Shortstop has been a dire position to find talent in recent years, with many fringe-level fantasy starters serving as black holes once the top-tier guys were off the board. This year, three players new to fantasy rankings this year could establish themselves as top-15 players at the shortstop position rather quickly. All three have taken very different paths to playing time with their respective major-league clubs. Let’s meet them now.
Josh Rutledge, SS, COL
A third-round pick in the 2010 draft, Josh Rutledge made his major-league debut on July 13 of last season, a little over two years after he signed his first contract. He played his way to the opportunity by delivering in the minors immediately, hitting .348/.414/.517 with nine home runs and 16 steals in 523 plate appearances with Class-A Advanced Modesto in 2011. He followed that up with a .306/.338/.508 line with 13 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 379 plate appearances at Double-A Tulsa last season before his debut. All he did in his first game with the Rockies was collect a single, double, walk, stolen base, sac fly and two RBI. He stuck in the majors for the rest of the year, hitting .274/.306/.469 with eight home runs and seven stolen bases in 291 plate appearances in his rookie season.
Just 24 years old this April, Rutledge’s future looks plenty bright. He spent most of his time at shortstop in 2012 with Troy Tulowitzki on the shelf, but the superstar’s presence in the lineup obviously blocks Rutledge at the position. The youngster shifted to second base upon Tulowitzki’s return, and he’s expected to serve as a regular starter at the position moving forward. For 2013 leagues, he has added value in that he’ll qualify for both positions after a few weeks, while players in keeper/dynasty leagues will obviously need to plan for him serving as a second baseman for the near future. However, I see Rutledge running the risk of being overhyped by many fantasy leaguers, so his status as sleeper likely depends on the rest of your league. If you can get him in the 15-20 range at the position, you’re getting value. But if five or six guys in your league fall in love with him and he goes in the 8-10 range, whether by auction price or draft slot, he may not provide a lot of value this year.
Jean Segura, SS, MIL
Unlike Rutledge, Jean Segura isn’t going to come into your draft with a lot of hype, making his status as a true sleeper much more secure. He hit just .264/.321/.331 with no home runs and seven stolen bases in 163 plate appearances in his first taste of major-league action last year. Owners will likely to be hesitant to use such a player as a regular in fantasy leagues, but Segura has shown much more promise in the minors. He hit .304/.358/.413 with seven home runs and 37 steals in 451 Double-A plate appearances last year, and his 2010 season at Single-A featured a very nice 10-homer, 50-steal season along with a .313 average.
Segura has managed to hit .313/.367/.439 over his minor-league career while being plenty valuable on the basepaths and hitting 26 home runs in 1,755 plate appearances. He spent most of his time in the Angels organization before headlining the package that brought Zack Greinke to Los Angeles, and the Brewers used him mostly in the majors after the trade. He’s unlikely to turn into a bomber, but if he settles into a role hitting 8-10 homers per year while stealing 35-40 bases and hitting for a nice average, he’s essentially providing owners with almost as much value as Jose Reyes for a fraction of the price. Dual-eligibility seekers should also note that it’s entirely possible Segura plays a little at second base this year if the Brewers want to get recent signee Alex Gonzalez in the lineup and give Rickie Weeks a day off. Add it up and Segura is a great end-game flier for any fantasy squad.
Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS, OAK
While we have at least some data on Rutledge and Segura as major-league baseball players, and somewhat comparable data from each player in the minor leagues, that’s not the case with 30-year-old Hiroyuki Nakajima. Coming stateside after playing for the Seibu Lions in the Japan Pacific League for his entire career, Nakajima acts mostly as a blank slate for fantasy owners trying to project what he’ll do in the majors. Will his talent carry over as he storms through the league like Ichiro Suzuki, or will he be just another disappointing Japanese import like Tsuyoshi Nishioka (at least, to date)?
What we do know about Nakajima is that in Japan, he blended batting eye, power and speed to be an all-around fantasy contributor in any Nippon fantasy leagues that may or may not exist. From 2007 to 2012, he hit .300 or better in five out of six seasons, hit at least 10 home runs in every season (while reaching 20 homers three out of six times), and stole at least 15 bases in four out of six seasons (posting nine and seven steals in the other two years). Unfortunately, his most recent season looks like a little bit of a down year from power (13 home runs) and speed (seven steals) perspectives. That, along with the uncertainty of how he’ll adapt to major-league baseball, could cause him to slip by unnoticed on draft/auction day. But as a guy with 20/20 seasons in his past, even if it came halfway around the world, he’s impossible to ignore completely.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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