No, it's not a Strittmatter-choreographed dance sensation that's sweeping the United States (yet...). It's the occasionally desperate maneuvering teams undergo to find someone athletic enough to defend the shortstop position, yet strong enough to turn around a big-league fastball when they need to and hit a respectable amount. It's what makes Willie Bloomquist worth $900,000 on the free agent market one year when nobody thinks he can play shortstop, then worth $3.8MM on the free agent market the next year when he proves that he can play shortstop. It can make teams do crazy things, and from the look of things, it's on Arizona's to-do list this off-season.
Big Announcement!!! Given my reputation as a... lengthy writer, I'll be including tl;dr marks on my posts this Fall/Winter, starting with this post! If you just want to skip to the general conclusions (the list of names that I think are likely to be available) that I have personally derived from the thorough process of the post, feel free to skip to the point marked "(tl;dr)"!
With Bloomquist and John McDonald getting dinged up in 2012 and Stephen Drew's absent bat following his return from his gruesome injury, Arizona has found itself short-handed in the shortstop department, even turning to Jake Elmore for 19 games. From the sound of things, picking up a shortstop in the off-season and sliding Bloomquist and McDonald into their more natural utility roles is on GM Kevin Towers' to-do list, and perhaps the roster's top priority. Several names have been bandied about on the site - most notably Texas' Elvis Andrus - but can we dig deeper than the big name that might be on the market?
To put it another way, there are 30 players in MLB-affiliated baseball who are best suited to be starting shortstops in 2013... Who are the ones who aren't currently starting shortstops, and what teams are hiding them?
The process will be simple: I'll go through each MLB team and dissect their current shortstop situation, looking for situations where a player could be made available who might be capable of handling a big-league shortstop job in 2013. But, to be clear, it's not so much a process of looking for shortstops of any level of value that might interest Arizona, as that would leave us with dozens of possibilities. Further, Bloomquist and McDonald are more than capable of providing maybe up to a win over replacement level in some sort of platoon system unless they both get injured simultaneously again.
Rather, it's a matter of looking for teams with multiple players capable of manning shortstop on an everyday basis, such that the expected value that could be returned by trading one to fill another position and playing the other in his place outweighs the expected value of keeping both players and playing them simultaneously in some way. As such, we'll be looking for players who are natural shortstops, rather than trying to speculate how many second basemen in the league could be acquired and moved to shortstop for the D-backs.
[Stats updated through games of 9/10/12]
Colorado - Well, there's that Tulowitzki guy. He's good. He's got a huge contract. He's the face of that franchise... And he's also hurt, so someone has had a chance at his job for the last month and a half. That someone is Josh Rutledge, up from Double-A Tulsa. While Rutledge is tearing the cover off the ball, he's a) hitting better in the majors than he did at Double-A, b) BABIP'ing .356, which is a safe threshold at which to point and giggle about luck, c) apparently hates drawing walks, and d) isn't a particularly good defender. So while he might be a decent 1-1.5 win type of player on a cheap salary in an everyday role, caveat emptor with the Rockies likely to try to jack up his price based on his small MLB sample. Shortstops: 2
Los Angeles - Well, they traded for Hanley Ramirez at mid-season, but they did so because the man he replaced, Dee Gordon, is the kind of player for whom the phrase "you can't steal first" was coined. Shortstops: 1
San Diego - Intended starter and solid 2011 contributor Jason Bartlett is hitting the free agent market after a disastrous and injury-riddled 2012, but Everth Cabrera has been a more-than-acceptable fill-in for the Padres. Cabrera is dirt-cheap and managed a .242/.321/.327 line as a Petco player with a quality glove for the position, so it's safe to assume he'll be back at the position in 2013 down by the Gaslamp District. It's even safer to assume this once you look at the Padres' lack of other internal options. Shortstops: 1
San Francisco - Surprising as it is to say, Brandon Crawford's .246/.307/.346 line is actually palatable for the position, though you can bet that a large number of those walks are due to his presence in the 8-spot in the lineup. His backup has been Joaquin Arias, but Arias is more suited to playing the hot corner than shortstop. If Crawford weren't making MLB minimum, he probably wouldn't count here, but I think San Fran can live with him hitting 8th, especially with nobody within the organization chomping at Crawford's heels for the job. Even if they go out and get an upgrade this off-season, Crawford won't be a serious trade target. Shortstops: 1
Chicago - Well, Starlin Castro's firmly cemented in the everyday shortstop role, though he could move to third base if the Cubs were to find themselves with a jam at short. That said, there is no such jam at short, unless you consider Castro's middle infield mate, Darwin Barney, a long-term piece (which I don't). Shortstops: 1
Cincinnati - Zack Cozart has proven a capable, cheap shortstop due to his quality glove and surprising pop, even if he is likely to be a sub-.300 OBP guy for most of his career. If the Reds truly believe in Billy Hamilton as a future MLB shortstop, though, it's not far-fetched to imagine that Cozart becomes available, especially with some believing Hamilton capable of providing offensive value in the majors in 2013. Shortstops: 2
Milwaukee - Since departing with J.J. Hardy, the Brewers have been hard-pressed to find a shortstop worth retaining for the long-term, instead relying on a collection of stop-gaps at low costs. Alex Gonzalez was supposed to be the solution for 2012, but he got hurt early in the year, and Milwaukee has since played five others at the position. Their latest acquisition - Jean Segura, the headline piece of the Zack Greinke trade - looks like their shortstop of the future, but with Gonzalez hitting free agency, he also looks like their only legitimate starting option at the position in 2013. Shortstops: 1
Pittsburgh - The Pirates let Ronny Cedeno walk after 2011 and signed Clint Barmes to a two-year contract, with the hope that he would be their everyday shortstop. Unfortunately, things have gone... less than swimmingly for him at the dish. Pittsburgh has since turned to a trio of Barmes, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer to man the position, with Barmes likely to get every chance to succeed going forward due to the financial commitment made to him. Although Harrison and Mercer are little more than short-term filler, the Pirates have no real options on the farm and may be continuing their shortstop-by-commission into 2013 unless Barmes turns it around at the plate. Shortstops: 1
St. Louis - The Cardinals have played Rafael Furcal and his bazooka of an arm at shortstop since acquiring him from the Dodgers mid-way through last year, and Furcal is signed through the 2013 season. That's good news for St. Louis, as they have no other real candidates to man the position in 2013. Shortstops: 1
Atlanta - After suffering through stints of Tyler Pastornicky and Jack Wilson while losing Andrelton Simmons to injury, the Braves tried to stop the bleeding by acquiring Paul Janish from Cincinnati. Janish has only been marginally better than Wilson offensively, though he is a significant defensive upgrade and is capable of playing stopgap so long as you don't need to rely on him to hit. In the end, though, Simmons is the only guy I'm trusting with an everyday gig. Shortstops: 1
Miami - Jose Reyes is signed until approximately around the end of time; it seems like Reyes and Tulo will be cashing in their paychecks together until the sun implodes and deep-fries the Earth. Other than a desperate attempt to force Emilio Bonifacio to short, there are no other real options here with the departure of Hanley, though it's not like the Marlins have any reason to worry about this with the aforementioned expected tenure of Reyes. Shortstops: 1
New York - After Jose Reyes went down with an injury prior to the end of the 2011 season, Ruben Tejada took over shortstop duties for the Mets and held that job going into 2012, though his own injury issues have led to Ronny Cedeno and Omar Quintanilla getting time at the position. Cedeno and Quintanilla have done quality work in short samples, but their career arcs suggest that they're more of stop-gap options. Tejada looks legit, though, so there's one bona fide everyday shortstop on this roster. Shortstops: 1
Philadelphia - Seeing the dearth of offensive production at shortstop throughout the league really puts Jimmy Rollins' value in proper perspective. He may have posted OBP's of .320 or below in three of the last four seasons, but he hits for a palatable average, has pop, plays above-average defense, and runs the bases well, making him a consistent, above-average regular player. Philly just needs to hope Rollins stays healthy, because they have no reliable backup options. Shortstops: 1
Washington - The Nationals have been fortunate enough to employ the leader in fWAR at the shortstop position in 2012 in Ian Desmond, who already has 4.5 fWAR this year after never posting a season of 2 or more fWAR in any prior year. However, the team also has a pair of quality young second basemen in Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi, and with Espinosa having some experience at shortstop, the team could stand to reallocate some of their assets if they see a significant hole elsewhere on the diamond. Both Desmond and Espniosa have spent time at shortstop and have the bats to be good everyday players at the position, though acquiring either player would take one heck of a package, as they are each controlled through at least 2015. Shortstops: 2
Los Angeles - The Angels traded Jean Segura to the Brewers to acquire Zack Greinke, but have Erick Aybar firmly cemented in their everyday shortstop position, with Maicer Izturis backing him up and playing all around the infield. Aybar is an above-average everyday player, and Izturis might be able to hold his own on a more regular basis if he were given a chance to. That said, Izturis has never played 500 or more innings at shortstop in any individual season, and is on the wrong side of his 30th birthday, so he's a risky bet at shortstop. Shortstops: 1
Oakland - As we well know, the A's picked up a rental shortstop in Stephen Drew for their stretch run, but that does not mean their roster is devoid of other players with experience at the position. In fact, Cliff Pennington looks like a very good bounce-back candidate at shortstop, though he is currently splitting time at second base with Adam Rosales. Pennington has seen his BABIP tank in 2012, though his batted ball metrics remain pretty stable - his LD% this year is 22.2%, the second-highest mark of his career - so he's someone worth checking the scouting reports on. Drew will be a free agent this off-season (his mutual option seems likely to be declined by his agent, Scott Boras), meaning that Pennington could be expected to move back to short for the A's in 2013, but the fact that Drew was acquired in the first place may (or may not, I have little idea) indicate that Pennington has fallen slightly out of favor with the A's. It certainly seems like he would be worth making a phone call on in case Oakland wants to sign another shortstop for 2013 and make Pennington available. There will need to be another acquisition on the A's part before Pennington is made available, though, as the farm is thin at the position since Grant Green was moved to the outfield. Shortstops: 1
Seattle - The Mariners are currently playing defensive wizard Brendan Ryan at short, but with top prospect Nick Franklin obliterating Double-A pitching as a 21-year-old this year (before struggling at Triple-A), Seattle may look to move Ryan, who is under control through 2013. (No, Seattle isn't going to move Franklin.) Ryan can't hit, but he knows it and is willing to draw a walk, so he could be hidden nicely as an eight-hole hitter in the NL. Further, Ryan is a bona fide elite defensive shortstop, with a career UZR/150 of 11.7 at short in over 4400 innings in the field. With Arizona's dry, hard infield and spotty defenders at third base, Ryan's defense could be all the more valuable and make him a fantastic one-year fill-in. The thought of watching Ryan and Aaron Hill covering ground together in the middle infield is drool-inducing, and the best part is that Ryan - perhaps like Pennington - wouldn't cost a major piece or prospect to acquire. Shortstops: 2
Texas - This one's easy. Elvis Andrus is already one of the best shortstops in major league baseball, and Jurickson Profar is cheaper and possibly better. There are two incredible shortstops in this organization, and one of them just might become available this off-season. Shortstops: 2
Chicago - Alexei Ramirez is a reliably above-average everyday shortstop and an all-around great player, and was signed to a four-year extension prior to the start of the 2011 season that keeps him under contract through 2015. Like most clubs in the league, they have little in the upper-levels as far as shortstops are concerned, but they also no pressing need for a young replacement. Shortstops: 1
Cleveland - The Indians have Asdrubal Cabrera firmly cemented in their everyday shortstop role, though he may suited for a position change at some point in the next few years. However, with Jason Kipnis cemented at second and Lonnie Chisenhall still filled with potential at third, Cabrera will be given every opportunity to be palatable at shortstop, particularly since his bat more than makes up for every run he surrenders on defense. Shortstops: 1
Detroit - Jhonny Peralta has been a great find for the Tigers since he was picked up from the Indians in 2010, and the Tigers hold a $6MM club option on his services for 2013 that they're likely to pick up, particularly with their lack of internal replacements at the position. Shortstops: 1
Houston (see what I did here?) - The Astros started the year with Jed Lowrie as their everyday shortstop after acquiring him from the Red Sox last off-season, but Lowrie's season was ended after 80 games due to injury. After giving Marwin Gonzalez a try at the position, the Astros went out and acquired Tyler Greene from St. Louis, and have been playing him at shortstop since. Greene has shown plenty of power while in Houston, but is a sub-.300 OBP type, with his value dependent on whether or not he can be a capable defender at short. The Astros might find themselves free to move one of their two shortstops, though they aren't likely to get a top-notch piece for either given the respective concerns for each player, and they might not see much interest in Greene. Further, Lowrie is more of a fit for a team that has a close-to-the-majors prospect that they simply want to give a few months of extra work in the minors (before Lowrie gets hurt), rather than a team like Arizona who needs a full-season player. Shortstops: 2
Kansas City - Kansas City acquired Alcides Escobar from the Brewers back in the first version of the Zack Greinke-for-a-young-shortstop-and-pitching deal, and have seen him contribute over four wins in the last two seasons according to Fangraphs. Escobar is Kansas City's only real option for 2013 at the position, though the 2013/2014 off-season is a possible time for a trade if prospect Christian Colon has a good, healthy season at short in the minors. Shortstops: 1
Minnesota - The Twins went out and picked up Jamey Carroll last off-season, and he has provided a quality stop-gap for Minnesota at the position. Carroll is signed through 2013, and the Twins will probably find themselves looking for another stop-gap to replace Carroll when that time comes, as there is little available help in the upper levels of the minors. Shortstops: 1
Baltimore - J.J. Hardy remains a reliable defender who is capable of swatting over twenty home runs in a season, even if he can't recover his other offensive skills. Still, with Manny Machado waiting in the wings as a potential inexpensive replacement with plus power for the position, Baltimore could find themselves able to move their veteran. Shortstops: 2
Boston - I really want to include Jose Iglesias, since he's such a freaking awesome defender, but his bat is just so excruciatingly bad to excuse. Mike Aviles has been a fairly pleasant surprise for the Sox, and has solid career defensive numbers at shortstop with a sample spanning his career that actually might pass the SSS test. If kept there, it looks like he'll be the typical sub-.300 OBP, quality glove shortstop with enough pop to be valuable. Shortstops: 1
New York - Derek Jeter is a bad-glove shortstop, but he isn't moving anywhere - especially with New York not having anyone nipping at his heels on the farm - and he sure can hit. Easy enough. Shortstops: 1
Tampa Bay - The Rays have had three players split time at shortstop in 2012, yet have been unable to find anyone who looks like a possible everyday player unless Sean Rodriguez's .215/.278/.330 line looks appealing. Further, the fact that Tim Beckham has remained on the farm despite the Rays' need of a shortstop says as much about Beckham as we need to know... This will likely be a club competing with the D-backs in the off-season shortstop market. Shortstops: 0
Toronto - The Jays have played Yunel Escobar at short ever since acquiring him from the Braves in 2010, and he remains a solid everyday player at the position. The team has also hoped that Adeiny Hechavarria's spike in production since joining Triple-A Las Vegas (and one of the most hitter-friendly parks in professional baseball) wasn't a complete fluke, but Hechavarria has struggled to hit thus far in his cup of coffee in the big leagues. His .272 OBP in Toronto this year is far more reminiscent of the player who OBP'd .275 in Double-A in 2011 than the player who OBP'd over .350 at Triple-A in 2011 and 2012, and he doesn't look ready for an everyday big league gig. Shortstops: 1
It's a weak overall class at shortstop (as usual), with the best player who technically has a chance to hit the market - Jhonny Peralta - almost certain to have his club option exercised by Detroit. Further, for reasons we're all well aware of, Stephen Drew is almost guaranteed not to be an option for the D-backs. Here are the details on the remaining shortstops hitting the market:
Jason Bartlett - Bartlett will never come close to replicating his absurd .320/.389/.490 line from 2009, but he was a solid fringe-regular type player before succumbing to injury during the 2012 season. He's a solid line drive hitter at his best, and could be willing to take a one-year make-good deal.
Yuniesky Betancourt - Betancourt has some pop and can hit around .250, but his complete lack of an approach and consistently poor defensive metric ratings damn him to the role of bench player and internet meme.
Ronny Cedeno - Cedeno has actually been tearing it up offensively for the Mets this season, though inexplicable offensive numbers and peripherals. He's added .050 to his career ISO, 4.4% to his career walk rate, and .026 to his career BABIP to put up a 115 wRC+ in 69 games (175 PA) of action for New York, just one year after hitting .249/.297/.339 (67 wRC+) in 454 PA with the Pirates. It's hard to know what to think of Cedeno, though given that this is his first season of over a 100 wRC+, but there is a noticeable change in his batted ball distribution, as the light-hitting shortstop has dropped his fly-ball rate to a staggeringly low 25.0%. In the end, he's probably a fringe-regular capable of providing around one win over a full season.
Alex Gonzalez - Gonzalez has carved out a very nice career for himself, but the years of 150-game seasons might be starting to take a toll on his body. Now 35-years-old, Gonzalez has played in just 24 games this year for the Brewers before going down with an injury and causing Milwaukee to search the waiver wire for replacements. Gonzalez doesn't offer much in the on-base department even when healthy, but he does offer some of that hard-to-find right-handed power and could benefit from playing at Chase Field, though he isn't a very good line drive hitter. Might be available on the cheap.
Marco Scutaro - Scutaro can definitely still hit, but he's seen his innings at shortstop take a huge dive in 2012, with Colorado and San Francisco playing him mostly at second base. Given that he's going to turn 37 years old this October, that's probably where he belongs going forward, though he's still a solid bet to be an everyday player.
Omar Vizquel - Vizquel has had an unbelievable career and offers value in the clubhouse, but he just doesn't offer much value in the field anymore. He can't hit at all anymore, and his age has started to sap his defensive wizardry. Toronto might be the last stop of his career.
Jack Wilson - The injury-prone Wilson may have finally truly broken, being released by the Braves about a month ago after injuring his finger. Wilson played just 40 games this year, and if he doesn't call it quits, he'll have to make good on a minor-league deal.
From all of this data-gathering, there are three takeaways I can see:
1) People heavily underestimate the value of a shortstop capable of putting up an OBP greater than .300, and plenty of teams are perfectly happy with an everyday shortstop who doesn't, so long as they can get some pop and above-average defense.
2) As Jim alluded to in his farewell to Stephen Drew piece, I think it's very easy to sorely under-appreciate the offense and overall package that Stephen provided the D-backs throughout his tenure here. Drew's 2010 campaign was utterly remarkable, and arguably worth more than the 5.1 fWAR credited to him by Fangraphs. Compare his .278/.352/.458 line and above-average defense to what is commonly found throughout the league at shortstop, and Drew's excellence becomes clear.
3) Chris Owings' walk-taking concerns are going to be far less of a hindrance on his ability to be an everyday-caliber shortstop than I had expected. If he hits around .270-.280 and slugs around .400 with average defense, he'll be a reliable everyday player even with an OBP of about .300. Anything on top of that is icing on the cake. As such, it's not absolutely far-fetched to expect Owings to be ready to take the reins at the position early in 2014.
** (tl;dr) **
Now, allow me to escape the relative objectivity I tried to work in above and get a little more subjective. Here is my exhaustive personal preference list - a ranking of best-to-worst quality players, not a list of which moves I would pursue most-to-least - of potentially-available shortstops throughout the league, along with the contract details for each player and a brief (I promise!) synopsis of what was said above:
All contract information found at the holy shrine of Cot's Baseball Contracts.
1) Elvis Andrus - 2013: $5.05MM, 2014: $6.725MM, 2015: Free Agent - Andrus is the cream of the crop, showing good hitting and on-base skills while playing consistently above-average defense and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. The rise of Jurickson Profar in Texas makes Andrus a possible trade chip, but should Arizona bite if the price is Justin Upton?
2) Danny Espinosa - Under team control through 2016, no fixed contract currently in place - Between Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and Steve Lombardozzi, there are three players for two middle infield spots. If a team buys into Espinosa as an everyday defensive shortstop, he could on the move. However, with that much control remaining, he would almost certainly cost a star in return, and quite possibly more.
3) J.J. Hardy - 2013: $7.146MM, 2014: $7.417MM, 2015: Free Agent - In the first year of a three-year contract extension signed during the 2011 season, Hardy has had a down year in 2012. With a 76 wRC+ in 2012 and Hardy owed nearly $15MM over the next two years for his age-30 and age-31 seasons, the O's might consider looking to shed that salary while seeking minimal prospect return and making room for star prospect Manny Machado at shortstop. He's still a fantastic defender, and let's not forget that he hit 30 home runs in 2011 for Baltimore.
4) Ian Desmond - Under team control through 2015, no fixed contract currently in place - After spending the previous two full-seasons with an OBP floating around .300, Desmond turned into a near-.300 hitter and phenomenal overall hitter, posting a 129 wRC+ thus far in 2012. However, with three years of relatively cheap control remaining and coming off an elite season, Washington can try to negotiate as if 2010 and 2011 never happened, which could make Desmond too expensive for Arizona's liking.
5) Cliff Pennington - Under team control through 2015, no fixed contract currently in place - Acquiring Pennington requires believing that Pennington is likely to see his batting average bounce back from its 2012 depths and that the A's have plans to acquire another shortstop. If the A's are down on Pennington, his three years of team control may be relatively inexpensive. If the A's are not down on Pennington, he likely won't be made available.
6) Zack Cozart - Under team control through 2017, no fixed contract currently in place - Cozart's availability solely depends on the Reds' perception of prospect Billy Hamilton. If the Reds believe Hamilton can play at shortstop and want him to do so in the major leagues in 2013, they'll need to move Cozart to make room for Hamilton. However, this is being very aggressive with Hamilton, and would likely devalue Cozart's five remaining years of control, making this very unlikely.
7) Brendan Ryan - Under team control through 2013, no fixed contract currently in place, made $1.75MM in 2012 - Ryan is very likely to be made available for a relative pittance either during the off-season or mid-way through the 2013 season, given the rise of prospect Nick Franklin. If the Mariners shop Ryan this off-season, his one remaining year of incredibly cheap control could net Seattle a single solid, mid-tier prospect - the kind of asset that Arizona GM Kevin Towers likes to move for big-league talent.
8) Jason Bartlett - Free Agent - After spending most of 2012 on the Disabled List, Bartlett will be looking for a one-year deal with a low base salary and plenty of incentives to try to re-establish his value for the 2014 free agent market. He may be drawn to Tampa Bay, given their need for a shortstop and his past ties with the Rays, but Arizona offers a hitter-friendly park and a chance to stay in the NL West.
9) Jed Lowrie - Under team control through 2014, no fixed contract currently in place, made $1.15MM in 2012 - If the Astros are comfortable playing Tyler Greene at shortstop in 2013 as they continue rebuilding, they could look to cash in Lowrie's quality half-season on the trade market. Lowrie is cheap and under control for multiple seasons, but health will remain a significant question mark and determine what Houston can get for him - and, in turn, how much they'll be motivated to move him.
10) Alex Gonzalez - Free Agent - Like Bartlett, injury took away much of Gonzalez's 2012 season, and he'll be looking for a one-year, low-salary, perhaps incentive-laden deal to re-establish his value. Age is working against him, and he might not end up having to settle for a part-time role at this point in his career.
11) Ronny Cedeno - Free Agent - Cedeno will be hoping that someone becomes infatuated with what they're seeing from him in New York this year and offers him extended playing time, but he's more likely to get a low-salary deal as a part-time player for 2013.
12) Josh Rutledge - Under team control through 2018, no fixed contract currently in place - The market for Rutledge doesn't seem like it will be too active, and the young shortstop will probably have a suitor or two at most as the Rockies explore the possibility of moving him after his brief stint of success with Troy Tulowitzki returning. In all likelihood, the Rockies hang on to Rutledge and let him continue developing at Triple-A next year with Tulo back in the fold.
As a final note, the acquisitions from this list that I consider to be the most likely are (in no particular order):
- Andrus (for Upton, with other pieces involved)
- Hardy (either for CY in a large-contract swap - with Adam Jones then moving to a corner for Baltimore - or along with a bit of cash for prospects)
- Ryan (for a mid-to-low-tier prospect, such as Charles Brewer, Jonathan Griffin, or Kevin Munson)
- Bartlett (to a one-year, low-salary contract with incentives for plate appearances)