Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Epic shortstop era comes into focus
By Keith Law
Jean Segura is exceeding expectations with the Brewers this year.
We're at the start of a short but very powerful spike in the quality of shortstops in baseball right now, with several highly gifted shortstops debuting in the majors over the past 12 months and several impact prospects in the minors at that position, as well. That contrasts with this year's draft class, which is weakest in the middle infield and could produce just one every-day shortstop at the big league level.
The hottest name at shortstop right now is Jean Segura, Milwaukee's 23-year-old sophomore who came over in the Zack Greinke trade and is off to a torrid .359/.406/.588 start this year. The power is shocking; he's much more of a line-drive hitter who needs some help from the pitcher, leaving the ball up and over the plate, to drive it out. But the ability to make contact is real and might even improve from here, and although the .380 BABIP is unsustainable, he could very well be a .330-.340 BABIP guy in the long run. My main concern with Segura as a prospect -- I ranked him 44th in MLB heading into 2012 -- was health, as he has played more than 102 games in a season just once.
Didi Gregorius has been equally hot -- and equally fluky with a .413 BABIP -- although his long-term outlook isn't as good as Segura's. Gregorius is an outstanding defensive shortstop, with great hands and a plus arm, and he should be an every-day player for a long time on that basis alone. He also has never really hit at any level other than a 46-game stretch in the hitters' paradise of high Class A Bakersfield in 2011 and has below-average plate discipline and below-average power.
Neither of those players can match the defensive wizardry of Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons, who hit a bit over his abilities last year but whose glove and arm both grade out as 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Simmons was a shortstop and reliever at Western Oklahoma Junior College and was seen within the industry as a better prospect as a pitcher because he could sit at 98 mph and was a long way off with the bat. To everyone's surprise, he hit for average from the day he entered pro ball, scuttling any thoughts of putting him on the mound. Simmons has little power and doesn't walk much, but he does make a lot of hard contact, enough that in some years he'll hit close to .300 and keep his OBP respectable, and in others he'll hit an empty .260 or so but still be very valuable, worth more than a win above replacement just from his glove and arm each year.
You might even include Brandon Crawford here for his defensive prowess, although he's behind Gregorius and Simmons in that department and, April aside, offers no value with his bat. There's also the enigma that is Starlin Castro, just 23 years old with the ability to hit .300-plus with some pop, but moving backward in his approach at an age when he should be moving forward.
The next wave
On the farm, I had four shortstop prospects in my top 10 overall this year, including No. 1 overall prospect Jurickson Profar, who, barring a trade, likely will spend the first few years of his major league career playing somewhere other than shortstop for the Rangers -- probably second base -- thanks to the presence of Elvis Andrus.
Francisco Lindor is looking like a future star at high Class A.
Profar would fit well into the discussion above for his defensive abilities, but I see offensive potential that Gregorius and Simmons lack, in on-base ability and eventually in average power. Profar isn't tearing up Triple-A, lessening any internal pressure on the Rangers to bring him up, but eventually it will be clear that they're better off with him in the lineup than they are with Mitch Moreland.
The breakout performance among these four prospects so far -- small sample size caveats apply, of course -- has been Francisco Lindor, the Puerto Rican-born switch-hitting 19-year-old who sports a .406 OBP through 36 games in high-A already this year. The Cleveland prospect, taken at No. 8 in 2011, is a plus defender and runner who makes a ton of contact, striking out just once in his past 57 plate appearances. He doesn't project to hit for much power, probably 10-15 HR at most, and isn't as advanced a hitter right-handed as he is left-handed, but he's also the age of a typical college freshman and is already on target to finish the year in Double-A.
Boston's Xander Bogaerts made a strong impression in spring training and has bounced back from a slow start (there's that small sample thing again) to post a line more in line with expectations, hitting .296/.382/.452, albeit with a low contact rate and just two home runs. He's also very young, 20 years old in Double-A, and could easily spend the whole year at the level
The last of the four shortstops in my top 10, Addison Russell, has started slowly after an aggressive promotion to high-A, where he missed some time in April with a back injury. Nearly half of Russell's plate appearances have ended in a walk or a strikeout so far, less than ideal, although he's one of just two prep players from last year's draft to start the year above low-A. (The other, Courtney Hawkins, struck out 45 times in 79 at bats before going on the DL.)
Russell's assignment to the Cal League was a surprise, but it came in part because he was so impressive this spring in big league camp, and I believe he'll fulfill my expectations for him as an impact bat who stays at shortstop and provides at least average defense there.
Pipeline drying up
This year's draft class offers an unfavorable omen that this run of good young shortstops might not last much longer. I have just one true shortstop in my top 50 draft prospects, Lakewood (Calif.) High School's J.P. Crawford, and he's a long-term project rather than a fast mover through the minors; I don't have a college shortstop who projects to stay at the position anywhere on my top 100.
Amateur shortstops are often there because they're the best athletes on their teams, but few project to stay at that position as they move up the pro ladder because they lack some essential skill. A good shortstop needs range (which comes from agility and footwork), smooth hands and arm strength. If a prospect lacks any of those things, he ends up at second or third base. He might have all three skills now but project to outgrow the position, losing the lateral agility required to play the spot, which is the best argument against Segura and Russell staying at short in the long run.
The recent re-emphasis on defense at positions in the middle of the field has raised the bar for players to stay at shortstop, but the flip side is that players who do reach the majors as every-day shortstops are showing up with more defensive ability than the guys who made it there a decade ago. It might not last for long, but we could see the best shortstop crop in the majors since the Jeter-Nomar-Rodriguez-Tejada era ended.