You'll notice that one of them had just popped up. The other was attempting to bunt, and the placement of his top hand would make your Little League coach ill.
Those two players, Dave Concepcion and Rick Burleson, were considered the best shortstops in baseball during their prime. In fact, they both received Silver Sluggers in 1981, an award given to the top hitter at each position in each league.
Today, if those two produced the same numbers, no one would draft them in a fantasy league. Here are their combined stats from the 1981 season:
110 R, 10 HR, 100 RBI, 8 SB, .300 AVG.
If that's just one guy, it's not too bad.
Sure, 1981 was a strike year, but together Concepcion and Burleson played 215 games and had 958 plate appearances. Here's what Hanley Ramirez did all by himself last season in 61 fewer games:
125 R, 29 HR, 81 RBI, 51 SB, .332 AVG.
And he didn't win a thing. Ramirez wasn't even an All-Star. Jimmy Rollins took the NL Silver Slugger after producing this line:
139 R, 30 HR, 94 RBI, 41 SB, .296 AVG.
That's really what an elite shortstop looks like in 2008. Today, we expect them to match or exceed the offensive production of the best outfielders and corner infielders. According the latest ADP numbers, three shortstops are actually selected ahead of Albert Pujols in a typical draft: Ramirez (2.6), Rollins (6.7), and Jose Reyes (3.7). Those picks are all justifiable, too.
But things begin to change after the top three.
In the tiers to the right, there's a conspicuous lack of proper nouns in Tier 2. That's just a way of emphasizing the gap in projected value between Rollins and the next best players at the position. In an average draft, Rollins and Derek Jeter are separated by over 30 picks – and owners might actually be giving the 33-year-old Jeter too much credit. We see this brand-name phenomenon a lot. In a 12-team league, Jeter was a slight liability in two categories last season (HR, RBI), and most of his value was in batting average. Troy Tulowitzki was at least as useful, contributing solidly in R, HR, RBI and AVG. He tried to contribute in steals, too, but kept getting thrown out.
That's five active shortstops we've now mentioned by name – Ramirez, Reyes, Rollins, Jeter, Tulowitzki – and four of them play in the National League. This is significant to some of you. Talent is not distributed evenly between the leagues at the position and that has an impact on NL-only and AL-only drafts.
In the Yahoo! expert composite rankings, 12 of the top 19 shortstops are in the NL. The worst starter you're likely to have in a 12-team NL-only league is Ryan Theriot, who stole 28 bases and scored 80 runs last season. But in the junior circuit, the tenth best shortstop for fantasy purposes is … who, exactly? Hard to say.
Yuniesky Betancourt? Bobby Crosby?
It's enough to make you reconsider the merits of Rick Burleson. Funston was all over him in the 1974 shortstop primer, by the way.
Before we sift through the rising and falling players, we have two important administrative notes. First of all, Carlos Guillen isn't expected to play much shortstop in 2008. He started 129 games at short in 2007, though, so he'll have fantasy eligibility. His move to first is a particularly big deal in custom leagues that use fielding percentage as a category. In such leagues, you should really bump Guillen above Tulowitzki and Jeter in your rankings.
Secondly, Brad Evans poached Brandon Wood on Wednesday for the third base primer. This is completely reasonable, since Wood is expected to work at both third and shortstop during the Spring. But since he's already been covered, he doesn't appear in the "Prospects to Watch" section below.
|2008 Shortstop: On the Rise|
|Lowdown: Tulowitzki scuffled along early in the 2007 season, hitting .244 with only two homers in April. He was a 22-year-old rookie with no experience above Double-A, so the struggles weren't a surprise. Things improved slightly in May, as he raised his batting average 33 points. The power still wasn't there, but Tulowitzki finished the month with a series of multi-hit games and the fantasy community noticed. Then on June 21, he hit a 445-foot bomb off Roger Clemens. Then he homered again on June 22. And again on the 23rd. And again on the 25th. |
Tulowitzki would eventually hit 21 of his 24 HR after June 20. He posted an .891 OPS following the All-Star break, earned the manly affections of certain Baseball Tonight personalities, and hit a ton over the season's final month. Between September 1 and October 1, Tulowitzki scored 27 runs, drove in 27, and hit six HR. He was much better at Coors Field last year than he was on the road (.909 OPS at home, .706 away). In fact, if he were a cold-activated bottle of Coors he would've turned blue when he was in Colorado, and tasted like dog slobber everywhere else. His BABIP was high but not extreme last season (.336), and he specialized in line drives (20.1 percent). You shouldn't expect a severe decline in '08. The Rockies have 31 million reasons to hope that doesn't happen.
|Forecast: 590 AB, 90 R, 22 HR, 90 RBI, 12 SB, .285 AVG.|
|Lowdown: In many ways, Hardy was the anti-Tulowitzki last year. He was spectacular early in the season, then slumped in the second half while his team faded. Hardy had 15 HR, 43 RBI and a .314 average on May 25; he finished the season with 26 HR, 80 RBI, and a batting average of .277. There are probably a few of you who sold high on Hardy in May, then added Tulowitzki in June. If you did, then you found a clever way to get 36 HR and 123 RBI from the shortstop position. |
The 25-year-old Hardy has crushed left-handed pitching so far in his career (.297/.359/.558). He's somewhat less interesting in custom leagues that use OBP. Hardy's career minor league on-base percentage is .335, and he drew only 40 BB last season in 638 plate appearances. In case you're wondering, or you need to heckle him for any reason, "JJ" stands for "James Jerry."
|Forecast: 510 AB, 85 R, 19 HR, 75 RBI, 4 SB, .271 AVG.|
|Lowdown: The fantasy community has a long, complicated relationship with the Drews. We're again at a point where it's not exciting to draft either of them, which almost certainly means they're going to be incredible in 2008. Just like his older and more delicate brother, Stephen was terrific in the playoffs last season. (What are the odds that both J.D. Drew and Eli Manning would be fantastic – clutch even – on the biggest possible stages, and within the same year? Incalculable … ) The 24-year-old shortstop hit .387 against the Cubs and Rockies in October with a 1.084 OPS. Stephen's solid postseason brought a decent end to an otherwise ugly season: .238, 12 HR, 60 RBI, 60 R, 9 SB. He managed to reduce his K rate from 2006 to 2007, though, and he did draw 60 walks last season. Drew also exhibited slightly more discipline and power in the second half. Expect continued improvement here, even if it's incremental.|
|Forecast: 490 AB, 75 R, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 5 SB, .265 AVG.|
|Lowdown: There was an interesting RotoWire note on Escobar's player page recently, suggesting that the Atlanta shortstop has added muscle during the offseason. For fantasy purposes, that isn't a bad thing. The 25-year-old Escobar has hit for average in his minor league career (.294 over 836 at bats), but he hasn't yet demonstrated significant power (10 HR, .411 SLG). He also hasn't been particularly successful trying to steal (14 SB in 28 attempts). Escobar's .367 BABIP may dip, but his line drive percentage was high last year (21.1). He's not a player who's likely to hurt you in batting average, and hitting atop one of the NL's most productive lineups, you're going to get runs. The fact that he qualifies at multiple infield positions gives his value a boost, particularly in larger leagues.|
|Forecast: 580 AB, 90 R, 9 HR, 61 RBI, 10 SB, .290 AVG.|
|Lowdown: Bartlett is now 28, and we can say with a certain degree of confidence what he is and what he isn't. Let's start with the things he isn't: a home run hitter and an RBI producer. It didn't happen in the minors, and it's not going to happen in Tampa Bay. He'll be a liability in those categories, no doubt. But he has hit for average, both in the minors (.297 in 2015 at bats) and at the Major League level – well, at least in 2006 when he hit .309 in 333 at bats for the Twins. The other thing that he can do is steal bases. He was successful on 23 of 26 SB attempts last year, and the Rays will definitely run. They were third in the AL in team steals each of the past two years, and they were second in 2005. Over a full season, Bartlett could certainly swipe 30. Not bad for a guy getting taken at 323rd overall, a pick that doesn't even exist in many drafts.|
|Forecast: 510 AB, 78 R, 5 HR, 50 RBI, 25 SB, .284 AVG.|
|2008 Shortstop: On the Decline|
|Lowdown: The best thing we can say about Tejada's offseason is that he was allowed to re-enter the US. He has "legal woes," as journalists often say. Tejada's name appeared in the Mitchell Report, linked to steroids and HGH. (Look, he's even pictured in our official graphic, so you know it's serious). Copies of personal checks appeared within the report, too. The lesson for kids is simple: never create your own Exhibit A. Tejada may not have been perfectly honest at all times with all investigators, which tends to lead to more investigations. |
He's not leading off the "On the Decline" section simply because of his legal predicament, though. He's turning 32 and his slugging percentage has declined in each of the past three years. Last season it was lower than it had been since 1999. The distractions don't help. The possibility that Tejada's now off whatever it was he was allegedly on can't make fantasy owners feel particularly good, either. Houston's offense isn't too shabby, of course, so a useful fantasy season from the historically dependable Tejada isn't unlikely. But another 100-30-110 season is.
|Forecast: 600 AB, 85 R, 23 HR, 95 RBI, 4 SB, .290 AVG.|
|Lowdown: This isn't really about Young so much as it's about his production relative to his draft position. Young is 31 years old and, like Tejada, his slugging percentage is in decline (from .513 to .459 to .418). Last year he scored 80 runs, hit nine homers, drove in 94, stole 13 bases, and hit .315. That's a very good season, but it's not worth an early draft pick. In fact, it's not worth a top 100 pick. Orlando Cabrera was at least as productive as Young last year in fantasy terms (101 R, 8 HR, 86 RBI, 20 SB, .301), and he's getting taken 49 picks later. Young led both leagues in line drive percentage in 2007 (27.2), and there's little doubt he'll hit for a high average. But you're not getting many steals, and you aren't getting useful power. If he exceeds expectations, he's a bit like that hybrid Concepcion/Burleson thing above. |
I'd prefer to use that seventh round pick on one of the higher-upside starting pitchers who are taken after Young in an average draft. That list includes Felix Hernandez, Chris Young, Javier Vazquez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, James Shields, Brett Myers, Rich Hill, Tim Lincecum, and Francisco Liriano. If you can collect three of those guys and then get Cabrera in Round 11, you'll have done well.
|Forecast: 630 AB, 85 R, 9 HR, 90 RBI, 9 SB, .308 AVG|
|Lowdown: So you probably don't need an expert to tell you that a 32-year-old shortstop coming off a .237 season has declined. Lugo did steal 33 bases last year, but that batting average was much too low to carry on a public league roster. His line drive percentage, OBP and walk rate are in a multi-year dive, and Lugo finished the 2007 season hitting ninth for the Red Sox. There aren't many obvious reasons for optimism here, fantasy-wise. And there's a prospect helping to push him off to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Kansas City or wherever (see below). Lugo is now a fringe play at a middle infield spot, and little else. But we'll always have 2005.|
|Forecast: 430 AB, 60 R, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 20 SB, .260 AVG.|
|Lowdown: "The past two years have pretty much been wasted, to be honest." That's Bobby Crosby speaking, quoted by Tim Brown in this piece. Crosby hasn't managed to play 100 games in a season since 2004, when he was the AL Rookie of the Year after a relatively poor campaign (.239/.319/.426). That was really a classic ROY race: Crosby was first, followed by Shingo Takatsu and Daniel Cabrera. Crosby remains the A's theoretical starting shortstop, but he's a bottom-of-the-order hitter with limited power and speed, and he can't stay healthy. In 1,597 career Major League at bats, the 28-year-old has hit .240. A solid season by Crosby's standards would be a bad year for, say, Khalil Greene.|
|Forecast: 350 AB, 49 R, 11 HR, 42 RBI, 5 SB, .246 AVG.|
|Lowdown: We could have easily gone with an Omar Vizquel or David Eckstein here, but instead we'll use Gonzalez to make a simple point about fantasy strategy. The point is this: don't chase players on hot streaks, especially when they have a decade-long record of mediocrity. In late-May of last season, Gonzalez went on an eight-game hitting streak that included three homers and seven RBI. If you had him in your lineup in an NL-only league, good for you. That streak raised his batting average 30 points … and thousands of fantasy owners added him. As if 30-year-old Alex Gonzalez, a career .248/.299/.399 hitter, had reached some new plateau. Gonzalez managed only six more HR over the remainder of the season and he hit .225 in June, which shouldn't have surprised anyone. Don't think that a great week from a familiar player tells you something radically new.|
|Forecast: 360 AB, 45 R, 9 HR, 48 RBI, 3 SB, .250 AVG. – But that's not the point.|
|2008 Shortstop: Prospects to Watch|
|Lowdown: Lowrie is a 23-year-old switch-hitting shortstop who hit .298/.393/.503 in 497 at bats last season, splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A. He hit 47 doubles and 13 HR, so there's some power potential here. Lowrie might only be Boston's fourth or fifth highest-ranked prospect, but that's just a testament to the quality of the system. There's a decent chance he'd be your preferred team's top prospect, and no, that's not really fair. He's the guy on this prospect list most likely to make a fantasy contribution in 2008, though it would likely require an injury or a trade.|
|Forecast: 80 AB, 11 R, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB, .275 AVG.|
|Lowdown: Triunfel hit .296/.333/.367 in 371 at bats last season, nearly all of them in Single-A. That wouldn't be terribly impressive were it not for this fact: he's 17 years old. No, he's not going to be relevant to public league fantasy owners for three or four years, but when he arrives, he has a chance to be great. It's a big deal for a minor leaguer to hit for average against pitchers who are, in many cases, four years older. Again, if you only play in a single-season, non-keeper format, you can probably forget this name until 2011. But if you're in a league that drafts all the elite prospects regardless of their level, few are more interesting than Triunfel. Whatever else you think about the Adam Jones-Erik Bedard deal, at least Seattle kept this guy.|
|Forecast: Continued hype, no MLB at bats.|
|Lowdown: When Mark Teixeira was traded to Atlanta last season, the deal was often reported as "Jarrod Saltalamacchia and four minor leaguers." As if all minor leaguers are interchangeable. But Elvis Andrus, in addition to having maybe the best name in baseball, has evident star potential, and someday he should dislodge Michael Young from short in Texas. Like Triunfel, Andrus had a solid season in high Single-A, and he did it as a teenager: 22 doubles, five HR, 40 SB, and .257/.338/.343. He just turned 19 last August, and is likely three or four years away from making a serious fantasy impact.|
|Forecast: Again, no MLB at bats. Sorry. I wanted to discuss Brandon Wood, you'll recall.|
|Lowdown: Moustakas was Baseball America's 2007 High School Player of the Year after batting .577 with a California state-record 24 home runs. He was selected with the second overall pick in the amateur draft, and hit .293/.383/.439 in 41 at bats with Rookie League Idaho Falls last season. He reportedly has a high-90s fastball, too, and was his team's closer in high school. |
The 496-page Baseball America Almanac is a terrific thing, and this passage might be my favorite: "Moustakas drilled his 22nd home run, another tape-measure shot that sailed over two chain-link fences and landed on the windshield of the opposing team's right fielder's Toyota Corolla."
|Forecast: Yup, zero MLB at bats. This is a recurring theme.|
|Lowdown: OK, we'll end with a guy who has somewhat less upside, but who's much closer to the Major Leagues. After a terrific 2006 season spent mostly in high Single-A, where he hit .328 with 21 HR and 11 steals, Brignac struggled a bit as a 21-year-old at Double-A. Still, he hit 17 HR and stole 15 bases while batting .260/.328/.433. The Rays don't really have a shortage of middle infielders right now, so the left-handed hitting Brignac doesn't figure to make any sort of fantasy impact before 2009. Tampa Bay is another team with a rich minor league system, so don't be too concerned if you don't see Brignac listed among the Rays top-five prospects on whichever list you choose to consult.|
|Forecast: 40 AB, 5 R, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 2 SB, .250 AVG.|