- Brian Gramling, Fantasy
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Shortstop has historically been the second-weakest offensive position in fantasy baseball, ahead only of the catchers. While that ranking still holds true today, there are a number of young, on-the-rise shortstops whose true upside has yet to be seen. In addition to a handful of elite prospects, all top-nine shortstops on the ESPN.com rankings are 30 or younger (not including Ben Zobrist, whom I consider more of a second baseman).
Meanwhile, the top 25 shortstops (minus Zobrist, 2B Jed Lowrie and Rafael Furcal, who didn't play in 2013) in ESPN's rankings averaged pedestrian numbers across the board: 482 at bats, .268 batting average, 11 homers, 51 RBIs, 60 runs and 14 steals. If you eliminate the two players that had fewer than 250 at-bats last season (Jonathan Villar and Derek Jeter), those numbers rise just slightly to 516 at-bats, .269 BA, 12 HRs, 56 RBIs, 65 runs and 15 steals. So clearly your expectations should remain moderate.
When drafting a shortstop, there are many guys who can help you a little in all five categories, but the key statistic this position provides is stolen bases, as seven shortstops stole more than 20 bases last season, and that number could have been higher had Hanley Ramirez (10 SBs in 304 at-bats) and Jose Reyes (15 SBs in 382 at-bats) been healthy for a full season. This position also had some pop, with a dozen players smacking double-digit homers, four of them hitting 20-plus long balls. But top-flight run production is hard to come by at this position, as Elvis Andrus was the only shortstop among our top 25 who scored at least 80 runs last year, and just three players drove in 70 runs (Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Desmond and J.J. Hardy). While the depth at this position appears to be greater than in years past, there is a definite drop-off after the top seven players in our rankings.
Cream of the Crop
Hanley Ramirez is the top dog in the shortstop rankings, and a case can be made for him being a first-round pick in most leagues. He enters his age-30 season coming off a career-best 1.040 OPS, collecting nearly as many extra-base hits (47) as strikeouts (52) in his 304 at-bats. Not only did he slug a ridiculous .779 with runners in scoring position and homer every 15.2 at-bats, but his .301 well-hit average was second in the majors among all players with at least 300 plate appearances, trailing only Miguel Cabrera's. The only knock on Ramirez is his durability, as he missed nearly half the 2011 season and half the 2013 campaign, but don't forget that he averaged 152 games played in the five seasons between 2006 and 2010.
Troy Tulowitzki is right up there with Ramirez in terms of run production, but he has logged 130 games just twice in the past six seasons. Coors Field has certainly played a part in him producing big numbers, with Tulowitzki slashing .314/.387/.547 at home but just .276/.348/.471 away from the thin air. However, no matter the venue, this guy knows what to do in the batter's box. His .217 well-hit average last year was 28 points higher than any other qualifying shortstop, and he also had the top walk rate (11.1 percent) at his position. Also consider how many more hittable pitches he'll see this season with the addition of first baseman Justin Morneau and a healthy full season from teammate Carlos Gonzalez. Tulowitzki is a borderline first-round fantasy pick who likely won't be available after Round 2.
Ian Desmond is a step below Ramirez and Tulowitzki, but he really blossomed last season, posting 20 homers, 21 steals and 61 extra-base hits. The Washington Nationals' lineup should improve greatly with more luck in the health department, and now that the 28-year-old Desmond is signed for the next two seasons, he won't have to worry about contract talks for a while. Although Desmond's .336 BABIP seems a bit high, it's worth noting that when he makes contact, his ball sometimes goes a long way, as his average home run traveled 407.5 feet last year, which was tops at his position. If he can trim his gaudy 22.1 percent strikeout rate and hit better on the road (.242/.301/.397 in 2013), he'll have another elite season and be worthy of a third-round pick in standard drafts.
The Next Best Thing
While this next group of players falls below the "elite" category, these are all names you should target before the end of Round 6 in a standard mixed-league draft. Jose Reyes missed nearly half the season because of a severely sprained ankle, but he still tallied 10 homers and 15 steals. Despite entering his 12th season in the majors, Reyes is still only 30 years old, and continues to be a very tough out north of the border. In 51 career games in Rogers Centre, Reyes has slashed .319/.377/.519 with the same number of RBIs (23) as strikeouts. Speaking of driving in runs, Reyes posted a brilliant .383/.475/.468 slash line with runners in scoring position in 2013, showing that if the rest of his Toronto Blue Jays teammates hit like they are capable of, we could see a major spike in his run production this year.
Position rankings: Roto | Points
Andrelton Simmons, Brad Miller
Jose Iglesias, Didi Gregorius
Prospects: Xander Bogaerts, Addison Russell, Javier Baez
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Starlin Castro
Player to trade at All-Star break: Alcides Escobar
Player to trade for at ASB: J.J. Hardy
Home heroes: Jonathan Villar, Brad Miller
Road warriors: Asdrubal Cabrera, Jordy Mercer
Player I inexplicably like: Yunel Escobar
Player I inexplicably dislike: Erick Aybar
Elvis Andrus was the No. 2 shortstop on the ESPN Player Rater last season, doubling his steals from 2012 and posting a career-best 67 RBIs despite a meager .586 OPS with runners in scoring position. While Andrus was also able to score at least 85 runs for the fourth straight season, he did so with a career-low .328 on-base percentage. If Andrus is able to gets his RISP closer to his solid career rate (.722 OPS) and draws a few more walks, he could have an even bigger year in 2014. Remember that he's only 25 years old and will now be joined in the lineup by Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, which should help the shortstop's run production.
Starlin Castro saw his numbers take a significant tumble across the board last season as his average fell 38 points, his OPS dropped 122 points, his steals plummeted from 25 to nine, and his 78 runs and 78 RBIs in 2012 fell to 59 runs and 44 RBIs in 2013. Castro's biggest problem is that he's not selective enough at the plate, chasing more pitches out of the strike zone (428) than any other shortstop last year. All that said, Castro is still an immensely talented 23-year-old who already has a pair of .300-hitting campaigns under his belt and has smacked at least 10 homers in three consecutive seasons. After not placing among the top 20 shortstops in the ESPN.com Player Rater despite his 666 at-bats, Castro can be bought much cheaper at an auction draft this season and therefore is a bit of a sleeper.
Jean Segura exploded in his first full year in the majors, posting the best season of any shortstop, according to the ESPN.com Player Rater. In addition to placing second in the National League with 44 steals, he was also tied for second in the majors in triples (10) and fell four hits shy of a .300 batting average. All this occurred despite having the eighth-worst walk rate (4.0 percent) among all 140 qualified hitters. Although the 23-year-old struggled in the second half of last season, a lot of that had to do with losing Ryan Braun, who batted directly behind Segura in the 2-hole of the batting order. Braun, the team's No. 3 hitter in the lineup, played his last game of the season on July 21, and after that date, Segura posted a paltry .236/.265/.315 slash in his final 51 games. With Braun set to return from his suspension and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez now healthy after missing half of 2013 because of a knee injury, Segura is in a great position to start 2014 like he did last season, when he slashed .325/.363/.487 before the All-Star break.
Where's The Ceiling?
Fantasy owners, myself included, expected a lot more out of Andrelton Simmons last season, especially in the stolen-bases category. He stole 54 bases in 237 minor-league games, but has attempted just 12 steals in 206 games for the Atlanta Braves. Much of this has to do with a poor .304 career OBP, but Simmons improved that number greatly from the first half of the 2013 season (.282 OBP) to the second half (.316 OBP). Simmons actually had a worse BABIP (.247) than regular batting average (.248) last year because he makes so much contact, tallying the fourth-lowest strikeout rate (8.4 percent) among 140 qualified major leaguers. The 24-year-old has a bright future in this league, because even when he's struggling at the plate, Simmons is already an elite defensive shortstop, winning both the Gold Glove and Platinum Glove last season.
While Jonathan Villar is not going to set any home-run records -- he posted a higher on-base percentage (.321) than slugging percentage (.319) last season -- he should be able to excel in runs and steals for the next decade. The 22-year-old swiped 70 bases in 177 games over his final two minor league seasons and then racked up 18 steals in just 58 major league games. And while some guys simply prefer playing at home, Villar absolutely loved Minute Maid Park last season, posting a .317/.398/.439 slash there compared to a miserable .195/.270/.242 rate on the road. His 32.4 percent swing-and-miss rate was easily the worst among all shortstops with 200-plus plate appearances, but once the speedster starts making better contact and the Houston Astros improve offensively (it can't get much worse, right?), Villar should be up for a lot more run-scoring.
Brad Miller put together a solid rookie season, especially at Safeco Field, where he slashed .293/.345/.415 in 41 games there. This really wasn't a huge surprise considering he shot through the minors in a hurry, starting 2012 in high-A ball and landed in Seattle 14 months later. His gaudy .334/.409/.516 line in his minor league career shows what a valuable batsman he can become. As the primary the leadoff hitter for the Seattle Mariners, Miller must be thrilled about what his team did in the offseason by beefing up the lineup with three strong run-producers in Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart.
Where's The Basement?
I'm not saying that Jimmy Rollins is done, but I can't see him producing more than one or two more good seasons before he hangs up the cleats. I like the fact that Rollins led all shortstops last season with 117 line drives (tied for 10th in the majors), but this is a 35-year-old player with a lot of mileage (he has averaged 149 games per season since 2001). He also has been too much a product of Citizens Bank Ballpark since 2008, with a .267 batting average and .415 slugging percentage at home compared with a .248 BA and .392 SLG on the road. With the Philadelphia Phillies predicted by some (myself excluded) to be the worst team in the National League this year, Rollins likely won't improve upon his career-low 39 RBIs or 65 runs, which was the second-lowest output of his career.
Derek Jeter, who will turn 40 in June, managed to play just 17 games last year because of his ankle injury, batting .190 with two extra-base hits in those 73 plate appearances. While all signs point to Jeter being 100 percent healthy on Opening Day 2014, this is not a player who should be starting in standard mixed leagues. He is more suited for an American League-only middle-infielder slot as someone who will hit for a quality batting average and score a decent number of runs within a powerful lineup that added Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to make up for the losses of Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. Jeter is no longer a lock for either double-digit steals or 10-plus homers.
Steady As He Goes
J.J. Hardy is such an undervalued fantasy option, as he doesn't fit the typical shortstop mold of high average and good speed. Hardy is more like a corner infielder, averaging 26 homers, 75 RBIs and 76 runs in his three seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. Last year, Hardy's 260 total bases ranked second among all shortstops (behind only Ian Desmond), in part because he made a conscious effort to be more selective at the plate. Hardy cut down his strikeout totals by 33 in 2013, which helped increase his batting average 25 points and upped his on-base percentage by 24 points. Hardy wound up with the same exact batting average (.263) as BABIP (.263), indicating that his average still has room to improve.
Alexei Ramirez is not what you'd call a selective hitter, as his 3.9 percent walk rate ranked fourth-lowest in the majors in 2013. However, he was able to produce 114 line drives last season, which ranked second among shortstops and helped him post a .284 BA, his highest average since his 2008 rookie season. Because Ramirez has been so durable, playing at least 156 games in each of the past four seasons, his counting numbers are always going to be strong. And although the weak Chicago White Sox lineup last year struggled to put runners on base for Ramirez to drive in, he was able to generate some action with his legs, swiping a career-high 30 bases. He'd be a good candidate to get another 25 steals this year.
Thanks But No Thanks: The Do Not Draft List
A number of deficiencies popped up in Brandon Crawford's offensive game last year. Not only did he bat .199 with a .546 OPS against lefties, post a .221 batting average and .601 OPS in night games and hit .235 with a 2.7 K/BB ratio on the road, but he was just atrocious in every situation after Aug. 10. In those final 38 games, Crawford tallied a .164 BA, .236 OBP and .242 SLG. While his glove is slick enough to retain his starting job no matter how poorly he hits, Crawford has no business starting on a fantasy baseball team.
Ruben Tejada's offensive numbers conjure up memories of Rey Ordonez, who posted a .594 OPS in seven seasons as the New York Mets' starting shortstop. Tejada actually fell way below the Ordonez line last year with a pathetic .519 OPS. He slugged .260 last season, which was the second-lowest rate among the 337 major leaguers with at least 225 plate appearances, finishing ahead of only Jamey Carroll. Among this same group of major leaguers, Tejada finished third-worst in weighted on-base average (.235) and eighth-worst in well-hit average (.095). He "treated" the Citi Field fans to a .189/.272/.262 slash, slugged .212 versus right-handed pitching and closed out his horrific campaign by batting .155 with a .375 OPS over his final 30 games. The 24-year-old has no place to go but up, but he's just not worth the risk of crushing your fantasy team's average until he gets there.
The shortstop position is loaded with elite prospects; ESPN Insider Keith Law ranks five shortstops among the top seven overall players in his Top 100 prospects of 2014. They are: Xander Bogaerts, Addison Russell, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez. All five of these prospects are 21 or younger, and the only one who will definitely play in the majors in 2014 is the Red Sox's Bogaerts, who is only third base-eligible. Russell has probably a 50/50 chance of nailing down the starting job for the Oakland Athletics midway through the season.
Points Versus Roto
Points-based fantasy leagues utilize total bases or on-base percentage, as some of these leagues reward points for walks, and doubles and triples are more valuable than in a rotisserie format. Two players who should be targeted in the later rounds of points-based formats are Jhonny Peralta and Erick Aybar. Peralta is an intriguing player this season on his new team, the St. Louis Cardinals, and he'll likely continue to pile up the total bases. The 31-year-old shortstop has averaged more than 50 extra-base hits per season since 2005, and his remarkable durability will keep his counting stats among the tops at his position. This is especially true for the power categories; he has averaged 17 homers and 75 RBIs per season during this nine-year run.
Although Aybar had the fifth-worst walk rate in the majors last season (3.9 percent), he does a great job producing in the other categories, especially steals and runs. Over the past five seasons, he has averaged 20 steals and 69 runs while batting a respectable .280 with seven homers and 49 RBIs. The switch-hitting Aybar batted mostly first or second last season, and should score plenty of runs in a Los Angeles Angels lineup that features Mike Trout, a healthy Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and newcomers David Freese and Raul Ibanez.
Roto-based fantasy leagues look for the specialists, which for the shortstop position includes players that hit for a high average and have speed to burn. Nobody has more raw speed than Everth Cabrera and Alcides Escobar. Cabrera has the third-most steals in the majors since 2012, swiping 81 bags in just 210 games. He also batted .283 last season, although there's no telling how much the PEDs he was suspended for played a part in the above numbers, because entering 2013, Cabrera was a .240 lifetime hitter.
Meanwhile, fantasy owners had to wonder why Escobar didn't attempt more steals last season, as he finished a perfect 22-for-22 in steal attempts. But as the saying goes, you can't steal first base, and Escobar had all kinds of trouble getting aboard last season. Not only did the speedster have the second-lowest walk rate (3.0 percent) in the majors, but he posted an appalling .207 batting average in a "hitter's count," which was the second-worst rate in the major leagues. And when he did make contact, Escobar didn't hit a lot of sweet spots, as his .095 well-hit average was -- you guessed it -- also second-worst among all qualified MLB hitters.
The shortstop position doesn't offer a lot of elite options, as there is a significant drop-off after the top seven. If you wait to pick your shortstop until after these seven are gone, there is no need to reach, as the next 10 players on the list are all pretty similar in terms of fantasy value. However, National League-only leagues need to be more wary of who is available, because there are some horrible NL offensive shortstops, such as Brandon Crawford and Ruben Tejada, who can hurt you more than help you, thus limiting your options.
Brian Gramling previews the shortstop position for fantasy baseball for the 2014 season.