StrategyMarch 21, 2006

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2006 Shortstop Forecast

By Jamey Feuer

The shortstop … from the mid-90s through approximately 2003, the position was baseball’s answer to the supermodel. Formerly comprised of nimble, speedy, strong-armed slap-hitters, the position was now dominated by the powerful triad of Derek Jeter (Yankees), Alex Rodriguez (Seattle, then Texas) and Nomar Garciaparra (Boston).But alas, those days are no more. While Miguel Tejada (whose arrival turned the triad into a quartet) and Jeter still man the position, Rodriguez is now the Yankee 3B, and Garciaparra is attempting to ressurect an injury-plagued career with the Dodgers as a first baseman.

And yet even without A-Rod and Nomah, the position boasts talent, depth, power, and runs at least 15 athletes deep. From Cleveland’s impressive Jhonny Peralta to St. Louis’ gritty David Eckstein, from the Mets’ fleet-of-foot Jose Reyes to the Cincinnati Reds’ surprising Felipe Lopez, there’s value scattered throughout the league, and thus, there’s no need to panic and pull a shorty off the board until you are ready to do so. There are even deeper sleepers such as Milwaukee’s JJ Hardy and the Angels’ Brandon Wood, so don’t be pressured or fall into the “position run” trap. No doubt shortstops are gonna start to fall like dominoes early in the draft, yet if you do your research and set your board wisely, you’ll be able to snag a very competent middle infielder in the mid-later rounds.

The Cream of the Crop

Michael Young (Tex)
Last season, numerous readers e-slapped me for slotting M-Young as the third-ranked shortstop. And yet, the Ranger’s remarkable productivity only served to bolster my case. Certainly the 29-year-old middle infielder benefitted from the All-Star laden lineup that surrounded him; from 1B Mark Teixeira to 3B Hammerin’ Hank Blalock to 2B Big Al’ Soriano (whose big bat and faux birth certificate were sent off to the Nationals … for now) to surprise OF David Dellucci, the Rangers were (and remain) loaded from one to nine. And yet … even with the gaudy offensive numbers, the atrocious pitching ultimately came back to bite Texas on its collectively muscular rump last season. Kenny Rogers served as the “ace” of the staff, and his 14-8, 3.46 season was by far the team’s best. Now, a revamped rotation that brags a brand spankin’ new 1-3 in Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Adam Eaton should ease the scoring burden on the position players. It’s got to be awfully demoralizing to hang 10 runs on an opponent only to lose by a score of 14-10, and scores such as those scrolled across Sports Center with some regularity last year.

This season, the team will trot-out five 20+ home run hitters who hit for power and average, with SS Michael Young stirring the pot. Surrounded by Secret Service type protection, M-Young should again post excellent fantasy stats. I’m calling for a fourth straight 200+ hit season, and a line of .320/27/95 with eight SB.

Derek Jeter (NYA)
During the late 90s, Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar (and a bit later, Miggy), were baseball’s “Rat Pack.” Attractive, extremely wealthy athletes who were known by their first names and nicknames, they elevated the position from that of “spunky” slap-hitter to that of a leather-flashing power-hitter … and the position, and correlational expectations, may never be the same. But why talk legacy when these guys are still playing top-notch baseball? Just like the #1-rated shortstop Michael Young, “Jeets’” is ensconced in a fantastic lineup, thanks to Boss Steinbrenner’s deep pockets. Jeter is a remarkable player who possesses that elusive “it.” “It” defies explanation. Is “it” an array of intangibles? Is “it” the ability to elevate the games of those around you? Is “it” the innate ability to be in the right place at the right time? Or is “it” all of these things … and more? Dunno, don’t care. All I do know is that Jeter does have “it,” and he’s the kind of player who you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you watched play.

With a new OBP machine in Johnny Damon, a resurgent Jason Giambi, a pulverizingly powerful Alex Rodriguez, an OF who seems to have an axe to grind with every pitcher he faces in Gary Sheffield, and an improving Hideki Matsui, not to mention Jorge Posada and young Robinson Cano, opposing pitchers can ill-afford to dance around Jeter. Hot off his first .300+ season in five years, look for yet another highly productive campaign from the Yankee captain; .301/22/75, with 15 thieved bags.

Jose Reyes (NYN)
Slotting him at #3? Is this writer crazy? I can hear the criticisms already. But if one takes into account that Reyes is just 22 and is trying to discover his game, the ranking will make more sense. Hey, I took flak for slotting Texas’s Michael Young third last season, and he acquitted himself remarkably well. Ergo, my #3 rankings seem to pan out well.

For a leadoff hitter, Reyes’s ‘05 .300 OBP was laughable. However, Reyes was put under much duress to become the second coming of Rickey Henderson, arguably the best leadoff hitter to ever trod the basepaths. While the young Met has nice pop, lightning speed, and was able to stand up to the excruciating pressure mentally, his numbers wilted a bit. Furthermore, Reyes had an irritating habit of swinging at, and making an out on, the first pitch. Nevertheless, 17 three-baggers and an eye-opening 60 swiped bags bode awfully well for the future. Better yet, Henderson himself is working with Reyes during spring training. Better plate discipline, pitch selection, and the improved talent around him should elevate Jose Reyes’s game. That being said, I must include this pair of caveats: his batting average probably won’t leap 30 points over the course of a single off-season, and when mulling the wisdom of drafting Reyes, the specter of injury must always be considered.
I will cautiously project a .285/10/70, 55 SB, 115 run season. Those of you who have ice coursing through your veins won’t hesitate to gamble an early pick on Reyes.

Miguel Tejada (Bal)
Miggy’s season ended on a down note, in part because of former fellow Balty’ bird Rafael Palmeiro’s accusations. While few believe the stud SS took “enhanced” B-12 injections, his poor second-half numbers are incontrovertible. The difference is that while the numbers themselves are incontrovertible, they do not offer incontrovertible proof of anything.

Let us assume that the big hitter uses only approved supplements and plays straight pool. He’ll be eager to shake off his poor finish and continue to try and lead the O’s towards a wild card berth, no mean feat in an AL East dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. If the position players can stay healthy, Tejada should be amongst the top three or four in each of the Triple Crown categories. And yet, the team could still be shopping the 29-year-old middle infielder. Rampant ‘roid rumors and depleted production aside, Baltimore’s starters had a collective ERA that brushed 4.30, and the future at closer projects to be 24-year-old unproven Chris Ray (1-3, 2.66 ERA, 43 Ks in 40.2 innings.). Rookie manager Sam Perlozzo sought, but failed to land a proven stopper during the off-season, and it’s eminently possible that Miggy will be moved for either an established closer or top of the rotation starter at some point. Forgetting the “what if” game for now, on this team and with this lineup, Tejada’a numbers should remain a solid .305/33/115.

Jimmy Rollins (Phi)
At 28 and with six seasons of big-league experience under his belt, Rollins is peaking. Sure, experience and better dish discipline will help him notch more walks and record a higher OBP in so doing, but it’s hard to find fault with a guy who swatted 38 doubles, 11 triples, and stole 41 bases (Rollins was thrown out just six times). While many Major Leaguers are draggin’ butts and bats by September, Rollins was a house a’fire, hitting an improbable .402 in that month (and two games into October), with a SLG % of .648 and an OBP of .455. Along with 1B Ryan Howard (10 HRs and an ill .691 SLG % in September), Rollins kept the team in the playoff hunt. Despite the late-season heroics, Philly finished one heartbreaking game behind the NL West Astros for the wild card, and two games behind the Braves for the AL East crown.

Getting back to Rollins, though, the speedy SS enters the season to much fanfare; with 36 consecutive games with at least one hit already in his hip pocket, another 20 games of at least “one-fer” batting will see Jimmy Rollins tie the legendary Joe Dimaggio’s equally legendary 56-game hit streak … and 21 games with at least one hit would establish a new record, and possibly a new legend. The Phills’ early-season slate may work against the happy-go-lucky Rollins, however. The team opens the season with a six-game home stand … and Pennsylvania can be awfully cold in early April. They then travel cross-country for three games in the rare air of Colorado where it is awfully cold in April; the Rockies have played through several early-season snow squalls. The cold weather makes hitting that much more difficult, and Rollins has his work cut out for him.

While interesting, all of this has bupkiss to do with his fantasy value, and that’s all we’re really interested in, isn’t it? Playing in a great hitter’s park and with a sneaky-strong lineup behind him, Rollins is a top NL-only pick, a mid-rounder in mixed league formats due to his base stealing ability, and is a candidate for a .290/15/70, 33 SB campaign.

Note: For whatever it’s worth, my hunch is that the interruption in his streak wrought by the end of the ‘05 season combined with April’s cold weather will bring little Jimmy’s pursuit of Joe D’s record to a premature end.

Felipe Lopez (Cin)
It took four seasons, two teams (Lopez started his Major League career in Toronto), and an injury to incumbent Rich Aurilia, but Lopez finally found his way onto an everyday lineup! And without question, once given the chance to prove his worth, the 26-year-old shortstop took full advantage of his opportunity by hitting .291/23/85 with 97 Runs and 15 SB, primarily out of the leadoff slot. Further, he led all NL Shortstops in home runs with 23, RBIs with 85, and OPS with .838 (.920 against right-handers). A late bloomer, certainly, but Lopez is in a great hitter’s park and has a ball-crushing cast of characters around him. The knock on Lopez is really more of a “tap” – he hit .243 against lefties (with a .644 OPS) as opposed to .312 against right-handers.

Although a position move could be in the cards (there’s been talk of shifting him to second or sliding him over to third), Lopez will qualify at SS for at least one more season, can hit to all fields with power (34 doubles, five triples), maintains a high average, and is unafraid to steal. I see him maintaining his place amongst the elite at the position for the next few years. In other words, don’t let this multi-category contributor slide past the fifth or sixth round in mixed league formats!

My “Fantasy Magic-8 Ball” say’s, “It’s a bit murky, but look for .285/25/95, with 20 SB.”

David Eckstein (StL)
A gritty player who’s unafraid to give up his body diving for a ball or breaking up a double play, David Eckstein was a very tough out last year (he fanned just 44 times in 630 plate appearances) and did an outstanding job replacing his predecessor, Edgar Renteria. “Eck” set or met career highs in games played (158), ABs (630), hits (185), HR (8), walks (58), BA (.294), OBP (.363), and SLG (.395). In addition, owners were pleased to see their shortstop deliver 26 doubles and seven triples. All of the above is the good news. The bad news? I’d be hard-pressed to believe that David Eckstein is capable of significantly better play, and although he’s been relatively durable thus far, his “all or nuthin’” style makes him something of an injury risk. If you can snatch Eck up in your draft’s later rounds (and he’s sure to be a late-mid to late-round selection unless an owner makes a panic move), you’ll secure yourself a player who may not be able to carry a fantasy team as some of the other shortstops can, but you’ll snare a certain stats contributor.

Amid a lineup that will reduce most opposing pitchers’ bowels to water, look for a very solid season from the Card middle infielder: .295/10/65, with 90+ runs and 12 SB.

Julio Lugo (TB)
Coming off of a .295/6/57, 89 run, 39 SB season, Lugo should again rank amongst the top ten at his position. A curious player, to say the least, Lugo’s RBI production took a nosedive, falling from 75 in ‘04 to 57 in ‘05, but last year he notched 22 more hits (182) and nearly doubled his stolen base total with 39 (up from 21 in ‘04). Lugo’s split-season stats are rather interesting as the shortstop hit .287, with 15 doubles and a SLG % of .365 before the break. Over the season’s second half, he hit .306, with 21 doubles and a SLG % of .451. If the Ray infielder can pick-up where he left off, ‘06 could be scary!

However, whether or not Lugo stays a Devil Ray for long is a question mark as the team would like to promote promising BJ Upton. Assuming he remains a part of Tampa’s powerful and speedy lineup, Julio Lugo should again put up numbers resembling .301/7/65, with 28 SB.

Bobby Crosby (Oak)
Checking in at #9 on the shortstop countdown, Oakland’s 26-year-old “boy-blunder,” Bobby Crosby. The SS’s season was hampered by injury from start to finish, and some of the injury rap falls on Crosby’s shoulders. A late September return from an ankle that was broken merely a month earlier was a flat-out bad decision … and that decision cost him. From August to September, Crosby’s average plummeted by 148 points, his SLG % by 245 points, and his OBP fell from .333 to .222. Looking at things over a more substantial time frame: before the All-Star break, Croz’ clubbed a line of .324/5/21, or in even greater detail, .324/.545/.380 (BA/SLG/OBP). After the week-long hiatus, Crosby was a different player: .239/4/17 (.239/.388/.321) different. Incidentally and irregardless of the All-Star break, the guy struggled in big situations. With runners in scoring position, Croz hit a feeble .223 and notched an equally anemic .287 SLG %.

Looking forward, team observers note that Bobby Crosby is nursing a sore throwing shoulder and may have injured himself while lifting weights over the off-season. Starting a new year with a creaky joint is not a recipe for Roto success, and frankly I’d let someone else draft and fret over Crosby’s health and suspect durability.

A “boom or bust” fantasy commodity, if Bobby can stay both on the field and in the three-hole, I would think .280/24/85 to be reachable.

Rafael Furcal (LA)
The last player in this section of the list, ex-Atlanta Brave Raffy Furcal. Sure, the Dodger shortstop could’ve been slotted a bit higher due to his speed and the potential of the lineup that surrounds him, but as I stated in the previous positional analyses – use this list as a guide for your own rankings!

Furcal is another lead-off hitter possessing a less than desirable OBP (in his case, .348), but 62 walks and 46 swiped bags successfully assuage his poor-OBP pain. Helped by his cat-like quickness, Furcal rapped out 31 two-baggers, a career-best 11 triples, and his 175 hits were the second best total of his career.

While the 28-year-old switch hitter underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee early this year, he’s expected to be at full base stealing strength. A mid-round pick in 5×5 leagues and a second-third rounder in NL-only formats, Furcal would be a guy I’d wait on in mixed leagues. Now that’s not to say I wouldn’t draft him, because I certainly would. However, given the depth at the position and Furcal’s need to adjust to his new team and ballpark, another owner is bound to jump on Furcal several rounds before he or she needs to.

Hitting within the pitching friendly confines of Dodger Stadium and possessing great speed and gap power, Furcal should thrive. He does not, however, have the likes of “the Jones boys,” Marcus Giles, or Adam LaRoche around to protect him any more. Jot Raffy down for something like .280/9/50, with 30 SB.

Players on the Rise

Jhonny Peralta (Cle)
Platooning with Alex Cora at the beginning of last season, Peralta started the year like a snowball rolling downhill. Initially hitting ninth at an unimpressive .222 clip, few noticed the young Indian. However, after swatting .295 with a SLG % of .520+ over May and June, Peralta’s .333/6/19, seven double, .578 SLG % July forced manager Eric Wedge to stand up and take notice! It also, for the record, caused owners everywhere to trip over one another in their haste to get to the waiver wire. Wedge made little Jhonny (is it me, or does he spell his name incorrectly?) an everyday player, moved him to third in the batting order (rock-solid decision there), and reaped the rewards over the course of the remainder of Peralta’s .292/24/78, 35 double, four triple, 82 run season. While I would be surprised to see Peralta rack another .887 OPS, stranger things have happened. Many baseball insiders thought Albert Pujols’ .329, 37 dinger 2001 was an aberration … until he followed it up with a .314, 34 homer ‘02. And then of course came his showstopping .359, 43 HR ‘03 campaign!

While comparing Peralta to Pujols is a ligament-tearing stretch, you get the point. Jhonny Peralta has arrived. He benefits from a very strong and talented core of young position players, and I would antipate a solid season: .289/28/90, with 100 runs scored.

Bill Hall (Mil)
Hall enjoyed a wonderful breakout season of .291/17/62, with 18 SB and 39 doub’s in 146 games played. Notching statistical highs in virtually every offensive category was nice, but he was also a D-dazzler at three positions!

Top Sleepers

Clint Barmes (Col)
I was lovin’ this kid and pushing him like turkey on Thanksgiving, and then a season that had “Rookie of the Year” written all over it came to a collarbone-breaking end. “Deer me.” Barmes played precisely half the season, recording 350 ABs before he slipped and fell down his steps while carrying an armload of venison. In those plate appearances the promising youngster walloped his way to a .289/10/46 line, with 19 doubles, 55 runs scored, and six SB.

But here again, more lies beneath the surface. While the Rockie shorty clubbed the ball at home, he endured substantial troubles on the road; the home-road splits are:

Home: .332/.369/.508
Road: .239/.286/.350

Nonetheless, Colorado remains convinced that Clint Barmes is the goods and will be their leadoff or #2 hitter. Too talented not to succeed, look for Barmes to emerge as a top op’ at the position by season’s end, and hang a line close to .300/22/95, with 15 SB.

Nomar Garciaparra (LA)
Nomah’s a shortstop no mo’; the former Red Sock and Cub is now attempting to make the transition to first base for his new team, the Dodgers. Garciaparra’s struggle to stay healthy and on the field of play is well documented, but so too are his offensive skills. A career .320 hitter with a career SLG % of .520, the one-time stud SS whiffed a mere 24 times out of 230 total ABs last season, and over the span of his decade-long career, that’s been about his average: one strikeout for every 10 ABs.

A career .968 fielder, the move to first should not prove overly challenging for a ballplayer with Nomar’s baseball IQ and still-sharp reflexes, and as a corner infielder he won’t be expected to cover nearly as much ground. Strong second-half numbers in 2005 indicate that if Nomar can stay healthy, and that’s a mighty big “if,” the skilled batsman could again produce .290/25/95 type numbers.

Deeper Sleepers

JJ Hardy (Mil)
An awful first half of .187/1/19 with a SLG % of .267 gave way to a new player who comfortably sprayed the ball to all fields and notched .308/8/31, with a SLG % of .503. While Hardy’s probably not prepared to sustain such a white-hot pace over the span of 150+ games, a .275/14/60+ season should be in the cards. Worthy of a late-round flyer, look upon Hardy as a diamond in the rough.

Brandon Wood (Ana)
Dude lit it UP at Rancho Cucamonga last year! Wood simply demolished opposing pitching as he mashed his way to a .321/43/115 season, with an astounding 51 doubles, 109 runs, and .672 SLG %.

Just 20, Wood’s power potential is through the roof and his ceiling is not yet within sight. While he’ll likely start the season in the minors, at some point in the not-too-distant future, Wood will be on the big club roster. Deeper keeper leaguers may wish to take a long look at Baseball America’s #3 prospect.

Comeback Player of the Year

Edgar Renteria (Atl)
Renteria, with his third club in as many seasons, will be setting the table (or maybe hitting from the two-hole) for an impressive and powerful Braves lineup. While he’ll never replicate his highly productive ‘03 season, he’s also not as bad as last year would suggest, so look for something that lies between his ‘04 and ‘05 numbers. I’d look for … oh, maybe .280/9/68, with 15 SB.

Players In Decline

Orlando Cabrera (Ana)
In an effort to jump-start the flagging Cabrera, Angel manager Mike Scioscia yo-yo’ed the SS through the batting order. Opening the season as the six-hitter, Cabrera drove in an unacceptable 11 RBIs in 41 games, and he ultimately landed in the two-hole, with the speedy Chone Figgins batting lead-off. Scioscia feels that Figgy and “O-C” get the job done and set a nice table… but his optimism for the shortstop has no statistical support. Figgy’s fine as a lead-off hitter, but Cabrera’s average as the “two” was .262, with a .317 OBP and a .375 SLG. It would seem that the second-year Angel is better suited to hit seventh or eighth, slots that would afford little fantasy value. Further, with two years left on his hefty $32-million dollar contract (hefty for his underwhelming production, anyway) and elite prospects waiting in the wings (Erick Aybar and a scorching-hot Brandon Wood), it wouldn’t be a shocker to see the Angels absorb a big chunk of contractual change in order to move Cabrera and promote Wood.

Even if his power numbers do rebound a bit, Cabrera’s still going to offer little fantasy value batting at the back end of the Angel order. A late round (seventh-eighth) AL-only player, a bottom of the barrel mixed leaguer, and a $14-$16 shorty in auction formats, “O-C” projects for .260/12/50, 22 SB season.

Carlos Guillen (Det)
Perhaps slotting Guillen as a “Player in Decline” is too harsh a judgement. How do you assess a player who’s never played a full complement of games? And yet, I see no upside here. After breaking into the league as a Mariner in ‘98 (and that was after six years of minor league ball), Guillen’s never played more than 140 games in a season. Now 31, the injury-prone shortstop has the potential to be a nice player with a bit more pop than he offered last season, but we’ll never know just how good the multi-tooled Guillen could’ve been. Potential can be both compliment and curse.

The only real consistency the Tiger infielder has shown is his inability to stay healthy.
Even so, savvy owners might be willing to gamble a late mid-round pick on a 140-game, .315/15/80 guy.

Up next: fantasy baseball’s second basemen!

A native of Brooklyn, Jamey Feuer now roots for the Yankees from his new home in Northern New Jersey.
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