The Best Young Shortstops of 2007

This week, I will continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young shortstops. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically within these categories.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I mean that the player has a non-trivial chance of being among the top five major leaguers at his position during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars. These players usually have all the skills to become complete hitters and at least average fielders at their position.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players who are worth watching in the near future. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to group players. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Just as importantly, young shortstops tend to move down the defensive spectrum, so many of these players might break into the big leagues as third basemen, second basemen or outfielders.

Excellent Upside, Close to Prime

Hanley Ramirez
23 years old | Florida Marlins
The centerpiece of the Josh Beckett trade bounced back from a 29-at-bat hitless steak in June to finish strong and become Rookie of the Year in the National League.

I’m skeptical about Hanley’s ability to improve on his power production. First, he never had more than 35 extra-base hits in a season until last year. Also, eight of his 16 out-of-park home runs in 2006 were hit against pitchers who also tossed at least 40 innings in the minor leagues last year; that rate of abusing bad pitching is well above the league average and unlikely to continue. Still, his moderate power, baserunning and above-average on-base skills are enough to sustain his performance as one of the National League’s top shortstops during the next few years.

Injuries threaten to stand in the way of his path to stardom, though. Ramirez sat out for minor hand, finger, knee, shoulder and back injuries in 2006, and his recent winter league season ended prematurely due to a shoulder strain.

Jose Reyes
23 years old | New York Mets
Reyes and Ramirez are similar players in many respects. Both are athletic, young 23-year-olds who lead off and run wild on the basepaths for their National League East teams. I think Reyes will be a more productive player in the long run, primarily because he gets the bat on the ball more often than Ramirez. And, despite his smaller stature, I think Reyes has a good chance of maintaing the kind of power production he demonstrated in 2006. Reyes won’t ever hit more than 20 home runs in a season, but he does have a record of hitting plenty of doubles and triples against advanced competition. And, unlike Ramirez, he doesn’t exclusively pull the ball to lift it out of the park.

Excellent Upside, at Least Two Years from Prime

Reid Brignac
21 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Brignac earned the high Single-A California League MVP award in 2006 after 50 extra-base hits in 100 games for Visalia, and continued to produce at the plate for Double-A Montgomery during a late-season promotion. His plate discipline remains a work in progress and there are lingering doubts about whether the 6-foot-3 prospect can stick at shortstop. The Devil Rays’ management will remain patient with Brignac, and he has star potential if he can continue to improve.

Troy Tulowitzki
22 years old | Colorado Rockies
Tulowitzki is a strong fielder who thrived under the Rockies’ insistence that he develop his plate discipline by hitting in the leadoff spot at Double-A Tulsa. Tulowitzki could be a middle-of-the-order producer before long; The Hardball Times 2007 season preview book suggests Tulowitzki will be a .287/.353/.455 hitter by 2009.

Brandon Wood
22 years old | Los Angeles Angels
A day after my list of top young third basemen appeared, the Angels announced they were moving Brandon Wood to third base. Angels manager Mike Scioscia explains that Wood “projects as a third baseman and as a shortstop,” but this move makes sense due to Wood’s error-prone play at shortstop and the organization’s depth there.

Wood became one of the most talked-about players in the minor leagues when he launched more than 100 extra-base hits in 2005, and he continued to hit for power at cozy Ray Winder Field in 2006. Unfortunately, he also struck out once every four plate appearances or so. It’s possible to dismiss this as growing pains, and my research into comparable performances suggests young sluggers tend to bounce back after a year of struggles making contact.

However, Wood chases many breaking pitches and he didn’t improve his plate approach much in 2006. In six months, we probably won’t be any closer to knowing if Wood is going to be a star because he will be playing in another hitter-friendly park in the thin-air division of the Pacific Coast League. He remains a high-upside/high-risk player in terms of his major league future, but, meanwhile, it’s a lot of fun to watch his minor league power display.

Good Upside, Close to Prime

Stephen Drew
24 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks needed a year to convince their 2004 first-round pick to sign with the organization, but Drew was worth waiting for. We shouldn’t expect a repeat of his .316/.344/.517 performance from the second half of 2006. His batting average of balls in play (BABIP) rate was very high last year, but his minor league record suggests he’ll get on base at a reasonable rate even with the likely drop in batting average.

Here is his projected performance for 2007, courtesy of the soon-to-be-released The Hardball Times 2007 Season Preview:

YEAR    AGE   PA  BB  SO  HR   AVG  OBP  SLG
2007     24  482  37  91  15  .268 .324 .450

J.J. Hardy
24 years old | Milwaukee Brewers
A couple of severe shoulder and ankle injuries have limited Hardy’s time on the field during the past few years, so it’s difficult to generate an idea of what kind of player he can be. What we do know is that Hardy is a gifted fielder who can hit enough to be an above-average shortstop when he’s healthy. In 100 major league games since July of 2005, Hardy has belted 13 home runs while posting an OBP of .328. That’s a good start, and the Brewers are anxious to see what he can do over a full season in 2007.

Good Upside, at Least Two Years from Prime

Elvis Andrus
18 years old | Atlanta Braves
Andrus’ .265/.321/.362 performance at Class A Rome doesn’t look like anything to get excited about, but it was a strong showing for a 17-year-old. He did not hit for much power, but he was playing half his games in a pitcher-friendly park and his line drive and fly ball rates suggest he will be more than a singles hitter when he finishes growing and refining his plate approach.

Andrus committed 32 errors at shortstop in 2006, but he is widely regarded as having the tools necessary to become a strong defensive shortstop.

Emmanuel Burriss
22 years old | San Francisco Giants
Burriss is a very different kind of player from the shortstop prospects listed to this point. There are no questions about his power potential because nobody expects him to hit more than five to 10 home runs in a season. There are also no questions about whether Burriss has the skills to become a prototypical leadoff hitter. First, he is an exceptional runner. He reached base on eight of 12 non-sacrifice bunt attempts and was 35-for-46 in stolen base attempts during his first half-season as a professional ballplayer.

During his last year at Kent State, Burris was caught only twice in 44 stolen base attempts. Most importantly, Burriss already understands the importance of reaching base. He is a contact hitter with a line-drive swing and a propensity for getting on base via walks or getting hit by pitches. In fact, he walked more often than he struck out during both his final college season and his stint with the champion Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of the Northwest League.

Chris Nelson
21 years old | Colorado Rockies
The ninth overall pick from the 2004 draft, Nelson rebounded from an injury-riddled 2005 season with an encouraging but unspectacular showing at Single-A Asheville, where he hit.260/.310/.416 with 11 home runs. Savvy readers might be thinking something like, “But isn’t Asheville where guys like Ian Stewart and Joe Koshansky hit 30 home runs earlier in their career? Shouldn’t we be concerned that Nelson only hit 11 homers?”

Well, Asheville has a well-deserved reputation as a hitters’ haven, but left-handed hitters have a closer fence to work with in right field. Right-handed hitters have relatively little advantage in hitting home runs at Asheville. Nelson, a right-handed hitter, showed glimpses of his power potential by launching 38 doubles over his 118-game season. His plate discipline disappeared as the season progressed, and he was walking in fewer than 5% of his plate appearances during the final two months of the season. Nelson batted in the middle of the Asheville lineup, so the Rockies could always try the Troy Tulowitzki treatment (see above) if his on-base skills don’t improve in 2007.

Sean Rodriguez
21 years old | Los Angeles Angels
Sean Rodriguez is two months younger than Brandon Wood and, like Wood, strikes out often enough that Angels fans shouldn’t expect him to maintain a batting average over .300 as he advances through the Angels’ system. Other similarities? Well, he makes a lot of errors at shortstop and he probably will move to another position before he reaches the major leagues.

He also hits the ball hard and has power to all fields. Twelve of his 24 home runs in the California League went over the center field wall. He should feel right at home at the Double-A Travelers’ new Dickey-Stephens Park, where the dimensions are cozy and the outfield wall is only four feet high in some places.

Average Upside, Close to Prime

Erick Aybar
23 years old | Los Angeles Angels
Aybar is a very good contact hitter, but like Neifi Perez and Yuniesky Betancourt (see below), he’s the kind of contact hitter who rarely walks and hits a lot of groundballs. He has been able to hit at least 20 doubles and six or more home runs at every stop of his career, but he’s also been assisted by some extremely favorable hitting environments.

Aybar is a flashy defender and capable of becoming a top-tier defensive shortstop in the major leagues. He most likely will start the 2006 season at Triple-A Salt Lake City and eventually serve as a utility player with the Angels for the duration of Orlando Cabrera‘s contract.

Yuniesky Betancourt
24 years old | Seattle Mariner
Betancourt is a small, free-swinging shortstop who pounds nearly half his batted balls into the ground and relies on his speed to leg out a lot of singles. There’s not a lot of room for growth for that kind of player, so he’s an average player at best even if you believe he’s one of the best fielding shortstops in baseball.

Brent Lillibridge
23 years old | Atlanta Braves
Lillibridge has received a a lot of attention since being traded to the Braves a few months ago, and that’s understandable given that he was underappreciated while putting up good numbers in the Pirates’ system. The baby-faced shortstop has limited power potential, but his disciplined approach at the plate yields well-rounded offensive results. He might be comparable to another 23-year-old infielder, Dustin Pedroia, except that Pedroia is a better contact hitter and already has demonstrated that he can be productive in the upper levels of the minor leagues.

Lillibridge’s fielding receives good reviews for the most part, but he did commit 34 errors in 2006. A zone-based fielding metric I am developing suggests he was worth +six plays relative to his peers in the South Atlantic and Carolina League, so it sounds like he’s capable of becoming at least an average defensive shortstop in the major leagues if that’s where the Braves keep him.

Jhonny Peralta
24 years old | Cleveland Indians
Peralta is a mediocre fielder at best, and he swings and misses too often to contribute much more than average production at the plate. He did show some pop in his bat during the 2004 season, but his track record before and since then suggest his 2005 campaign was an outlier. Peralta is hoping off-season eye surgery will help him rebound from his subpar 2006 season, but most players don’t seem to show any sustainable improvements after improving their vision with such procedures.

Some other players who warranted consideration for this list include Joaquin Arias, Alberto Gonzalez, Tyler Greene, Jon Herrera, Chin Lung Hu, Marcus Lemon and Sharlon Schoop.

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