As I sat down to write this article, I knew going in that the shortstop position was going to contend for the weakest spot in the lineup for American League drafters this year. Jotting down the names on my notepad only made me realize that it was even worse than I had originally thought. I’ve been knee-deep in mixed league drafts this pre-season, and I guess that has shielded me from realizing how quickly the talent drops off about midway down the list. To make matters worse, the players at the top of the list have their own issues as well. What has happened to all the studs? There are still some nice players around, but nothing approaching the level that we had grown accustomed to in seasons past. It just means that you are going to have to act quickly this year if you don't want to come up "short" at shortstop. Now, let’s take a look at my rankings for this year:
Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE – Cabrera had a breakout season for the Indians last year, coming back from an injury-shortened 2011 to post a .273/87/23/92/17 line. That gets him the top spot in the rankings, but he does not come without some warning flags. He struggled along with the entire Indian offense in the second half, leaving one to wonder just what to expect this year. The power spike came out of nowhere, as he had never hit more than six in the Majors before. While he managed to play in a career high 151 games last year, he battled nagging injuries in the second half, raising the red flag that he will be able to stay healthy again this season. He’ll be right in the thick of it for the Tribe this season, but it’s best to expect a little regression in his overall numbers this year. Pay for homers in the high teens and you’ll be less likely to come away disappointed.
Elvis Andrus, TEX – Andrus took another step forward last year in his third full season. He showed a more patient approach at the plate that led to career highs in runs (96) and steals (37). If not for some bad luck on the base-paths in the second half, he would’ve easily topped 40 stolen bases. Still only 23 years old, I think we are going to see yet another growth season from Andrus, one that likely sees him top 100 runs and threaten to steal 50 bases. That’s right, 50. If I am looking to nab one of the top producers, this is the guy I am taking. I even think there is an outside chance he uncovers a little more power in his game this year, making 10 home runs a possibility. Worst case scenario is he gives you a repeat of last year.
Derek Jeter, NYY – The captain still lands near the top of the rankings, and that in itself kind of sums up the state of the position in the American League this year. A hot second half, where he hit .331, salvaged his season and somewhat hides the continuing signs of decline. He hit over 60% of his batted balls on the ground to lead the league in that dubious stat for the second year in a row and benefitted from an extremely lucky hit% in that hot second half. The double-digit power he once possessed is likely gone forever and at 37, his best years are clearly behind him. Still, no one works harder than the future Hall of Famer, and the 15 steals and runs he’ll score hitting atop the Yankee lineup will keep him afloat for another year.
Alexei Ramirez, CHW – Ramirez is the guy to target if you want steady production at a somewhat discounted price. He’s been a consistent performer for four years now, and since his numbers took a slight dip last year he enters the year undervalued. I think he could very well be the guy who benefits from the departure of Ozzie Guillen. If new manager Robin Ventura sticks with him in the second spot in the order, that would certainly help restore some of the luster to his numbers, particularly his stolen bases, which dipped to 7 last year. He is an extremely durable player, so at least you know he’ll be out there every day, which could be enough reason to take him over Jeter, for instance.
J.J. Hardy, BAL – Hardy was a tremendous value for anyone who took a chance on him last year as his 30 home runs were more than anyone anticipated. The fact that he missed almost all April with an oblique strain meant that some who drafted him might have actually dropped him early on, missing out on everything that was still to come. Aside from the power, the biggest news was that he managed to stay healthy the rest of the way, leading the Orioles to ink him to a three-year extension. The power he possesses is real, though it’s best not to expect another 30 home run season. He has no speed whatsoever and if he manages to avoid the DL it would be the first time.
Erick Aybar, LAA – Much like Howie Kendrick last week, Aybar is a player who should benefit from the addition of Albert Pujols to the everyday lineup. He posted career-highs in homers (10) and steals (30) last year and if he can stay in the lead-off spot he could see a nice boost in runs this year. I think he’s still flying under the radar, and has even more value in AL-only leagues. He’s also got an eye on free agency after the season, so the motivation to build on last year’s gains should be there. Don’t be afraid to invest.
Jhonny Peralta, DET – Peralta had one of his best seasons ever in 2011. He hit 21 homers, getting back to that level for the first time since 2008. He also managed to hit a career-high .299 and played solid defense all year for the Tigers. Although I will give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that his power should remain intact for another year, I think there is no way he hits .299 again this year. Like Hardy, he’ll give you nothing in the speed department, meaning if that batting average falls back down, he’s a lot less valuable than he may seem . If it’s late in the game and I need some pop at SS, maybe I’ll give him a call, but he’s not someone I’m going out of my way to roster this year.
Yunel Escobar, TOR – Escobar rates as a safe, if unexciting option if you miss out on the names above him on this list. He was able to get his average back up to .290 last year, scored 77 runs and managed to muscle out 11 home runs. But what you see is what you are likely to get. There just isn’t a ton of upside here, but if you get to this point in the rankings and you don’t have a SS, you might not want to wait any longer.
Alcides Escobar, KC – He actually had a decent season after coming over in the Zack Greinke deal. He stole 26 bases from the bottom of the Royals lineup and played solid defense, which is of course his calling card. Many think a breakout is coming this year, and I can’t deny that he has the talent to steal 35-40 bases as soon as this year. I doubt he’ll be able to do it, but there are worse gambles this far down the line.
Sean Rodriguez, TB – I wrote about S-Rod in my second base rankings, and while I like him better there, my belief that a mini-breakout could be in store makes him a guy to keep in mind if you are desperate for a shortstop this year.
Cliff Pennington, OAK – Pennington nabs the next spot on the list based upon his solid second half and the potential to deliver a 20-steal season. He only stole 14 bases last year after swiping 29 the year before. Speed is what you are buying here and if you are lucky, maybe he finally manages to swat a few more balls out of the park.
Alexi Casilla – MIN – Casilla also qualifies at 2B, but I would argue he has slightly more value at SS in AL-only leagues. He has the ability to deliver 20-30 steals if he can manage to stay in the lineup.
Brendan Ryan, SEA – He will open the season as the starter in Seattle, and brings some speed to the table but little else. If you draft him, you may want to spend a reserve pick on prospect Nick Franklin, who could take over the job later in the year.
Mike Aviles, BOS – He doesn’t enter the year with SS eligibility but he’s very likely going to be the best option for the job in Boston. He’s got much more upside than Nick Punto and as such he’s the guy to take a flyer on late.
Eduardo Nunez, NYY – He is a must for anyone who drafts Derek Jeter to be their starter in AL-only leagues. He delivered a quiet 22 stolen bases last year in part-time duty and will once again fill in when Jeter and A-Rod miss time or need a day off.
Robert Andino, BAL – Anyone who backs up Hardy and Brian Roberts is a good bet to out-produce their projections, since there is a very good chance he could be an everyday player come Opening Day. Speed is his main asset, but he does have a little pop.
For me, the only player that really excites me at shortstop this year is Elvis Andrus. I see the mix of youth, speed and lineup as the ingredients for a big 2012. While I concede I didn’t rank him first, it’s only a lack of power that keeps him from the top spot. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Cabrera. Trust me, as a Cleveland fan I do, but so does everybody else this year. As such his price has climbed to elite status, and I’m just not sold that he’s going to deliver the numbers to justify what it will take to get him on my teams this year. My advice is to let someone else set the market with Asdrubal, then make your move and get on board with THIS year’s breakout star.
Best of the Rest
As always, I encourage you to add your own thoughts in the comments section or on the message boards.