After spending the better part of the past few seasons climbing baseball’s Mount Everest only to run out of steam just shy of the peak, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers have decided enough is enough. Those 90-95 win seasons and deep playoff runs that don’t quite bear fruit will no longer be tolerated. The time to go for it is now, and no move quite emphasizes that mindset than the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler swap.
Yesterday it was announced that the Rangers had opened their wallets to sign Elvis Andrus to a $120 million dollar deal, which will keep the shortstop in Texas through 2022. The young All-Star will turn 25 this August which means the Rangers have locked up Andrus throughout the majority of his career. Is that the wisest move GM Jon Daniels could make, especially when you consider the fact that Texas has Jurickson Profar, a consensus top-5 prospect who also plays short, waiting in the wings?
Thanks to some savvy reporting courtesy of MLB.com beat writer Alden Gomez, we’ve learned that preliminary rosters for the World Baseball Classic are due on January 17th. Player decisions have been coming through the wire just about daily. Some have been negative, like Andrew McCutchen withdrawing his name from consideration, while others have been positive with the likes Ryan Braun and Adam Jones joining the Red, White, and Blue. Team USA isn’t the only country pulling in All-Star commitments either. Venezuela has already pulled in Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to man one of the infield corners, and the nation appears to be close to getting a positive confirmation from ace right-hander Felix Hernandez. Those two players alone give the Venezuelan team a ton of MLB star power, and if the country can successfully fill out the rest of their roster with some more big league talent, they could head into the WBC on the short list of favorites to win the whole damn thing. Let’s take a glimpse at their best potential roster.
Earlier this week I took a look at the best pitching staff in baseball this season, the Tampa Bay Rays, and today I want to take a look at the team with the best, highest-scoring lineup in baseball, the Texas Rangers. Texas has outscored every team in baseball this season and the margin, quite frankly, isn’t even close. The New York Yankees homer-ific attack is 38 runs behind in 2nd place, and the National League’s best outfit, the Milwaukee Brewers, have scored 42 fewer runs.
Sit down and watch a couple Rangers games sometime over the next couple of weeks, and you can immediately note the biggest reason why: no team in baseball possesses more depth, one through nine, than Texas. Leading off with Ian Kinsler, on down through the destructive middle of the order featuring Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre among others, this team is stacked. Hell, they just called up top prospect Jurickson Profar, and all he’s done so far is hit .333 with a homer and a game-winning RBI in 3 games. Texas has an excellent mix of speed, power, on-base ability, and clutch hitting to outscore any club in baseball, so let’s run through it, 1 through 9.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Exactly 10 years ago the shortstop position was going through a golden age. Five different shortstops, A-Rod, Jeter, Garciaparra, Tejada, and Vizquel, would all be named to the AL All-Star team. One of those players, Miguel Tejada, would take the award over another, Alex Rodriguez. The position was one of incredible depth, and the common notion of the era was that it took a good shortstop to win the World Series. 10 years later, there are once again All-Star caliber shortstops popping up in cities everywhere, playing great defense, hitting for average, and hitting for power. The position has been on fire this season, with many players posting elite numbers currently. Let’s take a look at a few.
Tulowitzki has held the unofficial title of best shortstop alive for the past 3 seasons running. In the National League, he has monopolized the awards circuit, winning the past 2 Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. Tulo is once again off to a solid start, hitting .295/.390/.500, while drawing walks in a career-best 15% of his at-bats. Tulowitzki also has the ability to drive the ball like few others at short can, blasting a position-leading 89 homers over the past 3 seasons. The defensive metrics are also very pro-Tulo, ranking him near the top of almost everyone. Shortstops with this combination of power, average, and defense are absurdly rare, and Colorado was wise to lock him up for the next decade.
The shortstop currently hitting the best in all of baseball is one of the oldest at the position. Jeter is a rare bird at age-37, providing offensive production that has never been seen before at his age. His currently batting line: .366/.395/.610 with 2 homers and 4 doubles. Jeter has shown more pop in his bat during the first 2 weeks of 2012, than at any point in the last 2 seasons, and he’s doing this out of the leadoff spot. His production over the years is legendary, as he has racked up 7 top-10 MVP finishes, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and 12 All-Star appearances. He was one of the 3 best shortstops in the league a decade ago, and has maintained his skills in a way that none of the other players could. Jeter is a surefire, 1st ballot Hall of Famer with 5 World Series rings as well, more than any other current player outside of his teammate Mariano Rivera.
From shortstop past to shortstop future, Castro is a precocious 22-year-old, who has a seemingly endless supply of talent. The Cubbie is crushing opposing pitchers this year, to the tune of a .359/.395/.436 slash. He is also a demon on the base paths; ranking 2nd in baseball in steals with 6 without being caught. He is a career .306 hitter in around 1200 career at-bats, which is elite for a shortstop. He needs to work on his ability to draw walks and his defense however. He is a bit sloppy in the field leading the NL already in 2012, after leading the league a year ago. But he has excellent range and quickness, which allows him to cover a large area. As he cuts his errors down with experience look for Gold Gloves in his future.
The Washington Nationals’ shortstop came into spring fighting for his position, after an abysmal 2011 that saw his numbers drop across the board. Desmond, like the rest of the list, is tearing the cover off the ball so far in 2012. He’s hitting .354/.380/.479, and his defense is looking much improved. His range has never been in question, as he has ranked in the top-5 in the league each year in assists, but he has been error prone in the past. At age-26, he seems to have finally calmed down in the field, and is making both the routine plays and the spectacular ones. If Desmond continues to play at a high level the Nationals will be for real this year.
At age-33, Rollins is now one of the more senior shortstops in baseball. He has struggled with injury the past couple of seasons, but is still capable of putting up a huge year. Rollins is a 3-time Gold Glove winner, a former MVP, and a World Series winner. So far in the young season he’s hitting .351/.368/.378 with 2 steals. His power may be drying up, seeing that he only has 2 extra-base hits, but in the Phillies current lineup, Rollins has very little protection, so pitchers are staying away from the middle of the plate. When Utley and Howard return, expect an uptick in his production.
Asdrubal had his coming out party in 2011, crushing the ball to the tune of a .273/.332/.460 slash with 25 homers. He was named to his first All-Star team, and took home the Silver Slugger award for his efforts. Cabrera has power to all fields, is an excellent gap hitter, and has the ability to successfully steal bases. Much of Cabrera’s value also lies in his fantastic range in the field. He can frequently be seen making some of the flashiest plays in baseball, diving, flipping the ball behind his back, and more. At age-26 he is just entering his prime and should be an All-Star for years to come. Cabrera has had a good start to his 2012 campaign, hitting .282/.333/.513 with 2 homers and 3 doubles.
JJ Hardy was finally able to stay on the field in 2011, hitting a massive 30 homers and 27 doubles. Hardy has been cursed with the injury bug for most of his career, after beginning it with such promise. During 2007 and 2008 he hit a combined 50 homers and 61 doubles for the Brewers, making 1 All-Star team. Hardy has struggled out of the gate this year, but should be expected to top 25 homers and hit around .265 again, which are excellent numbers up the middle. Hardy is also an excellent defender with great instincts. His throwing arm is strong, and he is excellent on relays and balls hit in the hole. If the Orioles could put together a decent team, Hardy would probably be a lead competitor to win the Gold Glove award.
There are plenty of other young, talented shortstops on their way up as well. Down in Miami they have Jose Reyes, a premier offensive talent with blazing speed. The Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon is fun to watch and leads the National League in steals with 7 in 10 games. Zach Cozart is only 26 and has been hitting the ball hard every time at-bat for Cincinnati. Rafael Furcal may be in the midst of a renaissance season in St. Louis, hitting .292 and swiping 2 bags already after years of injury sapped his speed. And Elvis Andrus is still just 23 and has already swiped 30+ bases in 3 seasons. Baseball is always better when the shortstop position is deep, and this may be one of the most talented groups of players since the Holy Grail a decade ago.