Peter Gammons: The new generation of shortstops

andrelton simmons

Look, Peter Kozma started at shortstop in the World Series, and when the Cardinals won it all two years ago, they used Ryan Theriot, Rafael Furcal, Tyler Greene, Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso and Kozma at the position. Jackie Hernandez won the 1971 World Series as the Pirates shortstop, and there is still love in the air for Buddy Biancalana.

But few seriously diminish the significance of the position in the middle of the diamond. This season we saw two trains running: on the one hand, if WAR and Runs Saved are as valid as we often believe, then Andrelton Simmons was the best defensive player in the game, Ian Desmond, Simmons and Yunel Escobar the second, third and fourth best all-around shortstops after Troy Tulowitzki; and, on the other, Jhonny Peralta, three and a half years after being traded for Giovanni Soto, signed a free agent deal with the Cardinals for four years and $53M, which makes his AAV greater than Toronto star Jose Bautista.

As we see in Neil Weinberg’s piece on Peralta’s defense here on the site, Peralta has been an above-average defensive shortstop the last three seasons in terms of Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Revised Zone Rating, which in-between Kolten Wong at second and Matt Carpenter at third should fit fine in yet another Cardinal title run.

Eventually, a market for Stephen Drew, whose defensive skills continue to shine the farther he is from his ankle injury yet his offensive skills—despite a .770 OPS that was above league average at his position—have yet to get back to where his swing would seem to dictate; the ankle, then the concussions and his hip have slowed him down, yet his defense has shown no signs of age or physical problems. Perhaps the Dodgers will go for him and, as they sign Hanley Ramirez to an extension, move him to third, which he is willing to do. Maybe the Yankees, although Drew hasn’t wanted to play third base in the past.

What Peralta and Drew will show us is what teams can and will pay for a shortstop who can be above average on both sides of the ball. Which is also why it appears that we have a growing new generation of shortstops who do just that, important to teams that cannot compete with the big market dollars. Billy Ripken this week pointed out the similarities to the generation that came along after his brother Cal, who I think is the most underappreciated great defensive shortstop of his era.

Barry Larkin? HOF Alan Trammell, should be HOF Derek Jeter, HOF, in time. Alex Rodriguez, shouldabeenalotofthings. Nomar Garciaparra. Miguel Tejada. Even Edgar Renteria, for awhile.

Tulowitzki is an established star, which will come as a surprise to no one. His 5.6 WAR at shortstop topped only Washington’s Ian Desmond, who should be in any group of underappreciated players, at 5.0. Simmons next, at 4.7, then Escobar (3.9), Jed Lowrie (3.6), Jean Segura (3.4), J.J. Hardy (3.4).

Then look at the TOP TEN shortstops by Defensive WAR in 2013:

Andrelton Simmons, ATL 6.7
Hanley Ramirez, LAD 5.4
Troy Tulowitzki, COL 5.3
Elvis Andrus, TEX 4.3
J.J. Hardy, BAL 3.7
Ian Desmond, WAS 3.7
Jhonny Peralta, DET 3.3
Yunel Escobar, TB 3.3
Stephen Drew, BOS 3.1

 

The list isn’t ripe with household names or featured faces on television networks’ coming attractions, just very good players.

Last year in his first full big league season, Andrelton Simmons played a star-level shortstop for the Braves; analytically, he was the best defensive player in the game and a star at a shortstop position that had ten players with a WAR above three, 13 players in double figures in homers and four above 20, a far cry from the days of Marty Marion and Mark Belanger.

Now, as we (hopefully) ease out of the so-called Steroid Era into what Bud Selig hopes is simply the return to real baseball era, there are six young shortstops we will likely see arrive this season that could soon make this a golden era at the position.

–One, the Rangers’ Jurickson Profar, will probably play second base and team with Elvis Andrus, who in case you missed it, had the fourth best Wins Above Replacement of any shortstop in 2013. “His instincts and hitting skills should make him an elite player,” says one AL executive.

–Boston’s 21-year old Xander Bogaerts will probably move back to shortstop in 2014 with his package of power, intelligence and defensive actions that play like someone 5-11, not 6-3. One very smart, reasoned pro scouting director, drawing on his playing days, talks about seeking players who “seem to do everything without anxiety. They are comfortable, have no seeming fear or failure, never let emotion get into their approach. Bogaerts is the classic example. His post-season at-bats were amazing.” “He plays as if he’s a five year veteran,” said Jake Peavy. “Special is an understatement.”

–Oakland’s Addison Russell, 20, will get there during the season after 56 extra base hits and an .885 OPS at age 19 in A ball. Scouts comp? Barry Larkin. “His gap power and athletic instincts should put him right there in one slot below Bogaerts,” says a scout.

–The Cubs’ Javier Baez hit 37 homers and slugged almost .600 in A and AA…and doesn’t turn 21 until next week. His batspeed has been likened to Gary Sheffield, and, like Sheff, he could get moved off short, but 37 homers at the age of 20 cannot be found at any Black Friday sales. And the Cubs absolutely consider him a shortstop, which someday could result in 75 homers out of the left side of their infield between Baez and Kris Bryant. “Cubs fans may be moaning that Theo Epstein hasn’t made silly promises or paid for a bunch of over-the-hill mercenaries,” says one American League scout. “But in 2015 they could have an infield with Anthony Rizzo, Baez and Bryant, each of whom could hit 30 home runs.” No one likes Carlos Pena or Milton Bradley more than I, but there were the kind of promises Cubs fans got used to in lieu of developing something sustainable.

–Arizona’s Chris Owings. He often gets compared to Craig Biggio, hit .330 in triple-A with 54 extra base hits, and has made Didi Gregorius available. Desist on the gritty lines, the ‘Backs love his all-around skills.

–Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor played himself all the way to double-A at 19, and is so good, his enthusiasm so infectious that Terry Francona may have him playing short after the Allstar Break. “We have to be careful not to put too many expectations on him,” says one Indians official. “But he has a chance to be really good, and for a long time.

We get Brendan Ryan, because he is so good defensively. But this generation promises more, and, in the end, we see what Tulowitzki, Peralta, Andrus and Jeter have been worth because they do everything. At a time when corner power—especially righthanded corner—is so difficult to find, we are looking at a fascinating shifting landscape, one where three years from now Profar, Lindor, Bogaerts, Russell and Baez could face some media guides, maybe even a network preview of a coming attraction.

  • Lu Clinton

    Nice Little Feat reference Peter! It’s cool that you are willin’ to have fun with your readership.

  • vjp81955

    As a Nationals fan, I’m glad Ian Desmond gets some love. Solid in all senses of the game, and people in D.C. long awaited his arrival after he made some fine defensive plays in their first-ever game in Washington, an exhibition vs. the Mets at RFK in April 2005. By the time Desmond was ready for the Show, the Show had moved to South Capitol Street, and he’s turned out to be well worth the wait.