Commentary

2011 Position Preview: Shortstops

Level of talent falls off very quickly after truly elite options go off board

Updated: March 9, 2011, 3:36 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

In 2007, there were 10 shortstops who hit more than 15 home runs, eight of whom hit at least 20. Those were the days. Over the past three seasons, you'd be hard-pressed to find power -- call it a power "short-age" if you will -- as last season saw only four men top 20 homers at the position.

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In AL-only leagues, the trend is even sadder. Forgetting Alex Gonzalez -- who hit 17 of his 23 homers last season for the Toronto Blue Jays before being shipped to Atlanta -- only Jhonny Peralta and Carlos Guillen have topped 20 since 2007 and neither player plays shortstop as his primary position anymore.

A look at the "average shortstop" last season is offensively anemic: 10 home runs, 52 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 14 stolen bases and a .266 batting average (based on the average stats of all players who played 50 percent or more games at shortstop and had at least 400 plate appearances in 2010.) What makes matters worse, if you take Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki stats out of the mix, your average shortstop looks an awful lot like Ronny Cedeno of the Pittsburgh Pirates. If that doesn't scare you into taking one of the elite guys early, I don't know what else will.

Overall, 2010 shortstops had the lowest OPS (.693) of any non-pitcher position in the league, and expecting 2011 to get much better overall is probably a fantasy in and of itself. There are two ways to combat this -- either go with the flow, grab your speedster who won't kill you in average (Elvis Andrus, Alexi Casilla, Erick Aybar) or grab one of the few guys who can actually provide you with some pop (Juan Uribe, J.J. Hardy) and hope for the best in the other categories.

Either way, the majority of owners in your league are going to be playing shortstop from way deep in the hole, and I'm not sure the strength is there to beat the rest of the league to first if you don't strike quickly.

The cream of the crop

Shortstop Rankings

1. Hanley Ramirez, Fla, SS, $34
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Col, SS, $27
3. Jose Reyes, NYM, SS, $19
4. Derek Jeter, NYY, SS, $15
5. Jimmy Rollins, Phi, SS, $15
6. Elvis Andrus, Tex, SS, $13
7. Alexei Ramirez, CWS, SS, $12
8. Stephen Drew, Ari, SS, $10
9. Ian Desmond, Was, SS, $9
10. Rafael Furcal, LAD, SS, $8
11. Starlin Castro, ChC, SS, $7
12. Erick Aybar, LAA, SS, $5
13. Alcides Escobar, KC, SS, $4
14. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Min, 2B/SS, $4
15. Asdrubal Cabrera, Cle, SS, $3
16. Yunel Escobar, Tor, SS, $3
17. Ryan Theriot, StL, 2B/SS, $0
18. Jhonny Peralta, Det, 3B/SS, $0
19. Juan Uribe, LAD, SS/3B/2B, $0
20. J.J. Hardy, Bal, SS, $0
21. Marco Scutaro, Bos, SS, $0
22. Reid Brignac, TB, 2B/SS, $0
23. Miguel Tejada, SF, 3B/SS, $0
24. Alexi Casilla, Min, SS/2B, $0
25. Jason Bartlett, SD, SS, $0
26. Orlando Cabrera, Cle, SS, $0
27. Yuniesky Betancourt, Mil, SS, $0
28. Cliff Pennington, Oak, SS, $0
29. Alex Gonzalez, Atl, SS, $0
30. Clint Barmes, Hou, 2B/SS, $0
31. Edgar Renteria, Cin, SS, $0
32. Ronny Cedeno, Pit, SS, $0
33. Brendan Ryan, Sea, SS, $0
34. Jed Lowrie, Bos, 2B/SS, $0
35. Jamey Carroll, LAD, SS/2B, $0
36. Felipe Lopez, TB, 3B/2B/SS, $0
37. Geoff Blum, Ari, SS, $0
38. Jerry Hairston Jr., Was, SS/2B, $0
39. Tyler Greene, StL, SS, $0
40. Jason Donald, Cle, SS/2B, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

Let's put Hanley Ramirez's 2010 in its proper perspective, shall we? He couldn't lift the ball at all, with a career-high 51 percent ground-ball rate. As a result, he had what was arguably his worst season ever, hitting just .300 with only 21 home runs and 76 RBIs. Yet even with this "horrific down year," he still ranked 12th overall in the ESPN Player Rater, ahead of Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday and David Wright. If he can be the top-rated shortstop when he's at his worst, is there any doubt at all that he's the clear-cut tops at shortstop for 2011? Heck, he might well get 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 30-plus steals, which, quite frankly, merits consideration as the No. 1 overall pick.

Not counting Ramirez, there were only four shortstops who had more home runs last season than the 15 hit by Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies … in September alone. That stellar month added the "extra" to what would have been considered an otherwise ordinary year, especially given the fact the shortstop missed six weeks with a broken wrist. Sure, you can argue all you want that his numbers are a byproduct of Coors Field, and the .312 home/.269 road split would probably help make your case, but so what? The fantasy stats count just the same.

The next best thing

After those sure things, there's a big drop down to the next man on our list, Jose Reyes. The New York Mets' shortstop isn't what we thought he'd be by now, as his power numbers have slowly but surely gone the way of the dinosaur. If he can avoid a repeat of his injury woes of recent years, he still has plenty of speed to share and could score up to 100 runs. Unfortunately, Reyes also has about same shot at maxing out at 50 RBIs as he does 50 stolen bases, and even that might be pushing it if he doesn't improve upon his awful 5.1 walk percentage.

Now let's talk a bit about the stats you should expect this season from a shortstop ranked No. 4 on our list. At best, we're looking at around 15 home runs, 70 RBIs and 100 runs scored and a batting average around .280. If we throw in 20 steals or so on top of that, does that sound reasonable to you?

The only question is who is more likely to achieve those numbers: Derek Jeter or Jimmy Rollins?

We say it is Jeter, who in 2010 had what was arguably the worst season of his career. It was also arguably his unluckiest, as his BABIP was a career-low .307. Is age finally catching up to Jeter? We're not so sure, since the Yankees captain had 700 plate appearances for the sixth time in seven seasons since turning 30. That's plenty of chances to accumulate those "counting stats," as the odds of him being benched, even with an extended slump, are slim to none. Plus, after a year when he hit nearly two-third of balls on the ground, Jeter is working on fixing his clearly flawed swing. This is a man on a mission. Yes, some year the bottom is going to completely drop out from beneath him, but 2011 is not that year.

Rollins, on the other hand, played only 88 games last season, as he battled hamstring and calf injuries. He had offseason surgery to remove cysts from his wrist. He may be four years younger than Jeter, but his body seems much worse for wear. He's never hit .300 for a season, not even in 2005 when he closed out the year with a 36-game hitting streak. Plus, while he does play in a park where home runs are a frequent occurrence, his pop rarely produces RBIs. Out of the 151 times he's hit the ball over the wall and touched them all, on 90 of those occasions he did so solo, and another 41 times only one man was on base.

Explain to me again why Rollins is the far safer choice here, because I don't see it.

Where's the ceiling?

Next on our list is a group of guys with plenty of upside on the surface, but without a trustworthy track record to back up the hype.

First, there's Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers. He's a virtual lock for 30 stolen bases, but that's the only reason to draft him, as he failed to hit a single home run last season. The concern here is that although he had 133 more plate appearance in 2010 than in 2009, and his OBP actually increased slightly to .342 for the year, he actually stole one fewer base, and -- more frighteningly -- was caught stealing 15 times. Hopefully, with maturity will come some restraint.

With Alexei Ramirez, restraint is also a problem. Last year saw his strikeout totals rise, while his walks dropped from 49 to 27. Yes, there could be a 25-homer/20-steal season lurking around the corner, but we said that last year, and the year before. With a 48 percent ground-ball rate, he's never going to get there. He is what he is, just like the Arizona Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew, who tantalized fantasy owners with 21 home runs in 2008, but has yet to approach that total since. He surprised with double-digit steals last season, but was also caught five times, making it appear to be more "opportunity" than skill that led to that career-high (and possibly unrepeatable) total.

Then there's Ian Desmond. He showcased a little bit of pop (10 home runs) to go along with a little bit of speed (17 steals) last season, but often looked lost at the plate, to the tune of 109 strikeouts. Still, given his low HR/FB rate of 7.7 percent, there's a chance the power numbers might surprise in 2011.

Where's the basement?

The next tier is one we'd rather not have to resort to delving into, though these guys are all certainly capable of pulling off a surprise season.

Rafael Furcal certainly put up better numbers in 97 games in 2010 than he did in 150 games in 2009, but missing two months of the year with two different stints on the disabled list? We're already behind the eight ball at shortstop without bringing a brittle body into the mix.

[+] EnlargeStarlin Castro
Jerry Lai/US PresswireStarlin Castro's .300 season in 2010 was mostly overshadowed by many of his fellow rookies.

Next up is Alcides Escobar, who stole 42 bases at Triple-A in 2009 before getting the call to the Milwaukee Brewers. Since then, we've been treated to a whopping 14 steals in 686 plate appearances, and we're wondering if we weren't sold a bill of goods here. Home runs aren't happening, and have mercy on our souls if he continues on the path laid out by his .225 second-half batting average in 2010. Oh, and did we mention he's now with the Kansas City Royals? Sigh.

Starlin Castro handled the big leagues as a 20-year-old rookie, but it looks like he's going to be a guy who is more valuable for his glove than his bat. For the Chicago Cubs, that might be great, but for fantasy? Obviously the sample size is small, but .300 might be unsustainable given the number of ground balls he hits, and he doesn't have the power to make up for it with the long ball.

Lastly, moving on to Erick Aybar; here's a guy with speed to spare. If only he could consistently get on base to use it! He'll go on an eight-game hitting streak, then come back with an 0-for-20. If you're playing in a weekly head-to-head league, you're bound to pull out whatever's left of your hair trying to guess the timing of his cold spells, but in a rotisserie-styled full slate of games, he's bound to be a bright spot in stolen bases, and if the chips fall just right, the average might well surprise you.

Flying away on a wing and a prayer

It's curious that folks are so down on Marco Scutaro. Did he match his outstanding 2009 season? Actually, he came pretty darn close -- and with all of the love to Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and all the other Boston Red Sox, why does it seem that Scutaro is the only one projected to have a down season? Yes, uber-utility man Jed Lowrie looms, so it pays to be cautious here -- but I can't help being a bit optimistic.

That's not how I feel about Asdrubal Cabrera. Yes, some bounce-back is to be expected after his 2010 was marred by a fractured forearm, but even throwing out his lackluster performance in the 425 plate appearances he did manage to get, he seems far more likely to have a repeat of 2008 (.259) than 2009 (.308) in our book.

Yunel Escobar moved to one of the most home run-friendly parks in baseball when he was traded to Toronto, and although he did hit four more than the zero blasts he had with the Atlanta Braves, he actually hit the ball on the ground nearly 7 percent more often in his new digs. For fantasy purposes, that's not an approach we're going to approach.

Even though Jhonny Peralta started to boost his power numbers once he was shipped off to the Detroit Tigers, there was practically no difference in his isolated power (ISO) with the change of scenery. To me, that speaks a bit more to luck than design. With fellow potential slugger J.J. Hardy, the problem is one of health. In 2009, we excused him due to a bad back. Last year, it was his wrist that was to blame for the lack of pop. What part of his body will fail him in 2011?

Believe it or not, it's just me

Our last tier of guys you might consider in anything short of the deepest of leagues begins with Juan Uribe. As a team, the Los Angeles Dodgers hit only 120 home runs last season and only 61 at home. It's true that Uribe hit more home runs at Dodger Stadium as a member of the San Francisco Giants than at any other road park in 2010, but that .215 road batting average gives us the willies.

More new homes raise new fears for both Jason Bartlett and Yuniesky Betancourt. Bartlett is no spring chicken at 30, and going from 30 steals to 11 last year is a huge red flag. Then again, so was the batting-average plunge from .320 to .254. That's not a good sign as he packs his bags for Petco. Meanwhile Betancourt, who had a solid August in 2010 to hide an otherwise sad season in Kansas City, moves to Miller Park where a deeper left field wall might put an end to his sudden power surge.

Finally, there's Alex Gonzalez who had a solid 23-home run season, but most of that was before his trade to Atlanta, and at the age of 34, he's coming off his first full year since 2004. Yes, that's doubt you hear, Sister Aloysius. We have doubt!

Bottom line

It's not a given that you're going to lose your league without spending a first-round pick on Han-Ram or Tulo, but why make things more difficult than they need to be? Unfortunately, fate might leave you with too late a pick to have a say in the matter. If that's your lot, then be sure to grab Reyes, Rollins or Jeter no later than the end of Round 5. Failing that, you might as well hold your tongue until the late stages of the draft and cross your fingers that you catch lightning in a bottle with whatever is left.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.