Fantasy baseball position primer: Shortstop offers incredible amount of young talent
The longest MVP drought by position in the majors belongs to shortstop, which hasn’t seen one of its own claim the honor since Jimmy Rollins in 2007. Every position in the American League, meanwhile, has won an MVP award since Alex Rodriguez last claimed it for shortstops in 2003 as a member of the Rangers. It has been a tough decade for the game's most important defensive position.
That drought is almost certain to end in the immediate future. MLB is at the beginning of a golden age of shortstops, with an influx of talent at the position over the last few seasons that would seem impossibly abundant if we didn’t all watch it happen. The list of 25-and-under shortstops is so deep, talented and accomplished that we have to take them one by one.
Corey Seager nearly ended that MVP-less run last year, finishing third in NL MVP voting, becoming the league’s second straight unanimous Rookie of the Year and hitting .308/.365/.512 with 26 homers, 72 RBIs and 105 runs. He is in his age-23 season.
In 1,092 career plate appearances, nearly all of which came before his 22nd birthday, Carlos Correa is hitting .276/.354/.475 with 42 homers and 58 doubles. He was the first shortstop in MLB history to hit at least 20 homers in both of his first two seasons, and he needed only 99 games to do it as a rookie. This is his age-22 season.
Francisco Lindor’s glove has been ready for the rigors of being a major league shortstop likely since he was about 15 or 16. After finishing second to Correa in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2015, he slashed .301/.358/.435 with 15 homers, 19 steals, 99 runs and 78 RBIs and helped lead the Indians to their first AL pennant since 1997. This is his age-23 season.
After an uneven start to his career, Xander Bogaerts has taken his place among the elite shortstops in the game, hitting .294/.356/.446 with a career-high 21 homers, 13 steals, 115 runs and 89 RBIs last season and winning his second straight Silver Slugger Award. He also became just the seventh shortstop ever to post two seasons with at least 4.5 Wins Above Replacement before turning 24. This is his age-24 season.
Trevor Story was a chic sleeper pick last spring, then turned in an historic April, belting six homers in his first four games and 10 in the month. Had he stayed healthy all year, he would’ve given Seager a good run for the NL Rookie of the Year Award and set a new record for homers by a rookie shortstop. In 97 games and 415 plate appearances, he hit .272/.341/.567 with 27 homers, 72 RBIs and 67 runs. This is his age-24 season.
All Addison Russell did last year was hit 21 homers, drive in 95 runs, win a World Series ring and narrowly miss out on his first career Gold Glove. Don’t worry, he’ll get one at some point in his career. After all, this is just his age-23 season.
Finally, Trea Turner spent his rookie year in centerfield and at second base but will move to his natural shortstop position this season. In 73 games and 324 plate appearances, Turner slashed .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers and 33 stolen bases. That translates to a 162-game pace of 29 homers and 73 steals. Turner finished second to Seager in NL Rookie of the Year voting and is entering his age-24 season.
With all this elite talent still unable to rent a car, it’s a near lock that a shortstop is going to win MVP honors in the next few seasons. What was once the bane of fantasy owners' existence is now overflowing with star power and depth. Add in players who qualify at the position like Manny Machado and Jonathan Villar; veteran stalwarts like Troy Tulowitzki and Brandon Crawford; good-but-not-great players like Jean Segura and Aledmys Diaz; and the next wave of potential stars, including Dansby Swanson and Tim Anderson, and it’s easy to see why shortstop is baseball’s most exciting position.
1. Can Carlos Correa rediscover his rookie year form?
Here's the best way to sum up just how good Correa was as a rookie: the collective reaction to his 2016 season. It should be impossible for a 21-year-old to disappoint in a season when he hits .274/.361/.451 with 20 homers, 96 RBIs and 13 steals, and yet his second year in the majors felt like a letdown. Never mind the fact that his 6.3 WAR was first among shortstops and good for the fourth most ever for a shortstop 21 or younger, or that the three players ahead of him on that leaderboard are Alex Rodriguez and Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Arky Vaughan. Ask 2016 Correa owners, and too many will tell you he didn't perform up to expectations.
Correa set an impossible trajectory for himself as a rookie by slashing .279/.345/.512 with 22 homers and 14 steals in 432 plate appearances. Those per-game averages would have been nearly impossible for anyone to duplicate, let alone a 21-year-old still learning the major league game. That he was able to have as strong a year as he did says more about him than the perceived disappointment.
Even with an NFBC ADP of 16.86, I think Correa is undervalued. His strikeout rate jumped three percentage points last year, but his walk rate increased by 2.1 points. His batted-ball rates remained mostly flat—and impressive—except in hard-hit rate, where he gained more than four percentage points. His home-run-to-fly-ball ratio had nowhere to go but down, but at 16.5%, he was tied with Machado, just behind Nolan Arenado and ahead of Anthony Rizzo and Jose Bautista.
It can’t be said enough: Correa is entering his age-22 season and already has these accomplishments to his name. For my money, he’s a late-first round pick, but you can get him at a mid-second round price.
2. Is Trea Turner really this good?
Correa has the highest FantasyPros consensus ranking of all shortstop-eligible players who will spend most of their time at the position this year. Next is Seager, who’s just two spots shy of his Houston counterpart. Two spots later, you’ll find Turner, he of the 368 plate appearances and ranked ahead of Lindor, Bogaerts and Story by fantasy's brightest minds. Is Turner worthy of that ranking?
The shortest answer I can give is, “Well, I like Lindor better, but Turner is quite incredible, and I have no issue with his consensus rank.” That answer is neither eloquent nor satisfying, so allow me to expound.
Turner was obviously excellent in his half-season last year; his stats above speak for themselves. He’s a speed merchant with enough pop to be the best bet to produce baseball’s first 20–60 season since Rickey Henderson did it for the third time in his career in 1990. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s hard to look at the facts at hand and create a realistic scenario in which he falls short of his career expectations.
As for his 2017 fantasy value, take everything above and add to it the context in which he plays. He’s going to hit atop a Washington lineup that includes Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, so he will not lack run-scoring opportunities. Dusty Baker will turn him loose on the bases, and his versatility will give him three-position eligibility this year. We can safely say Turner is a star in the making, and by time this summer rolls around, he may have already removed the last three words of the previous sentence. But Seager, Correa and Lindor have already done that. Turner remains a tier below the position’s big three on my draft board.
3. Will Trevor Story prove himself an elite fantasy shortstop?
The first year of Story’s career was an unmitigated success. Even though a torn ligament in his thumb cost him the last two months of the season, he finished as the No. 10 shortstop in standard 5×5 leagues and undoubtedly would have been top five had he played all year.
One season, however, does not create a floor. Story maintained his power—he may have the most natural pop of any shortstop in the league—but was exposed as the season progressed. He struck out in 31.3% of his plate appearances, the third-highest rate in the league. The three other players who surpassed a 30% K-rate—Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Mike Napoli—are all of the traditional masher variety. None of the had a batting average better than .239 or an OBP higher than .335 last season, yet all had a walk rate of at least 11.8%. Story hit .272 with a .341 OBP and 8.4% walk rate. He could have trouble maintaining those marks and likely would have fallen short last year had he been healthy in August and September.
Story has abundant power, but that’s in good supply across the majors. His park and teammates will likely help him to impressive RBI and run totals. But if he doesn’t cut down on his strikeout totals, his rookie year could represent a ceiling, not a floor. He’s sixth on my shortstop board, trailing Seager, Correa, Lindor, Turner and Bogaerts.
4. Whoa, where did Jean Segura’s 2016 season come from?
Baseball regularly goes off script, and that’s part of what makes it so great. Still, Segura’s resurgent 2016 campaign was as big a surprise as any the game offered last year.
If there is anyone baseball fans of all stripes should have been rooting for in 2016, it's Segura, who has dealt with more heartbreak than anyone should have to. While with the Brewers, he suffered a freak injury when Ryan Braun inadvertently hit him in the face with a swinging bat in the dugout early in the 2014 season. Months later, his infant son passed away. But he ended up having the best season of his career last year, as he slashed .319/.368/.499 with 20 homers, 33 steals, 101 runs and 64 RBIs. Each of those marks, other than the steals, represented a new career high.
It’s time to look for an explanation for Segura’s breakout in video form. Let’s go year by year starting with 2013, when Segura became an MLB regular.
And now, 2016:
Segura’s hands have been traveling downward and away from his body every year of his career, but last season was the first real departure from what he looked like when he broke into the majors. Even in 2015, the previous low point for his hands, they traveled back up to their traditional spot off his right ear as he went into his load. Last season, they started low and stayed low, never coming over his back shoulder. We don’t know for certain if that's why Segura had a career year, but it’s encouraging to see a substantive swing or setup difference alongside a marked statistical improvement.
The Diamondbacks dealt Segura to the Mariners in the off-season, so he’ll play this year in a worse offensive environment, in terms of both park and lineup. Still, the changes he made last season suggest his breakout was real and sustainable. He enters 2017 as a comfortable top-10 shortstop.
5. Is late-stage Troy Tulowitzki as depressing as it seems?
I was born in September 1984, one month before Tulowitzki. For most of my fantasy baseball playing life, Tulo has been a force. There were always injury concerns, but when he was on the field, he was one of the game's most electric players, and he did it at a time when the shortstop position was as shallow as ever. Tulowitzki was one of my first fantasy baseball favorites. That’s why it pains me to answer this question with a yes.
Tulowitzki’s declining production, combined with the deepest shortstop pool in years, makes 2017 the first one that he enters outside the obvious starting class. He has missed 65 games over the last two years, slashing .267/.327/.442 with an average of 21 homers and 75 RBIs. The 2015 season was his worst in which he played at least 120 games—until '16 rolled around. Using 120 games played as a cutoff, Tulowitzki set new career lows in batting average (.254) and OBP (.318) and tied a career low with 24 homers. His 18.6% strikeout rate was two percentage points higher than his career mark, and his 7.9% walk rate was 1.7 points lower than his career total.
Now 32 years old, it’s hard to see Tulowitzki reversing this trend. He still has good pop and a spot in the middle of a strong lineup, but he’s no longer locked in as a starting fantasy shortstop. He’s the No. 10 shortstop on my board heading into draft season.