Next wave of shortstops making a splash
Hanley, Tulo, Yunel leading new generation of whiz kids
They commanded the game as anchors of the infield, dazzled onlookers and achieved baseball heights, turning what was once considered a light-hitting position into a glitzy gig of glamour.
Starting in the mid-1990s and carrying over through much of the 2000s, Major League Baseball was treated to a quintet of super-shortstops, and they were all easy to identify.
In Boston you had the high-average hitting and occasional pop of Nomar (Garciaparra), and in Cleveland you had the Hall of Fame-caliber fielding of Omar (Vizquel).
New York belonged to Derek (Jeter), the all-around star with a complete and clutch finesse-oriented game, and Seattle and Texas were A-Rod towns where home runs flew off the slugger's bat in record numbers.
In Oakland, there was Miggy (Tejada) Magic, the power- and hustle-centered package that netted the fiery team leader an American League MVP award in 2002.
Times have changed a bit.
Garciaparra has turned into a first baseman and has an unknown future as an unsigned free agent. Vizquel, who turns 43 in late April, just signed with the White Sox and figures to be a backup. A-Rod is a Yankee, of course, and plays third base, long thought of as a true power position. Tejada, depending where he ends up next season, might follow Rodriguez to the hot corner.
Jeter remains where he always has been, a stalwart at short, in the heart of the Yankees' lineup and as a team captain, fan favorite and ambassador for the game. He's still pretty good, too. He broke Lou Gehrig's all-time Yankees record for hits last year and, if he remains healthy, should top the 3,000-hit mark for his career sometime early in 2011.
But Jeter, who will be 36 in June, is the only one of the aforementioned five still playing shortstop and still regarded as a superstar.
Now it's time to welcome the new guard at shortstop, and while there are plenty of talented players fitting the bill in today's game, such as the multi-dimensional 2007 NL MVP, Jimmy Rollins, here's a new fabulous fivesome of younger stars rising to the top:
1. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
When the Red Sox traded Ramirez to Florida as part of a package of players that netted them Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, it paid off pretty quickly, with Beckett and Lowell helping Boston win the world Series in 2007. But Ramirez, who turned 26 on Dec. 23, is set to help an improved Marlins club for years to come.
If it weren't for Albert Pujols doing his usual thing in St. Louis, Ramirez would have easily taken the National League Most Valuable Player Award last year. He won the NL batting title with a .342 clip and added career-high numbers in RBIs (106) on-base percentage (.410) and OPS (.954) while hitting 24 home runs and scoring 101 times.
"Nothing surprises me about this guy," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said late in the 2009 season. "With this guy, the sky is the limit."
And Gonzalez isn't just talking about offense.
In fact, from 2008-'09, Ramirez's fielding percentage grew from .967 to .983, he cut his errors down from 22 to 10, and his Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures how often each defensive player is better than average on balls hit into his specific "zones" on the field, showed Ramirez as markedly better.
"I think we're just reaching the tip of the iceberg on him," Gonzalez said. "Everybody talks about his offense, but how about his defense? His numbers have improved tremendously."
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
No one has ever doubted Tulowitzki's talent. In his first full season in the big leagues, 2007, Tulowitzki was 22 years old and electrified the Rockies with a .291 batting average, 24 homers, 99 RBIs, 104 runs and a rocket arm. He ended up helping Colorado make it to the World Series.
After some injury issues in '08 and a slow start to '09, Tulowitzki made last year his best one yet and proved to be among the premier power hitters at his position, hitting 32 homers, driving in 92 runs and putting up his best batting average and OPS numbers to date (.297/.377/.552).
What does he do for an encore? The Rockies are expecting and hoping for Tulowitzki to keep improving as he reaches his prime.
"He's put himself in the echelon to be considered for a lot of things -- a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and what else do we want to talk about when it comes to that position?" Rockies manager Jim Tracy said of Tulowitzki. "At the real old age of 24, this guy is going to be around for a while. And there are a lot of things about that person that's very, very special. This is a franchise player that you're talking about."
3. Yunel Escobar, Braves
Down in Atlanta, the word is getting out about this potential franchise player, too. Escobar, who keeps getting better and shined in his third big league season after defecting from Cuba and being selected in the second round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.
Fast-forward five years and he's a star in the making after a solid '09 in which he hit .299, put up a .377 on-base percentage, hit a career-best 14 homers and drove in 76 runs while scoring 89 to finish 20th in NL MVP voting.
"He's pretty impressive," one National League scout told MLB.com during last season. "There are a lot of good young shortstops out there. But I'd put him up there with Hanley [Ramirez] and the others."
4. Jose Reyes, Mets
If the Mets' do-everything shortstop had a healthy '09, he might be all the way at the top of this list. Alas, tendinitis in Reyes' right calf led to more leg problems, and his year ended on May 20.
On the positive side, a right Reyes can win games in more ways than most players in the game. Take his most recent injury-free year to date, '08, when he racked up 204 hits, hit 19 triples and 16 homers, stole 56 bases, scored 113 runs, hit 37 doubles and drove in 68.
And then there's his infectious energy around the clubhouse.
"It's more than meets the eye," third baseman David Wright said of Reyes. "It's not just the stolen bases. His electricity rubs off on the rest of us and allows us to play on a different level."
Reyes already owns club records for triples in a single season and all-time steals. He's not done, though.
"I'm still young in this game, and I've got a couple records already," says Reyes, who will turn 27 in June. "So I have to feel good about it."
Hopefully for Mets fans, his leg will feel good in 2010, too.
5. Erick Aybar, Angels
His flashy fielding skills were never in doubt, and even the new-age stats backed him up in 2009, when Aybar was among the best in the business with a UZR of 7.8 that ranked him sixth in baseball at short.
No, Aybar's bat was the big question mark, and he answered strongly in his first full campaign with 504 at-bats, leading the Angels with a .312 batting average and also improving in OBP (.353), walks (30), slugging (.423), runs (70), RBIs (58) and steals (14).
How good is Aybar?
Consider that for the last five years, the Angels refused to trade super-prospect Brandon Wood, who was believed to be the franchise's shortstop of the future, and now, chances are Wood will begin next year at third base while Aybar remains at short.
"He's feeling comfortable playing at the big league level every day," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Offensively, he's comfortable when to freelance and be creative and when to have an at-bat where he's working the counts. He's done a good job of that."
And if that's not enough, there are plenty more to keep an eye on, including Elvis Andrus in Texas, Alcides Escobar in Milwaukee, Jason Bartlett in Tampa Bay, Stephen Drew in Arizona, J.J. Hardy in Minnesota and Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox.
Vizquel, who was a huge help to Andrus last year and should do the same in mentoring Ramirez this year, knows a thing or two about success and longevity and very well might find his own likeness on a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., someday.
When asked what young shortstops possibly trying to live up to the legacies of a Vizquel, Jeter, Rodriguez, Garciaparra or Tejada need to know, he mentions one special skill before any other.
"Know how to dance salsa," Vizquel says.
"If you know how to move your feet, you can field a ground ball."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.