What’s the most important position on a baseball diamond? The answer you get will likely depend on whom you ask.
It’s no secret that championship-caliber teams must be strong up the middle – catcher, pitcher, center field, shortstop and second base – to be successful. While I think having a quality catcher is a team’s most important asset, it’s tough to argue against shortstop being next in line.
As many people in fantasy baseball circles know, finding a player that can be an elite hitter without being a defensive liability at this position is difficult to find. Over the past few years, it’s basically been Troy Tulowitzki and then everyone else. Tulo is still around and will be a great option with the Toronto Blue Jays, but there are already some young big-league shortstops – along with others on the cusp of getting promoted – that will make this position deep with elite options.
Heck, it could be the next Golden Age at shortstop. But wait, what was the first one? Do you remember that ridiculous Sports Illustrated cover from 1997 with a bunch of shirtless shortstops? Come on, how can you forget this image:
(The commentary with this tweet is also pretty awesome.)
The thought process behind Tom Verducci’s article was that with older shortstops either moving off the position (Cal Ripken, Jr.) or retiring (Alan Trammell, Ozzie Smith), it wasn’t very deep. However, the presence of these players would help redefine what it meant to be a shortstop heading into the next millennium.
For the most part, this group accomplished that. Since none of them are manning this all-important position any longer, it’s appears to be perfect timing that another fantastic young crop of talent has appeared to take the reins into the future.
It was hard, but here are five shortstops that could help usher in the position’s next Golden Age:
Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
The Astros threw Correa right into the fire upon promoting him to the big leagues, and he did nothing but produce.
When it comes to rookies, some managers will try burying them in the lineup so they can get their feet beneath them without feeling a ton of pressure. That couldn’t happen in Houston, a team that was in the midst of making the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Once the former top overall pick landed in the majors, he was inserted right into the meat of the starting lineup and took this squad to the next level. In 99 games, he posted an .857 OPS and 3.3 fWAR, capping it all by winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. Not bad for someone in his age-20 season, right?
Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox
After an impressive run during the 2013 postseason with Boston as a 20-year-old (and playing out of position, mind you), Bogaerts was expected to break out in 2014. It didn’t happen, though. After managing just an 82 wRC+ and 0.3 fWAR, he took a huge step forward last season by improving those numbers to 109 and 4.3, respectively.
He also accomplished this on a last-place team – one would imagine he’ll keep getting better and continue progressing toward his physical prime (along with developing his power stroke) as the Red Sox collectively play better.
Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
Could a September call-up have gone any better for this kid?
Even though Jimmy Rollins manned the position all year and the 21-year-old Seager was just finishing up his first experience in Triple-A, he forced former manager Don Mattingly to keep playing him. I mean, how could you justify keeping Seager out of the lineup when he hit .337/.425/.561 through his first 98 at-bats?
He had a tough time in the playoffs against the New York Mets (.188/.235/.250 in 16 at-bats), but it was a great experience for the youngster ahead of becoming “the man” in 2016. There is concern over a knee injury he’s currently battling, but Los Angeles is doing the right thing by taking the conservative route.
Similar to Correa, Mattingly inserted Seager right into the middle of his lineup and he proceeded to give the lineup an extra jolt, putting them into overdrive before October. For them to be successful this year, he must be healthy and productive.
Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
There’s no doubt the front office was initially disappointed when Ian Desmond rejected that seven-year/$107 million extension a couple years ago. However, after he suffered through a rough 2015, they’re happy to not be on the hook for that proposed extension anymore. They’re probably even happier because they have Turner nearly ready to step right in and take his place, though.
Most college players can fast track through the minors because their skills are more developed than high schoolers, and Turner is definitely a part of that group. After spending time at North Carolina State, he’s done nothing but produce throughout the minors, posting an .839 OPS with 52 stolen bases through two seasons.
Obviously, the front office and coaching staff are impressed, and although he tore up Triple-A last season, he could use a little more time to develop. But once he’s ready, there’s almost no way Danny Espinosa or Stephen Drew blocks him at the big-league level.
J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies aren’t going anywhere this year, but the future sure is bright. As a baseball fan, it’s hard not to get excited about the left side of their infield. There’s every possibility it’s set for the next decade with Crawford and Maikel Franco. We already know what Franco is capable of, but the thought of combining him with Crawford must make every Phillies fan giddy with excitement.
Drafted out of high school in 2013, the 21-year-old is showing poise at the plate that’s well beyond his years. This is a kid that’s flashed 20-30 stolen base potential, which can only increase because of his ability to reach base. In three minor-league seasons, he’s drawn 160 walks and has a career on-base percentage of .382.
He reached Double-A in 2015, so he’ll more than likely start this season in Triple-A for the finishing touches on his development. As mentioned earlier, Philadelphia isn’t doing much this year, so when Crawford is ready, there’s nothing Freddy Galvis can do to prevent him from taking his job.
While this list is already full with potential, there are still a few more shortstops who could force their way into this elite group, like:
While there aren’t any more of those shirtless shortstops patrolling the position in today’s game, it’s clearly in more-than-capable hands moving into the next generation. Let’s just hope they keep their shirts on this time around.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter so we can celebrate the return of baseball together: @mmusico8.