- Brendan Roberts, Fantasy
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Arguably no position in the past 10 years has been more volatile in terms of fantasy value than shortstop.
We saw a golden age of shortstops early in the previous decade, when Alex Rodriguez was still playing there. Three years later, there was a sudden lack of depth there. Three years after that, there was plenty of depth and top options there; it was a downright strong fantasy option. Last year, it appeared to lack depth, and now, while there is actually plenty of depth, there are few top options.
Being able to spot trends and characteristics of a position is important in fantasy, and if I were to "label" this position in terms of draft strategy, I'd say you should draft a shortstop either in the first four rounds (of a 10-team league), or not until Round 10 or after. You have top multicategory options, then you have a handful of guys who might specialize in one category or another, but have roughly the same overall value. So in those in-between rounds, you can focus on positions that have a deeper set of top-tier players (first base, outfield, third base) and then come back to think about a shortstop.
Should you miss out on a top option, the depth at shortstop allows you to react in the middle rounds to what has happened in your draft. For instance, looking a bit light in steals after several picks? Grab Jason Bartlett or Elvis Andrus, or wait a bit longer and get Alcides Escobar, Ryan Theriot or Everth Cabrera. Need a little boost in batting average? Might I suggest Asdrubal Cabrera, Yunel Escobar, Erick Aybar or even Miguel Tejada? Or maybe you actually need to focus on homers? Maybe Stephen Drew or Alexei Ramirez can help there. Or even runs, if you're tracking them? There's Rafael Furcal and Marco Scutaro.
The "Golden Age" of shortstops is gone, but there's enough of the oldies-but-goodies hanging around, and plenty of new talent coming in, that this position is at least in a Bronze Age.
There are five shortstops in this group, but really just one who can be considered a safe top-20 pick: Hanley Ramirez. Albert Pujols' magnificent 2009 season makes him the favorite to go No. 1 overall, but nobody at the table or in the draft room should laugh if you took Hanley first overall. In fact, as deep as first base is once again this year, you might even be better off taking a shortstop who contributes well in all five categories. Hanley does have a slight amount of risk in that he does seem to suffer a few nicks or strains each year (usually a shoulder problem), and one of those could eventually land him on the DL. But he has been able to play through it in past years, doing so without compromising his performance.
Next up is the emerging Troy Tulowitzki and the steady Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins. Our projections for Tulo are quite healthy, but it's nothing he hasn't done before. He posted a fine .297-32-92-20 season in 2009, so the question here is whether you believe he can do it again. He was just so bad in 2008, which was supposed to be his breakout season. But consider three things: (1) He was hurt much of 2008; (2) scouts projected him to be this good anyway; and (3) he's only 25. All signs point to him being the real deal. As for Jeter, what can you say? In an age-35 season many predicted would begin his decline, he hit for the fourth-highest average in his 15-year career and stole 30 bases.
1. Hanley Ramirez, FLA, SS, $33
2. Troy Tulowitzki, COL, SS, $24
3. Derek Jeter, NYY, SS, $23
4. Jimmy Rollins, PHI, SS, $21
5. Jose Reyes, NYM, SS, $14
6. Elvis Andrus, TEX, SS, $12
7. Stephen Drew, ARI, SS, $11
8. Jason Bartlett, TB, SS, $11
9. Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE, 2B, SS, $9
10. Alexei Ramirez, CHW, SS, $9
11. Yunel Escobar, ATL, SS, $9
12. Erick Aybar, LAA, SS, $7
13. Rafael Furcal, LAD, SS, $7
14. Alcides Escobar, MIL, SS, $5
15. Ryan Theriot, CHC, SS, $3
16. Everth Cabrera, SD, SS, $2
17. J.J. Hardy, MIN, SS, $2
18. Maicer Izturis, LAA, 2B, SS, $2
19. Marco Scutaro, BOS, SS, $1
20. Miguel Tejada, BAL, SS, $1
21. Brendan Ryan, STL, SS, $-
22. Jhonny Peralta, CLE, SS, 3B, $-
23. Orlando Cabrera, CIN, SS, $-
24. Julio Lugo, STL, 2B, SS, $-
25. Ian Desmond, WAS, SS, $-
26. Luis Valbuena, CLE, 2B, SS, $-
27. Edgar Renteria, SF, SS, $-
28. Mike Aviles, KC, SS, $-
29. Cristian Guzman, WAS, SS, $-
30. Jerry Hairston Jr., SD, 3B, SS, OF, $-
31. Emilio Bonifacio, FLA, SS, 3B, $-
32. Cliff Pennington, OAK, SS, $-
33. Alex Gonzalez, TOR, SS, $-
34. Juan Uribe, SF, 2B, SS, 3B, $-
35. Willie Bloomquist, KC, SS, OF, $-
36. Cesar Izturis, BAL, SS, $-
37. Ronny Cedeno, PIT, SS, $-
38. Nick Punto, MIN, 2B, SS, $-
39. Tyler Greene, STL, SS, $-
40. Tommy Manzella, HOU, SS, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.
Then you have a pair of wild cards. Well, Rollins isn't so much a wild card because you know he'll be valuable, you just don't know what categories he'll be valuable in. From his 2008 to 2009, his batting average dropped 27 points and his steals by 16, yet he almost doubled his homer output and scored 24 more runs. What are we supposed to do with that? Well, we split the difference and hope he doesn't get off to a miserably slow start again this season. But if you're wondering where we fall in terms of what type of player Rollins is, 2008 or 2009, then it's definitely 2009.
Now Jose Reyes, he's a wild card. He was a top-10 option at this time last year, but was limited to just 36 games in 2009 because of a hamstring injury. At age 26, he's in the prime of his career, and he did have surgery to repair the hamstring. But let me warn you that 2009 wasn't the first time Reyes has had hamstring problems. He burst on the scene in 2003 before losing much of 2004 because of injuries to both hamstrings. That isn't really being talked about much, but perhaps this could become chronic, which isn't good for a player whose value comes from his legs more than anything else. Also, Reyes just got back to running full-speed in early February, so it's not like he was healthy and rarin' to go all offseason. It's just not safe to expect a return to stardom from someone who has been hampered by an injury for almost nine months. Like with a pitcher coming off surgery, expect Reyes to ease back into becoming the player he once was, if he becomes that player at all.
The Next Level
As I noted before, there's a drop from that top tier to this one. Quite a drop, in fact -- probably some 60-70 picks. But hey, five shortstops get only so far, and you'd be just fine if you ended up with Jason Bartlett, Alexei Ramirez or Erick Aybar.
Bartlett again showed good stolen-base potential -- he set a career high with 30 steals -- but he did something he hadn't previously: hit for average, hit for power and score runs. In his age-30 season, Bartlett's average jumped 44 points, his homers jumped from a measly one to 14, and his steals from 20 to 30. Thing is, his balls-in-play average was .364, nearly unsustainable even for a player with good speed. So let's just say we think he's closer to the hitter who batted .294 after the All-Star break than the one who hit .347 before it. That said, we don't see why he can't repeat his other four numbers, which is why he's firmly in this tier, and a fine midround pick.
Ramirez was supposed to be at the level above by now, or so we thought. But turns out the one concern we all had about him came into play: He swings at entirely too many pitches. Once again, Ramirez finished in the bottom 30 among qualified hitters in pitches per plate appearance in 2009, and in his case, he simply makes too much contact. He puts too many pitches into play, and makes outs on them. That's what limits both his batting average and home runs, and at age 28, it's unlikely he's going to show much more patience at this point. So don't look for that breakout, but sit back and enjoy modest five-category production.
As for Aybar, he just had a fine breakout season. While there's nothing in his scouting background or numbers to suggest he'll take another step forward, there's no reason that at age 26 he can't repeat the season he just had. You're pretty safe to expect something close to that.
Where's The Ceiling?
More players in that massive 10th-15th-round tier (and a few below that) who could jump into "no shortstop's land," also known as Rounds 5-9.
Elvis Andrus is definitely toward the top of the "next level" guys, but unlike the players above, we don't know exactly how valuable he'll get. We saw a lot of nice things from him in his rookie season, including a .280 average and 17 steals after the All-Star break. But we also saw him hit just .267, with just 40 walks and a mediocre .373 slugging percentage, and that can't be disregarded. He's going to steal plenty of bases (50 maybe?) this season, but we don't know whether he's more the Jose Reyes type or the Carlos Gomez type just yet.
That breakout season we expected from Stephen Drew, well, hasn't happened. But anybody who has actually seen the guy play knows he's eventually going to be an offensive force. He's a sound hitter; he just hasn't learned how to shake out of slumps like veteran hitters can. But give him time. He's a Drew, and brother J.D. wasn't as good as everyone expected right away either.
Quietly, Asdrubal Cabrera has emerged into an all-around force at a relatively young age (24). For being so young, he surprisingly has very few flaws in his game. He's a switch hitter who can hit both lefties and righties, he's successful on a high percentage of his steal attempts, he makes good contact, and he's a pretty good fielder, which should keep him in the lineup. No telling how good this guy can be.
Yunel Escobar gets better and better every year, at least with the bat. But he's simply not a base-stealer, and never will be. Plus, he has a disturbing trend of hitting much better against righty than lefty pitchers, something he must correct if he's going to take another step forward. Don't count on him doing it, although something close to what he did in '09 is achievable.
And finally, you have youngsters Alcides Escobar, Everth Cabrera and Ian Desmond. By all accounts, Escobar will be a star, but probably not in the home run category. Granted, the 23-year-old hasn't filled out yet, but you'd think if he had a power swing, he'd have hit more than 19 homers in almost 2,600 minor league plate appearances. But the kid can run, and 30 steals in his first full season is a real possibility. ... Everth is much the same player, but without the batting average. He has 40-steal (or more) speed, but he'll be a one-category performer. ... Desmond? We don't really know what type of player he is. He looked good enough in a late-season audition for the Nationals that the team has opened up the starting shortstop job for him, but it's worth noting that the best average he had posted in a minor league season before 2009 was .264. Don't look for immediate production.
Where's The Basement?
These are "trending down" players, and that pretty much sums up Rafael Furcal's 2009 season. No matter what metric you used, there was just nothing good about his performance. He set a career low in batting average, had just 12 steals and was even caught on 33 percent of his attempts. Furcal is only 32, but he's a high-mileage 32, and he has had nagging injuries in recent seasons. While we wouldn't be surprised if he bounced back some, returning to the level he was at three years ago is just not going to happen.
The same can be said about Miguel Tejada; then again, three years ago, Tejada posted a .330-24-100 season. Tejada hasn't had a power stroke in years, but he's still quite adept at lining pitches into gaps and bouncing the ball up the middle. ("Did you Know?" fact: Tejada has led the majors in grounding into double plays four times in the past six seasons.) While it seems Tejada is "ancient," he's still only 35. He'll continue to decline, but it likely won't be as fast as everyone thinks, allowing you to actually get the guy in the late-middle rounds at a bargain level.
And finally, there's J.J. Hardy. Good ol' 27-year-old J.J. Hardy. We expected him to match his very similar 2007 and 2008 seasons, but instead he flopped last year, then lost his job. Now that was his basement. Now in Minnesota, we expect him to return much closer to his 2008 level than his 2009 season.
Midround sleeper: Alcides Escobar
Late-round sleeper: Everth Cabrera
Prospect: Ian Desmond
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Jose Reyes
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Ryan Theriot
Player to trade for at the ASB: Troy Tulowitzki
Home hero: Stephen Drew
Road warrior: Erick Aybar
Player I like but can't explain why: Miguel Tejada
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Alexei Ramirez
Steady As She Goes
No need to expand much on these guys. They're like that dirty gas station that is the last stop for miles while driving through the desert. That old place might not be the highest quality, and the gas is overpriced, but you can get what you need there, and it sure beats the alternative. You take these players in the final five rounds of a mixed-league draft, and you can live with it. Because as I see it, as much of a gap as there is between the top-tier guys and the middle tier, there's an even bigger gap between these players and the "Do Not Draft" level below.
Marco Scutaro had a career season at age 33. But while we'd love to weigh heavily the 574 good at-bats he had last season, we also can't dismiss the 2,167 mediocre (or worse) at-bats that he had before that. Now with the Boston Red Sox, he'll be in a good lineup and should score plenty of runs still, but don't look for a repeat of his average, homers and steals numbers. ... Orlando Cabrera is solid and consistent. Nothing less, but also nothing more. ... Ryan Theriot is good for 20 steals and 80 runs, and that must account for something. But don't expect him to do much more than that. ... Maicer Izturis and Brendan Ryan have their moments; both can provide double-digit steals and a decent (high .280s) batting average if given regular time. ... And finally, I almost put Jhonny Peralta in the "Do Not Draft" category, but I'll cut him a break. I'm not a fan of his, but while he did hit just .254 and struck out 134 times in 2009, he shouldn't forget that he posted a .276-23-89 just the season before.
Start 'Em Elsewhere
Is shortstop deeper than third base? No way. But is it deeper than second base? Yes. In some years it isn't, but this year that middle tier of players is deep enough that you can fill your middle-infield slot with a shortstop. As such, here are a few players you might consider starting at second base (or elsewhere):
Cristian Guzman: Has been told he'll move to second base in 2009.
Luis Valbuena: Has qualification here, but likely will start at second base.
Julio Lugo: Nothing special, but he can still run, and Tony La Russa has reclaimed more obscure players than him.
Juan Uribe: Brings a low batting average to the table, but also brings double-digit homers and qualification at shortstop, third base and second base.
Willie Bloomquist: Before you roll your eyes, consider that he still should get plenty of playing time, stole 25 bases and qualifies at shortstop and in the outfield.
The Do-Not-Draft List
All right, let's get this over with. These players are ... hmm, what's a nice way to say this ... they're the type of players you want to make prove themselves before you consider them. Yeah, that's it.
Whomever the Kansas City Royals start between Yuniesky Betancourt and Mike Aviles: Betancourt is the early favorite, not that it matters much to us
Cliff Pennington: Might start for Oakland
Ronny Cedeno/Bobby Crosby: Likely will platoon for the Pittsburgh Pirates
Cesar Izturis: Still the Baltimore Orioles' starter
Adam Everett: Solid defense needed by the Detroit Tigers, but his stick isn't
Tommy Manzella/Jeff Keppinger: A likely platoon in Houston
The top tier at shortstop lacks depth, but the position overall has plenty of it, at least for mixed leaguers. So if you're the type of drafter who separates your rankings by position, be prepared to put away your list of shortstops for a bit after the first three to four rounds. Then pull it back out in Round 10 or so and find one of the many options ranked around that level. If you want to take it a step further, take notes about what categories you need to address after the first nine rounds, then use your shortstop pick to address it. In auction leagues, don't overpay for a midlevel shortstop because there are many similar options around that level.
Brendan Roberts has written about fantasy baseball and football for ESPN Fantasy.
9hMike Fish and David Purdum