For the past couple of years, shortstop has been universally regarded as the thinnest position on the diamond in terms of fantasy baseball talent. The star power is there at the top, but things thin out quickly only adding to the value of someone like Troy Tulowitzki or Hanley Ramirez (this year’s performance notwithstanding, of course).
I had Jose Reyes with those two as the clear stars at the position with a huge gap down to the next tier (as did most, though Reyes’ ranking fluctuated a bit with some putting him closer to Jimmy Rollins than whomever was second between Ramirez & Tulow) and if you didn’t get one of those, you might as well just wait because the next tier or two was going to be overvalued just because they played shortstop and you could get better talent at other positions in those rounds and then take a shot on any number of like-valued shortstops.
How do things shape up for the next crop of talent at the position? That is what we will look at today continuing the Keeper Building Block series. While second base was a good position in the preseason position with enough depth to go around for the most part, it came up lame with keeper potential. Shortstop is a bit better as many were worried about how they would fill the position during their drafts and auctions, but now three months in we see some names emerging as cheap pieces worth keeping.
Elvis Andrus (TEX, 22) – Andrus is a great example of how young players to don’t necessarily develop linearly. After his strong rookie campaign as a 20-year old, he was a bit overrated as many expected him to simply build on his .267, 6 HR, 33 SB season. Instead he regressed a bit. His average dipped a bit to .265 while he hit exactly 0 home runs. He lost just one stolen base on his total, but his caught stealing total rose from six to 15 showing a significant decline in base running skill. Overall, his wOBA (think of it on OBP scale & click the link for more) dropped from .322 to .298.
Many fantasy baseball owners saw a .002 batting average drop, two stolen base drop and a loss of six home runs that you weren’t expecting out of this player at a non-power position and combined it with the scarcity of shortstop to actually upgrade Andrus’ stock. His average draft position essentially cut in half from 151 in 2010 to 71 this year. Fantasy owners have to happy with the early returns. He is hitting a career-best .278 with three home runs and 22 stolen bases putting him on pace for six and 44 as we near the halfway point.
His age, position and excellence in a key category make him a prime fantasy asset. But his age also means we could see another dip in performance in 2012 as he will still just be all of 23 years old. If 2010 is a floor, though, he is still fantasy viable in most league formats, especially standard ones as he was an easy top 10 shortstop last year. In a lot of leagues, he still has at least one more year on a cheap contract making him my top shortstop building block.
Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE, 25) – I have discussed (whined) more than once how I am often a year early on guys. I’ll get amped about a sleeper, secure him on every team I can and watch him deliver underwhelming numbers or worse, flop entirely. Cabrera is the latest addition to the list as I couldn’t wait to roster him as a late round, low dollar SS/2B last year. Injuries limited him to just 97 games and left me needing a replacement for 65 games. Now I won’t pretend I saw this coming from Cabrera last year, this year or any year. I had him down for 13-16 home runs and 20-24 stolen bases which would have been pretty significant gains on his 2009 totals of six home runs and 17 stolen bases.
He has had an impressive power surge this year without sacrificing any speed putting him on pace for 27 home runs and 25 stolen bases with a shiny .296 batting average, too. Coming off of an injury-riddled season, he had an average draft position around 200 and cost of just a few bucks making him a prime keeper target for non-contenders looking toward 2012.
I don’t necessarily see him becoming a perennial high-20s home run hitter (of course we have to see him do it once, first), but a high-teens, low-20s home run hitter with 20+ stolen bases and batting average to go with it (career .285 hitter) is an incredible commodity. He is a bit over his head, but not wildly so and even if he “only” went 15-15, that’d be great at shortstop especially at the low cost you would have invested.
Starlin Castro (CHI, 21) – Like Andrus, Castro is insanely young making him an elite commodity in fantasy baseball, especially in dynasty leagues. But I will reiterate with him that just because we have seen growth (so far) from season one to season two (.325 to .353 wOBA) doesn’t mean it will happen again in 2012 for this 22-year old (regardless of where he finishes 2011). He has proven a little less patient this year dropping his walk rate from 6% to 4%, but he has also brought his strikeout rate down in concert from 15% to 11% so he isn’t just blindly hacking away at everything, either.
His batting average might be a bit BABIP-inflated (which sits at .351), but he managed a .346 mark in 506 plate appearances last year so perhaps he is setting his level a bit higher than the average. Batters don’t regress toward a league average as much as pitchers, instead setting their own over time with speedsters generally trending higher (Ichiro has a career .354 mark). He has the speed to add to his BABIP and he needs to keep hitting .300+ or else his fantasy value takes a significant hit as the power isn’t there yet and might not be for a year or two (if ever).
Through his first 856 plate appearances, he appears to be a hit collecting machine with good speed which has plenty of value in our game. He is on pace for 88 runs scored and 74 driven in, both of which are pretty good given how inept the Cubs as a team. I rated him behind Andrus and Cabrera because so much of his value is tied to the batting average which can bounce around wildly from year-to-year even without a skills change.
Stephen Drew (ARI, 28) – This is one totally league-dependent as he won’t be at a keeper-price in all leagues, but from what I saw this preseason, he was in a lot of leagues. He doesn’t have a single-digit price necessarily, but I like his skills profile enough that I would keep him at a mid-to-high teens cost, especially if my league was prone to significant inflation. He doesn’t overwhelm with his numbers. In fact, in comparison to his skill level, he is somewhat underwhelming in the fantasy categories, but he is bankable and that has a role. Let his cost in your league be the guide on him.
Ian Desmond (WAS, 24) – Right now, Desmond is a speed-only asset, pacing toward 40 stolen bases, but that is literally it so far this year. His average is .224 and his wOBA is a woeful .271. He showed some pop in the first 607 at-bats of his career with 14 home runs, but that has evaporated this year with a .089 ISO and a six home run pace in 562 at-bats. There is some upside here, though, given his age and the fact that he is likely a single-digit cost in every league. He wouldn’t be my first choice at this position or anything close to a centerpiece for my best trade assets, but he isn’t a horrible option as one of your last keepers.
Dee Gordon (LAD, 23) – Gordon is an unproven speed asset with the chance to be a speed-batting average asset as he develops and gets experience. His runs scored will depend on the Dodger offense and his spot in the lineup. Do not bet on any power now or in the future. He hit seven home runs in 1544 minor league at-bats which is as clear a sign as you need to know the power isn’t coming. And if for some reason that wasn’t enough, one look at his 5’11/150 lb. frame oughta do the trick.
Alcides Escobar (KC, 24) – Escobar is a more advanced version of Gordon so while I’d take Escobar for the rest of ’11, I’d take Gordon in a keeper scenario. He is still a speed-only asset right now, but with 1000 plate appearances under his belt, he has more experience and thus is closer to becoming someone who could reasonably offer some batting average upside along with the speed. Conversely, with 1000 PAs under is belt, the sample is getting large enough to where we might not see much growth on his career .249 aveage. He is hitting .245 this year after a huge hot streak so that tells you just how poorly he was hitting before the streak.
JJ Hardy (BAL, 28) – Not everyone is going to trust Hardy regardless of how he finishes the year. After back-to-back 20+ HR seasons, he hasn’t lasted more than 115 games in the last two years totaling just 17 home runs in 754 at-bats. He is finally completely healthy and performing like the 2007-2008 version that averaged 25 bombs a season. He is on pace for 26 home runs this year along with a .303 batting average that doesn’t appear to be a pure fluke. Crazy how well guys can perform when they are healthy. He can’t be more than a few bucks in just about every league and he is still on the right side of 30, so I would take a shot on him in a lot of league formats. I am generally more risk-averse than not, but I have a soft spot for Hardy (no pun intended), I guess.