Great news as pitchers and catchers reported for the Sox yesterday.The first workout will be tomorrow and position players will arrive February 24, a day before the teams first full workout. The Red Sox clubhouse is still talking to media about the epic collapse from last year, with Lester and Beckett openly taking blame. Also, guys like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez have already been vocal about assuming the leadership type of role this team needs.
Let’s get back to the matter at hand, ranking the shortstop’s in the AL East.
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles
2. Derek Jeter, Yankees
3. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays
4. Nick Punto/Mike Aviles/ Jose Iglesias, Red Sox
5. Sean Rodriguez/ Reid Brignac, Rays
Derek Jeter is nearing the end of his career and the shortstop position has switched from a division strength during the late 90’s and early 2000’s to now the AL East’s weakest position. It seems like just yesterday Nomar was being called “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” by Sports Illustrated for Kids and featured with his shirt off on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled “A Cut Above.” Whether it was the cover jinx or not, injuries arose for the Beantown legend and the position has become vastly different from the days when Nomar and Jeter would duke it out as potential MVP candidates.
J.J. Hardy, Derek Jeter and Yunel Escobar all display plus gloves in the field, although Jeter is the only to have received a Gold Glove out of the three (he has received five total-his latest in 2010). Despite this, Jeter might now be the worst fielder out of three since his range has begin to diminish with his aging body. J.J. Hardy is ranked first due to his reinvented swing from the past two years. Hardy went from hitting 50 HRS in 2007-2008 combined to 11 in 2009 and 6 in 2010. Hardy was killed by pitchers (specifically lefthanders) in these two years, after Alex Eisenberg of Baseball-Intellect.com revealed some flaws in Hardy’s plate approach. He has spent the 2009-2010 battling through a wrist injury and other minor injuries. Hardy now has spent the end of 2010 and 2011 redefining his plate approach by shortening up his swing and lowering and extended his arms in the beginning of the approach. He has began pulling the pull more often and the results showed last year. In his bounce back year, he had 30 HRS and 80 RBI’s. I expect Hardy to hit around 28-34 HR in the hitter friendly Camden Yards.
Next up is Derek Jeter. In Big Nons story earlier this year, I chimed in the comments section giving my thoughts on Jeter: “Can’t call yourself a true fan of both the Red Sox and baseball unless you admit Derek Jeter is a great ballplayer. The guy hustles on the field and is the ideal team captain. Any time i see someone go full speed into a ball in the stands and dive in there with the fans the way Jeter did years back against the Sox, I’m impressed. “The flip?” One of the best heads up plays I have EVER seen a shortstop make. I mean “c’mon son” to any Sox fan that is not willing to have some respect for him.” Despite his declining skills, he is still a force as the leadoff man in the always impressive Yankee lineup. Due to his consistency in this leadoff spot in getting on base and getting himself in scoring position, he gets the nod for the second spot in these rankings. Yunel Escobar on the Blue Jays is the third ranked shortstop. Escobar has displayed the ability to consistently get on base throughout his four year career, even throughout his off year in 2010 (.366 Career OBP with .289 Career AVG).
All of the first three options display some sort of flaw; Jeter’s career is close to ending as he will turn 38 in June and both Escobar and Hardy have had issues with injuries throughout their careers. Despite this, all are better options than the situation the Red Sox and Rays are in. The Red Sox shortstop position opened up in late January when Marco Scutaro was traded. It will be temporarily fixed with Nick Punto and Mike Aviles. Both players are pretty good fielding shortstops, but have been utility infielders for the majority of their careers. Punto has just about zero power, but will reach base at a decent rate in comparison to other options (.249 career BA, .278 last year, .325 Career OBP-.388 last year). Aviles is a slightly better option offensively in terms of power and AVG, but he has a horrible OBP considering his higher AVG (.288 AVG and .318 OBP throughout his career). The real gem could be Jose Iglesias. He has been one of the top prospects in the Red Sox farm system for a few years now, with a glove that is very major league ready. He is touted as a future perennial Gold Glover. His only issue is batting, and its a big issue. He batted .235 in the minors last year, but he has slowly been improving throughout his short professional career. Due to his incredible fielding skills, he will most likely be forced to try and improve in the big leagues. As I’ve said before, I don’t care how good of a fielder he is, every Red Sox fan wants to see offensive production and there is no way he can last in Boston hitting barely above the Mendoza line.
Tampa Bay is in a very similar situation. Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac are both good options fielding wise, but both are worse hitters than Boston’s options, with the exception of Iglesias. Brignac batted .193 last year and Rodriguez batted .223. Unless one of these players figures out their troubles at the plate, Tampa Bay will have the worst situation at shortstop in the AL East.