- Brendan Roberts, Fantasy
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OK, maybe not. Then it drops way down to Derek Jeter, whom I've generously ranked No. 76 in my preseason Top 300. Wha-, wha-, what happened to the upper tier at shortstop? Three short years ago, as I look back, I had no fewer than seven shortstops ranked in the top 60 in my preseason rankings.
They're getting older, that's what's happening. Or moving positions (a la Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen). Nomar Garciaparra is washed up, Jeter's production has slipped, Miguel Tejada is just a shadow of his former self, Rafael Furcal is now injury-plagued, Edgar Renteria isn't as good as we once thought, Omar Vizquel can't run the same oh, and Jhonny Peralta, Bobby Crosby, Felipe Lopez, Bill Hall and Khalil Greene aren't as good as we thought they'd be.
I hate to tell you this, folks, but shortstop is weak again. Just like that, the glory days are gone.
Not that there aren't a handful of intriguing sleepers or serviceable options, but the days of having nine shortstops steal 24 or more bases and 12 shortstops hit 14 or more homers, as we did in 2006, are gone. Last season just five shortstops hit 14 or more homers, and only four stole 24 or more bases.
Now those top three guys look even better, huh? Yup, that's why I've put Reyes at No. 3 (ahead of Pujols).
As you'll see below, there are some up-and-comers, some of whom have upper-tier (but not elite) upside. And there are many serviceable options, which include your Jeters and Tejadas and Renterias. But if you don't get one of those Big Three in the first round or early second, put that SS ranking aside for a few rounds and focus on other positions. "Hey shortstops, don't call me I'll call you."
I miss the good ol' days already.
I'm on the Hanley Ramirez-for-No. 1 bandwagon, and have been since the day the 2008 season ended. After reading the above and then glancing at his numbers (.301 average, 33 homers, 35 steals, 125 runs) and age (25), you'll want to as well. There are third basemen who can at least approach A-Rod's all-around production, and first basemen who can get close to Pujols, but there's really nobody, except for maybe Rollins, who's even in the same galaxy in terms of all-around 5x5 production. Plus, Hanley is expected to slide back to third in the lineup (with Cameron Maybin leading off), which addresses the only semi-weak category (RBIs) that Hanley has.
Only Willy Taveras stole more bases in baseball than Jose Reyes, and Reyes finished third in the league in hits, tied for sixth in runs, first in triples. He was fifth among leadoff hitters with a respectable 68 RBIs. Oh, and he's 25. That 20-homer season some have been calling for still seems approachable but not a given -- the 16 he hit last season looks about right -- because he's such a line-drive hitter. But hey, you never know, he could "Rickey up" and hit in the 20s one of these seasons. Either way, he's a top pick.
Rollins' homers dropped from 30 in his 2007 NL MVP season to 11 last season, and yet he set a career high in steals. Ask any rotisserie owner if they'd rather have a career high in steals or homers, and they'd quickly tell you steals. The oddity about those numbers is that Rollins was placed on the DL for the first time in his career in April because of an ankle injury, and he was even a little tentative upon his return. It's a good sign; his wheels are for real. He should be good for another 38-plus steals, and I think he'll get his homers back above 15. Oh, and don't worry about his durability.
Like I said, there's a bit of a dropoff here, but there is a noticeable difference between these six shortstops and the ones below them. This tier can separate in two distinct classes, the veterans and the up-and-comers.
First, the veterans: Jeter, Rafael Furcal and Michael Young. You kind of know what to expect from Jeter: low-double-figures homers and steals, a modest RBI total, and I think he'll hit a little better than the .300 average he hit last season (his BABIP was uncharacteristically low last season). We have no idea what to expect from Furcal, however. He was tearing it up last April and early May before a debilitating back injury more or less wiped out the rest of his season. A good sign, however, is that he did have surgery to repair the problem, and appeared to return to form in the postseason. Plus, the Dodgers obviously felt good enough about him to offer him a $30 million guaranteed, three-year deal (and steal him away from the Braves in the process). Unless he has a setback this spring, owners can count on another fine season from him. The same can be said for Young, although fine for him isn't what it used to be. Maybe playing third base, where's he's expected to move at some point this season, will help keep his legs fresh and get him back to the .300 level again, but more than likely it won't make much difference.
As for the up-and-comers, I'd put Stephen Drew at the top of this tier, even though he likely won't be drafted as such. He was a legit prospect who was banged up in his rookie season, had a worse-than-expected sophomore season, but broke out last season (.291, 21 homers, 91 runs). At only 26 to start the season, he should be able to continue the build-up to maybe 25 homers this season. Troy Tulowitzki was banged up last season after tearing it up his rookie season. First a serious quad strain, and then an anger-caused hand injury. We can't lie to you; he was awful (by his standards) last season, with just eight homers in 377 at-bats and only one steal in seven attempts. But at this point, we're willing to call his injuries freak occurrences and call for him to pick up where he left off in 2007. And then we have the honor of putting Alexei Ramirez in here by the end of April. (He played 16 games at shortstop in 2008, which might not be enough in some leagues.) We discuss Ramirez at length in our 2B preview, but suffice it to say the Alfonso Soriano comparisons are just.
Mid-round sleeper: J.J. Hardy
Late-round sleeper: Emmanuel Burriss
Prospect: Tim Beckham (Reid Brignac for this season)
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Troy Tulowitzki
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Erick Aybar
Player to trade for at the All-Star break: Stephen Drew
Biggest risk: Rafael Furcal
Home hero: Cristian Guzman
Road warrior: Jeff Keppinger
Player I like but can't explain why: Mike Aviles
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Jhonny Peralta
To quote Toby Keith, these guys can say they aren't "as good as I once was." The aforementioned "serviceable" describes them best.
The Miguel Tejada decline makes me sad; the guy was such a staple on my teams in the first half of this decade. But a decline it is; his homers have dropped every season since 2004, and his average every season since 2006. And I'd be foolish to call for a reversal of that. At best, we'll have to hope for 2008 stats again. Jhonny Peralta burst on the scene with a .292-24-78 season in 2005, then fell back to where he was originally projected the following season. But very quietly he has crept back to those 2005 numbers, including a .276-23-89 performance in 2008. He strikes out too much to hit for .292 again, but a career mark in homers and RBIs is entirely possible. Orlando Cabrera did hit .298 in the second half last season, but he combined that with just two homers in 275 at-bats and four steals in eight attempts. For a guy who once hit 17 homers and stole 24 bases, that's just not gonna work. Now 34, even the White Sox didn't seem to want him this offseason. He still has potential for a decent average and runs total, depending upon where he hits in the lineup of whatever team signs him, but the days of double-figure homers are long gone, and the steals are working their way to that as well.
And on the lower end of the spectrum, a few players who once were fantasy darlings, to an extent, but now can be considered strictly replacement options: Nomar Garciaparra, Bobby Crosby, Julio Lugo.
The X Factor
Here's where things get interesting. These players have upside beyond what they've shown:
If J.J. Hardy could just avoid the extended slumps. In 2008, he had a .253 average and two homers before June 3. In 2007, he started hot but went homerless from June 26 to Aug. 10. In both cases, he ended up with respectable numbers, but it has us wondering where his true ceiling is. Is it 30 homers? We just can't be sure the power outages will go away. Mike Aviles and Emmanuel Burriss burst onto the scene with surprise performances (Aviles hit .325, Burris hit .283 and stole 13 bases), and we're not quite sure where they go from here. It's worth noting, however, that Aviles was hitting .336 in Triple-A when he got the call, and he's expected to start at shortstop again for the Royals. Burriss isn't guaranteed a starting job, but if he gets some 350-plus at-bats, 30 steals are almost guaranteed. After all, he stole 68 bases combined between two levels in 2007.
Ryan Theriot's steals and extra-base hits dropped in his second full season as a starter, yet his average jumped 41 points (to .307) and his OBP jumped 61 points (to .387). That doesn't make much sense. Maybe he's just a singles hitter who occasionally (instead of regularly) steals a base? Yunel Escobar couldn't emulate his .326 average from 2007. In fact, he couldn't even crack .300. Turns out he's also not much of a base-stealer (two steals in seven attempts). He didn't really do any one thing well, but he's still only 26, so we won't pass judgment yet. We've heard a lot of buzz about Elvis Andrus, but folks must realize it's mostly in relation to his fielding prowess, not his hitting. He's not ready to help much outside of the steal category (33 steals in 71 Double-A games in 2007).
Finally, two situations to keep an eye on: What the Angels will do with Brandon Wood and what the Rays will do with Ben Zobrist, Reid Brignac and 2008 first-overall draft pick Tim Beckham? If Wood starts regularly at shortstop (over Erick Aybar), then he deserves to be on a fantasy roster, or least on the bench. And Brignac is a legit prospect, with Beckham being young but even more of a legit prospect. They should be tracked.
Miss out on the guys above? Then just grab a guy you like, or can at least accept, below:
Cristian Guzman: I don't care if he hit .316 last season. I still see a 31-year-old who is a career .270 hitter.
Yuniesky Betancourt: Third time's a charm? In his third full season, Betancourt's average and steals both dropped.
Jason Bartlett: Good steals potential, but he could be turned into a utility player by Zobrist and/or Brignac.
Khalil Greene: Finally out of San Diego, but don't expect the homers to jump; Busch Stadium is no hitters' paradise.
Alex Gonzalez/Jeff Keppinger: One of these guys might be grab-worthy for homestands, though.
Brendan Harris/Nick Punto: No, they're not the same player; they just play like it.
Maicer Izturis/Cesar Izturis: No, they're not the same Izturis; they just play like it.
Those top options deserve big paychecks, even to the point where you could justify blowing past your "limit" to get one of 'em. Chances are pretty good they'll be worth it. After that, well, see how the rest of your auction is going. If it appears you're taking a lot of chances on upside players, then grab a Jeter or a Young or a Tejada. If you have some bankable numbers, go after a Yunel Escobar or Mike Aviles. Or overspend slightly for Stephen Drew. If you miss out on those guys as well, you're looking at a $1 or $2 option at shortstop. If one of those "filler options" goes for more than that, let 'em go. This is as good a position as any to save money.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer and editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.