- Brian Gramling, Fantasy
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The elite class isn't exactly brimming with names, but there is plenty of depth at shortstop this season. Thirteen shortstops are ranked in the overall top 140 (as of this writing), and five others fall just outside it. All 18 guys have potential to be everyday starters in 12-team mixed leagues. With the shortstops providing more value than second basemen, you'll more than likely want to fill your middle infield spot with a shortstop.
Although this position has historically been comprised of Punch-and-Judy singles hitters, seven players at this position hit 15 or more homers in 2011. And although just five shortstops reached 70 RBIs, the depth was prevalent in this category, as well; 15 others posted at least 45 RBIs.
What you're really looking for in a shortstop is steals, runs and a high average. Thirteen shortstops recorded at least 20 steals, a dozen shortstops surpassed 70 runs and 16 shortstops batted .279 or better. You get the point. It's a deep position, so don't go wasting early-round picks on a shortstop unless his name rhymes with "School of Fish key" or he plays his home games in Miami.
If you play in an NL-only league, note that the top five shortstops in our initial rankings are all National Leaguers. However, there's a big drop-off from No. 5 (Starlin Castro) to the next tier of National Leaguers, which placed 13th to 15th overall at the position initially (Dee Gordon, Stephen Drew and Marco Scutaro). Since the top seven AL shortstops rank 6th through 12th, and no higher, there likely is no shortstop worth drafting in the first four rounds of a standard AL-only draft.
Cream of the crop
1. Troy Tulowitzki, Col, SS (6)
2. Hanley Ramirez, Mia, SS (13)
3. Jose Reyes, Mia, SS (21)
4. Jimmy Rollins, Phi, SS (49)
5. Starlin Castro, ChC, SS (57)
6. Elvis Andrus, Tex, SS (60)
7. Asdrubal Cabrera, Cle, SS (63)
8. Alexei Ramirez, CWS, SS (85)
9. J.J. Hardy, Bal, SS (106)
10. Derek Jeter, NYY, SS (108)
11. Jhonny Peralta, Det, SS (123)
12. Erick Aybar, LAA, SS (126)
13. Dee Gordon, LAD, SS (130)
14. Marco Scutaro, Col, SS (165)
15. Yunel Escobar, Tor, SS (198)
16. Emilio Bonifacio, Mia, SS, 3B, OF (210)
17. Ian Desmond, Was, SS (233)
18. Sean Rodriguez, TB, SS, 2B, 3B (243)
19. Jason Bartlett, SD, SS (252)
20. Alcides Escobar, KC, SS (257)
21. Stephen Drew, Ari, SS (259)
22. Cliff Pennington, Oak, SS (277)
23. Zack Cozart, Cin, SS (288)
24. Rafael Furcal, StL, SS (295)
25. Jed Lowrie, Hou, SS, 3B (303)
26. Alex Gonzalez, Mil, SS (319)
27. Tyler Pastornicky, Atl, SS (364)
28. Eduardo Nunez, NYY, SS, 3B (369)
29. Ruben Tejada, NYM, 2B, SS (397)
30. Clint Barmes, Pit, SS (418)
31. Ryan Theriot, SF, SS, 2B (424)
32. Brendan Ryan, Sea, SS (446)
33. Alexi Casilla, Min, 2B, SS (455)
34. Robert Andino, Bal, 2B, SS, 3B (465)
35. Willie Bloomquist, Ari, SS, OF (471)
36. Tyler Greene, StL, 2B, SS (474)
37. Jamey Carroll, Min, 2B, SS (478)
38. Freddy Galvis, Phi, SS (492)
39. Andrelton Simmons, ATL, SS (517)
40. Miguel Tejada, FA, SS, 3B (531)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.
Just like the second-base position, there are three elite shortstops who should be drafted in the first two rounds of a 10- or 12-team league: Troy Tulowitzki and Marlins teammates Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. All three of these fantasy monsters are 28 or younger, and should be even better this year, in part because of quality additions to their respective lineups.
Tulowitzki missed 19 games last year but still smacked 30 homers, drove in 105 runs and scored 81 times. Look for even more run production in 2012 with all the offense Colorado picked up this offseason, most notably Michael Cuddyer, Casey Blake, Ramon Hernandez and Marco Scutaro. Of course, playing in Coors Field (best park in baseball for hits and second best for homers, according to ESPN Park Factors) helps his power numbers, as he posted a whopping .992 OPS at home over the past three seasons. But he's no chump away from Coors either, slugging .519 with 13 homers in 2011 road games. Tulowitzki is one of those rare players who can single-handedly win weeks in head-to-head leagues with his amazing streaks, and his post All-Star-break numbers since 2009 are just silly: .340 BA/.411 OBP/.629 SLG.
Ramirez was one of the bigger fantasy disappointments last year, missing nearly half the season because of a shoulder injury. The ailment seemed to affect his bat speed, as he hit fewer balls in the air and struggled to pull inside pitches. He's reportedly not thrilled about moving to third base to accommodate new acquisition Jose Reyes, but he should fare well under new manager Ozzie Guillen. Ramirez is ranked 12th overall in fantasy because he will start the year healthy and will be part of an ever-improving lineup. With Reyes, the 2011 NL batting champ, joining the fray, the RBI totals in the heart of the Marlins' lineup should increase.
Although the Mets actually outscored the Marlins 718 to 625 last year, the move to Miami should increase Reyes' run production. Hitting in front of players like Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez could equal 130 runs for Reyes if everybody stays healthy. The new Marlins ballpark is expected to favor hitters more than Sun Life Stadium did, but the fences still will be deep enough (340 feet to left, 384-392 in the power alleys, 416 to center and 335 to right) to allow the line drive-hitting Reyes to thrive. He produced a stat line of .319 BA/.371 OBP/.492 SLG in three seasons at spacious Citi Field, which included a .348 BA and 12 triples in the Mets' ballpark last season.
The next best thing
This next tier is comprised of four players who are all good enough to plug into your everyday lineup and leave there, no matter the situation.
Jimmy Rollins had a strong bounce-back campaign in 2011 and was rewarded with a lucrative, three-year contract in the offseason. He increased his batting average 25 points last season, and was solid in the other four categories with 16 homers, 63 RBIs, 87 runs and 30 steals. The one area of concern was his lack of doubles, which contributed to his meager .399 slugging percentage. After smacking at least 38 doubles in seven straight seasons from 2003 to 2009, Rollins had just 22 doubles in 567 at-bats in 2011. But he's still going to score boatloads of runs at the top of a strong batting order, and his RBI totals will remain high, as he has slugged .510 or better with runners in scoring position the past six straight seasons.
For a second-year player turning 22 in March, Starlin Castro was remarkably consistent last season, batting .307 with 10 steals before the All-Star break, then batting .307 with 12 steals after the Midsummer Classic. He hit .305 (.343 OBP) at Wrigley and .309 (.340 OBP) on the road. He even started to show a little power at the end of 2011; after totaling three homers in the season's first four months, he hit seven after Aug. 1. His fantasy ceiling is quite lofty.
Another great-looking young player is 23-year-old Elvis Andrus, who posted career-high numbers across the board in his third big league season, most notably 96 runs and 37 steals. He'll continue to bat second in a potent Rangers lineup and his power is developing, as he registered 12 more doubles and five more homers in 2011 than he had in 2010.
Speaking of power, if it's the long ball you crave, look no further than Asdrubal Cabrera, who somehow jumped from three homers in 2010 to a whopping 25 in 2011. Granted, he had 223 more at-bats last year, but that was quite a leap. His most interesting split is his impressive .325 BA/.955 OPS with runners on base, as compared to a .238 BA/.680 OPS with the bases empty. At age 26, he's just entering his prime, so don't think 2011 was a fluke. Rather it's probably a sign of things to come.
Where's the ceiling?
Free-swinging speedster Dee Gordon sure is fun to watch, and thanks to his solid defense, he should be able to hang on to his spot in the lineup even through prolonged slumps. If you're fortunate enough to have him as a long-term keeper, his preposterous September 2011 numbers (.372 average, .849 OPS, 12 steals, 21 runs) should give you confidence heading into this season.
Tyler Pastornicky could begin 2012 as Atlanta's starting shortstop, but the Braves might keep him in Triple-A until they can't stomach Jack Wilson's weak offense any longer. The 22-year-old Pastornicky played only 27 games at Triple-A Gwinnett last season, but he made quite a splash by batting .365 with seven steals.
Where's the basement?
Alex Gonzalez will be playing for his fifth team in four years when he dons the Brewers' uniform this year. He remains a cheap source of power (38 homers over the past two seasons), but that comes at too heavy a price considering his brutal qualitative career numbers: .247 BA/.291 OBP/.399 SLG.
Mid-round sleepers: Erick Aybar, Yunel Escobar
Late-round sleepers: Ian Desmond, Yuniesky Betancourt
Prospects: Tyler Pastornicky, Eric Sogard
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: J.J. Hardy
Player to trade at All-Star break: Clint Barmes
Player to trade for at ASB: Ian Desmond
Home heroes: Yunel Escobar, Jhonny Peralta
Road warriors: Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Pennington
Player I inexplicably like: Yuniesky Betancourt
Player I inexplicably dislike: Marco Scutaro
Jed Lowrie probably will wind up with 450-500 at-bats this season, but that won't equate to a big fantasy year hitting in the Astros' horrible lineup. He's a switch-hitter with slightly more power as a right-handed batter, but his splits in the past three seasons are quite puzzling. From the right side of plate, he has posted an excellent .322 batting average and .912 OPS; from the left side, Lowrie has posted a stomach-turning .209 average and .625 OPS. This latter line conjures up memories of Adam Everett, who left Houston after posting a mind-numbing .599 OPS (.281 OBP, .318 SLG) in 2007.
Rafael Furcal was certainly better in St. Louis (.734 OPS) than he was in Los Angeles (.520 OPS) last year, but his days of being a productive fantasy leaguer are long gone. He stole just nine bases last year and batted .225 in 28 regular-season games at Busch Stadium. And he'll also be overvalued as the leadoff hitter for the defending world champions. But unless you're in an NL-only league, there are much better (and younger) options to choose in mixed leagues.
Steady as he goes
Alexei Ramirez has been remarkably consistent over the past three seasons:
2009: .277 BA, 15 HRs, 68 RBIs, 71 runs, 14 SB
2010: .282 BA, 18 HRs, 70 RBIs, 83 runs, 13 SB
2011: .269 BA, 15 HRs, 70 RBIs, 81 runs, 7 SB
His lineup may be a tad weaker in 2012, but if Adam Dunn bounces back even somewhat, Ramirez could approach 100 runs batting in the two-hole in the White Sox's lineup.
Despite missing 31 games last season, Derek Jeter, who turns 38 in June, still managed to score 80-plus runs for the 16th straight season and collect 60-plus RBIs for the 15th time. His .297 average and 16 steals weren't too shabby, either. As long as you don't expect the 2006 version of Jeter to resurrect himself, you can be confident he'll remain an above-average fantasy shortstop.
Jhonny Peralta shined in his first full season in the Motor City, finishing with a .299 average, 21 homers and 86 RBIs. And with Prince Fielder and his .415 OBP coming to town, Peralta should have more opportunities to drive in runs. As long as you can deal with his complete lack of steals (9-for-25 in SB attempts in his career), Peralta will continue to be a productive player you don't have to spend a lot of money to get.
Thanks but no thanks: The "Do not Draft" list
Odds are that somebody at your auction draft is still in love with Stephen Drew. Don't be that guy. He fractured his right ankle on July 20 and might not be 100 percent healed when the season starts. Drew probably won't lose his starting job to the speedy Willie Bloomquist, but it's probably no coincidence that the Diamondbacks were 49-32 (.605) when Bloomquist started last year.
Jason Bartlett is just three years removed from a 2009 campaign in which he posted a .320 average, with 14 homers, 90 runs and 30 steals. Boy that seems like a lifetime ago. In his first NL stint in San Diego, Bartlett slugged .307, which was actually worse than his .308 on-base percentage. His Petco Park numbers were simply dreadful: .224 average, .281 slugging, 50 K's, 23 walks. With the Padres' lineup still being among the worst in the majors, there's little chance that Bartlett can post respectable numbers, and there's an even slimmer chance of him regaining his 2009 production.
No matter how many at-bats he gets, or how crazy his facial hair will look in 2012, Brendan Ryan should be avoided at all costs. His secure starting role in Seattle actually makes him more of a detriment to your fantasy team than an asset. In 494 plate appearances in his first season with the Mariners, Ryan posted a .248 BA and .326 SLG. His numbers at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field were even more atrocious: .225 BA, .261 SLG. No, that's not a typo. He really had a home slugging percentage of .261, notching just seven extra-base hits in 260 plate appearances in Seattle.
Points versus Roto
When playing in points leagues, you want to target players who rack up total bases and post a higher on-base percentage. A couple of guys to keep your eye on in this format are Ian Desmond and J.J. Hardy. Desmond isn't a huge home run guy (just eight last year), but he tallied 27 doubles and five triples in 2011. He also swiped 25 bases and scored 65 times, which made up for his subpar .253 batting average. Hardy crushed 30 homers last year, with half of those bombs coming outside of Camden Yards. He has averaged less than one steal per season and is a lifetime .264 hitter, but 80 RBIs and 76 runs will boost your fantasy point total quite nicely.
In terms of Roto league specialists, you'll want guys with high batting averages who look to steal bases. Emilio Bonifacio is a shining example of this kind of player. After playing sparingly in 2010, he got his chance to play every day and responded with a .296 average and 40 stolen bases. And with Jose Reyes coming to town, Bonifacio figures to earn another 550-plus at-bats as Miami's speedy center fielder.
There's an elite trio of shortstops who deserve to be picked among the top 20 overall. Troy Tulowitzki is a first-rounder in any format, and the Miami duo of Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes provides huge production in every category. The next tier of shortstops (3-5 players) are all solid mid-round picks, but there are also steady veterans such as Derek Jeter and Jhonny Peralta who pose very little risk on draft day. There is plenty of depth behind these guys with some speedy, young players on the rise.
In other words, after the top three shortstops are gone, shift your attention to the power positions of first base and outfield, then return to shortstop later if you didn't get a top guy.
Brian Gramling previews the shortstop position for fantasy baseball for the 2012 season.