodgers traded for Ramirez shortly after Gordon dislocated his thumb in July and headed to the disabled list. He's likely to start the season at Triple-A, and unless the team is willing to see if he can transition to the outfield, we might not see enough of him in 2013 from him to matter in fantasy.

The X Factor

Eduardo Nunez stole 28 bases during the 2012 season, if you take into account games played at all levels of the New York Yankees organization. That alone might be enough to warrant drafting Nunez late in fantasy drafts if you knew for sure he'd end up playing enough with the big-league team to approach that level of statistical success in 2013. Certainly the age of the Yankees infield is high enough that the 25-year-old could end up filling in for any and all of them on a semi-regular basis, but with 28 errors in 118 career starts, his glove might send the Yankees looking elsewhere.

Color us skeptical about the chances of Hiroyuki Nakajima achieving stateside stardom. Although he did hit a career .302 in Japan, those numbers don't often translate well to major league pitching. Remember Tsuyoshi Nishioka and his .293 Japan League batting average? Two lackluster big league seasons and 50 total hits later, he was back in Hanshin. It's hard to imagine much more than Derek Jeter-level (the current version, not the All-Star) offensive production from the Oakland shortstop, but at a .265 clip rather than at .300.

Josh Rutledge came out like gangbusters filling in for Tulowitzki in the second half of 2012, but he faded badly, hitting .197 in the final month of the season. This season, Rutledge will get a chance to start at second base, though he currently qualifies only at shortstop, and he reportedly has put on a little extra weight so that he doesn't wear down again this season. If the workout regimen works, we could be looking at a 20-homer, .300-average hitter with multi-positional eligibility. If it doesn't, this is merely a younger Mike Aviles.

Stephen Drew's past two seasons were disappointing, but you kind of have to throw them both out after the shortstop suffered a fractured fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle during a slide into home plate in July 2011, causing him to miss significant time in both campaigns. He may never return to the player he was during his peak season in 2008 (.291 average, 21 home runs), but the Boston Red Sox need him only to hold down the fort until prospect Xander Bogaerts is ready to get the call, perhaps as soon as 2014.

Points Versus Roto

Often a player who steals a lot of bases yet yields low power numbers is a lot more valuable in points league formats. Unfortunately, Aybar is not one of those players, as his dreadfully low BB/K rate (0.36 in 2012) could help raise his OBP only to .324, a mere 30 points higher than his batting average. Add into the mix the fact that he has never played more than 143 games in a single season and you're looking at too much dead weight in your weekly lineup on a routine basis.

Since becoming an everyday player in 2005, Peralta has had just one season with fewer than 100 strikeouts (95 in 2011). Last season the slow afoot Peralta saw his ground ball rate rise to 41.4 percent. If his swing continues to shun the fly ball, not only will his power drop, but his batting average likely won't get above .260. Fewer total bases plus triple-digit whiffs equals points-league poison.

Cliff Pennington moves from Oakland to Arizona, which has a far more favorable home ballpark. If he doesn't raise his 2013 batting average from last season's abysmal .215 mark to his career average of .249, the ballpark factor alone should help steer his total bases toward an increase well above last year's level. It's that boost in extra-base hits, along with a total of 5-7 home runs and perhaps 15-20 stolen bases, that will make a .250 average "feel" a lot more like .280 in points leagues.

Bottom Line

While the top three at the position may well be safer bets to help your fantasy team than the rest of the pack, the gap between Tulowitzki, Ramirez and Reyes and everybody else is not enough to warrant an early-round reach. Certainly you should feel free to spend a late-second or early-third rounder on the top trio, but if you fail to cash in before they're all gone, you might as well wait until the end of the draft to fill the holes in your lineup. If it's power you need, several double-digit homer options should still be around, and with a very real likelihood of two dozen players at this position finishing with 15 steals or more, there's no shortage of speed here, either.