Where Did the Great Shortstops Go?

When I started playing fantasy baseball in earnest, there were four shortstops that were head and shoulders over the pack. On top you had Alex Rodriguez, the best player in the world. You had Derek Jeter, the franchise player on the best team in baseball. You had Nomar Garciaparra, enigmatic and injury-prone, but when healthy he was George Brett at shortstop. And you had Miguel Tejada, not as highly regarded, but in fantasy baseball we coveted this kind of power at the position. Those who paid a premium were usually rewarded handsomely.

In 2015, we have four shortstops going higher than all the others in drafts. You might be a Tulo guy, and as far as I’m concerned you can have him if you want him; just remember you’re using one of your top picks on 50 games of Brandon Crawford or somebody. I like Ian Desmond fine, but I don’t know if I’m pulling the trigger in round 2. I get that he’s the only guy to go 20/20 in each of the past three seasons, but I might be passing on an outfielder who can give me that by the end of July. That bugs me. But his reliability is worth it to some, and certainly stands out among this bunch. On the other hand, Hanley Ramirez is almost impossible to evaluate. He is expected to flourish in Fenway (aren’t they all?), but don’t overvalue his great half season in 2013 and forget that he’s been underwhelming more often than not of late, including last year. His upside is really high; his chances of reaching it are remote. Jose Reyes can be had a couple of rounds later than these three and it seems like people have gotten a little sick of him. This would be a buying opportunity if his value didn’t rest so heavily on his 32-year-old legs. That’s older than you think in baseball years. Considering Reyes is at the top of an acclaimed lineup he is likely to cost more than he should.

The wisdom of using a high pick on these players is questionable. ARod and the three guys I mentioned at the start were not just great picks because they were shortstops. They were great picks because they were great players. If I picked prime Nomar over Jeff Kent or Chipper Jones, it was a reasonable to expect Nomar to outperform those guys based strictly on the numbers. Can we say the same if we are choosing Tulo over Adam Jones or Hanley over Justin Upton? That feels like a position scarcity tax to me.

And even if you do feel justified in paying a high price for a shortstop, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news: There are a couple of people in that draft who are probably thinking the same thing and you may get shut out of the top options even if you really want one. Then, what are we left with? That’s another change over the past 15 years or so. Not only are there no Jeters and Nomars, there are no Renterias and Furcals to save you in the middle rounds. And reaching for the wrong guy in the middle rounds can be as painful as overpaying for an elite one. Take it from the guy who some years ago passed on the 40 home run prime of Curtis Granderson in favor of the loathsome Stephen Drew.

So what do we do with this mess? We don’t want to reach and we don’t want to overpay. Here are a couple of ideas to keep in mind that will keep us from hurting ourselves at shortstop.

Take the position out of it. You may have heard that positional scarcity is a myth. I don’t know if it’s a myth but I’m almost certain it is overemphasized. Maybe you honestly think that Hanley is likely to put up better numbers that Justin Upton. You might have good reasons. If you do, draft Hanley. But if you are projecting Justin Upton to outperform Hanley, don’t overthink things; take Upton and worry about shortstop later. In the early rounds, take the guy who you think will be best. There is plenty of time for gritting your teeth and being unenthusiastic about your picks later on.

Ignore the career year. Sometimes a guy will fluke his way into a career year and barrel his way into the top 5 at the position. Alexei Ramirez did that last year. So you may be ready to graduate him into the earlier rounds. This is a mistake. Right now he is going ahead of David Ortiz in drafts. This is a positional scarcity/career year double whammy. I know Ortiz is old, but are we really expecting this much out of Alexei?

A very good year from someone with the track record of Ramirez doesn’t change much in my evaluation of him. He’s likely to take a step back this year; I think this is true of a few of last year’s overachievers like Alcides Escobar and Jimmy Rollins.

Tiers are not enough. Making tiers is useful for some but I try not to rely to heavily on them. They have caused me to reach for players I don’t really want over guys I do want based on where they play on the field. Tiers make even less sense to me as you move further down the positional rankings where player value is less distinguishable and performance is harder to predict.

But while it is hard to predict who will end up with the better year between, say, Jhonny Peralta and Alcides Escobar, you can be certain that Peralta is not going to give you 20 steals and Escobar will not give you 20 home runs. That’s why there is little use in ranking Jhonny Peralta and Alcides Escobar at their position and being done with it. If you are drafting a shortstop and these are the top two options on your list, it’s probable that one of them is a nice fit for your team and one of them isn’t going to help you as much as he should. Go with the guy who is most likely to fill a need on your squad. If you are short on steals, take the steals. At this point in the draft, you probably are not thinking to yourself “I need the steals that Escobar can provide, but Peralta might take the league by storm this year.”

To keep proper perspective, I suggest thinking about shortstops in buckets instead of tiers. Make three lists for the position once we get past the first few shortstops off the board. One list of shortstops whose primary contribution is their speed (Escobar, Andrus, etc.); one list of guys whose primary contribution is their power (Peralta, Hardy, etc.); and one list of guys who can give you a little bit of both (Rollins, Asdrubal, etc.). Now you are on your way to making the best pick for your team at a time.

So now what? Well, first the speed bucket: I think these guys are considered safer and more consistent than they deserve to be. Andrus for instance went from 21 steals in 2012, then 42 in 2013, then back to 27 last year (with 15 caught stealing to boot). His total can’t drop much lower for him to be a big liability for your team considering his other deficiencies. When Jean Segura stole 44 bases in 2013, we projected 30 steals which was kind of a doomsday scenario in 2014. We didn’t know what doomsday was.

The power guys usually don’t cost as much as the speed guys at least, but they too can be inconsistent. Think about Hardy last year. Or Jed Lowrie, who believe it or not was considered a thumper breakout candidate just one year ago.

Still I will dip into these buckets in a draft; I just want these guys to be as cheap as possible. I’m inclined to wait for guys who didn’t live up to their promise last year and can be had for cheap this year, like Jean Segura or J.J. Hardy. Peralta and Hardy have long been the frick and frack of decent power bats at shortstop, so I’ll take the cheaper Hardy this year. As we mentioned, Segura had a nightmare 2014, but he’s still young and has shown what he can do. If he gets out of the gate strong, he’s a solid value. (Hey NFBC: Is he really going eighth at the position? This is not a discount. I’m thinking you can get him later.)

However, if I’ve drafted well, I don’t have to be as concerned about need. I can shoot for a guy who has a good chance of contributing across the board, and thus exceed his draft value. Think of how far Jimmy Rollins fell last year and how well he did. For 2015, I’m thinking of Chris Owings, Brad Miller if he’s playing, maybe even Asdbrual Cabrera. Is it possible Danny Santana has enough power to be in this bucket? He might be a good buy if you are a believer. With this bucket, the uncertainty is more about how well they can do, whereas with the speed and power buckets, the uncertainty is more related to nervousness about whether players will live up to expectations.

I feel like the buckets allow me to take a more dispassionate approach to this position. This makes sense to me. It doesn’t seem like Elvis Andrus and Jhonny Peralta are guys to get fervent about. What do you think about the buckets? Do you feel like you stepped into a bucket of something else? Let me know in the comments.