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Friday, February 12, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Pitching and defense may win championships in reality, but fantasy baseball pennants are all about the O." (Shortstop Preview)

In my first "Fantastic Thoughts" column of 2010, I encouraged readers to think about the way the recent trend toward defense might effect playing time and therefore change how they rate players, especially at the most challenging positions, shortstop being first among them.  That said, getting the ABs in just half the battle.  You still need to employ a player who has a prayer at the plate.  Ask anybody who has made the mistake of owning Jason Kendall or Adam Everett just how much it sucks to have 600 plate appearances from a guy that hits .240.  In what follows, because of lack of depth at the position, I will consistently endorse shortstops based on potential rather than production (except for the elite class).  Basically, I'd rather have a 22-year-old hitting .240 than a 35-year-old hitting .240.  The result may end up the same, but, as Elvis Andrus and Everth Cabrera proved in 2009, young players can make significant strides over the course of a six month season.  That .240 in April may be .280 in September, which still isn't great, but at this position, you're looking for little victories.

1. Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)
2. Jimmy Rollins (Phillies)
3. Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)
4. Jose Reyes (Mets)

For more that a decade now, the early rounds of fantasy drafts have been governed largely by the dispersal of the "Big Three," a rotating trio of shortstops capable of producing like iron-gloved first-baseman.  The separation between the "Big Three" and the rest of the shortstop is perhaps the largest gap at any position, thus increasing the boon of selecting one of them.  The cast over the years has included a number of recognizable hypenations: A-Rod, Han-Ram, J-Roll, No-Mar, etc.

This year, the trio becomes a quartet, as Troy Tulowitzki joins incumbents Rollins, Reyes, and Ramirez.  While Hanley obviously belongs at the top (he's likely the #2 pick in most drafts), we could bicker at length about how to rank the other three.  Tulo hasn't put up back-to-back elite performances yet.  Reyes is coming off a major injury.  Rollins had a horrific first half in '09.  I wouldn't fault you for backing any one of these guys over the others, but I will point out that J-Roll, in his "off year," still managed 100 R (#4 among SS), 77 RBI (#5), 21 HR (#3), and 31 SB (#2).  There wasn't a single shortstop who came close to matching him in all four categories and only one player in all of baseball eclipsed his production across the board (Ian Kinsler).  Assuming J-Roll's 2010 is more like his second half (801 OPS) than his first half (642 OPS), we can expect him to once again warrant selection in the top two or three rounds.

5. Derek Jeter (Yankees)
6. Miguel Tejada (Orioles) [will become eligible at 3B in most leagues]
7. Jason Bartlett (Rays)
8. Alexei Ramirez (White Sox)

Ramirez was a very popular sleeper selection prior to 2009, but he failed to build on his solid rookie season.  I'm among those who would be willing to lay double or nothing that that 25/25 season that many people were expecting is still on the way, but I can't base that prediction on much more than a gut feeling.

Jason Bartlett is the opposite case.  Nobody expected his breakout in '09, as he hit more homers (14) than he had in his previous four seasons combined (11) and only Jeter and Hanley hit for a higher average (.320).  Bartlett is 30-years-old.  Is he a late bloomer, or was '09 a fluke?

Tejada's excellent showing in '09 continues to be overlooked.  He's no longer the power threat he was in his prime, but he still led the league in doubles, his a sparkling .313, and provided great run production for the position (83 R, 86 RBI).  It's hard to see how the move to Baltimore hurts him in any way.

9. J. J. Hardy (Twins)
10. Yunel Escobar (Braves)
11. Asdrubel Cabrera (Indians)
12. Stephen Drew (D-Backs)

As with Ramirez, you'd be drafting these guys for their upside as much as for any proven production, although they do all have at least one solid season in the rearview mirror.  Hardy and Drew have 20 HR power, but they're also strikeout machines.  Cabrera and Escobar don't excel at any particular aspect of the fantasy game, but each is quite likely to put up a .285-80-10-75-15 line, which is nothing to sneeze at from this position.

13. Rafael Furcal (Dodgers)
14. Jhonny Peralta (Indians)
15. Orlando Cabrera (Reds)
16. Ryan Theriot (Cubs)

Sometimes you've just got to be satisfied with solid and unspectacular.  If you haven't filled several middle infield slot by the mid to late rounds, these are guys you should be targeting.  They aren't going to surprise anybody, but they'll manage numbers right around the league average.

17. Alcides Escobar (Brewers)
18. Everth Cabrera (Padres)
19. Erick Aybar (Angels)
20. Elvis Andrus (Rangers)

These guys have two things going for them, from a fantasy perspective, they're young and they are fantastic defenders.  Now, obviously, as stated above, you don't win fantasy leagues with defense.  But because these blue-chippers flash the leather, they'll be in the lineup everyday, which means more hits, more steal, more runs and RBIs, although those stats are likely to accumulate at an inconsistent rate.

21. Cristian Guzman (Nationals)
22. Marco Scutaro (Red Sox)
23. Jack Wilson (Mariners)
24. Alex Gonzalez (Blue Jays)

Marco Scutaro was a top ten shortstop in most leagues in 2009 and in the offseason he moved into one of the league's most high-octane lineup in one of the league's most favorable hitter's parks.  How could I rank him outside the top twenty?  Well, for starters, he's a 34-year-old middle infielder.  Prior to '09, Scutaro had never made more than 71 starts at shortstop, as his role was primarily as a "super-utilityman."  He had also never hit above .273, stolen more than seven bases, or hit more than nine homeruns.  In 2009, he set career highs in every single offensive category except triples, and in many of them by a sizable margin.  I just can't see him suddenly being able to maintain such a pace at an advanced age and I believe that by this time next year he will again be a "supersub."

25. Jed Lowrie (Red Sox)
26. Ian Desmond (Nationals)
27. Bobby Crosby (Pirates)
28. Khalil Greene (Rangers)
29. Julio Lugo (Cardinals)
30. Maicer Izturis (Angels)
31. Juan Uribe (Giants)

Speaking of "subs," all of these gentlemen will begin the year as their team's primary utility infielder.  However, at some point, probably via injuries, some of them will become full-time starters at some position and all of them have the potential to put up decent middle-infield numbers, especially for deep leagues.  Thus, they're worth having on your radar.

It's not exactly the Curse of the Bambino, but Boston has not been kind to shortstops since Theo traded away Nomar.  Eight shortstops have come and gone, unable to hold down the position for an extended time, in just the last five seasons.  Jed Lowrie, a homegrown bonus baby, was expected to break the cycle, but spent most of the last two seasons on the DL.  If he's finally fully healthy, it would not surprise me in the least if his supplants Scutaro before the All-Star Break.

32. Jeff Keppinger (Astros)
33. Edgar Renteria (Giants)
34. Brendan Ryan (Cardinals)
35. Cliff Pennington (Althletics)
36. Cesar Izturis (Orioles)
37. Adam Everett (Tigers)
38. Yuniesky Betancourt (Royals)

Ugh.  Seriously.  Ugh.  It is a testament to how hard the shortstop position is that these fellows continue to be employed despite absolutely paltry performances at the plate.  Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa can afford to employ a nine-hitter merely because he's a Hoover on defense, you can't.  Don't bother.

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