Baseball in middle of another shortstop renaissance
Emerging group of young stars ushering position into exciting new era
Remember back in the day ... say, oh, about 10 years ago?
It was the Era of the Shortstop, with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and even Omar Vizquel -- all future legends getting it done at Hall of Fame-caliber levels with the bat or glove or both.
Maybe those guys were so good that we sometimes forgot how rare it was to enjoy the daily doings of a collective group of players redefining their position. Maybe A-Rod's homers, Tejada's RBIs, Jeter's Octobers, Garciaparra's batting averages and Vizquel's Gold Gloves became so "normal" that we didn't realize how extraordinary it all was.
Now that Garciaparra and Vizquel have retired, Jeter and Rodriguez are older veterans trying to return from injuries or, in the case of A-Rod, also having switched to third base, and Tejada being a bench guy and role model for younger teammates, we can realize what we had.
Or, as we look down the current rosters of the 30 Major League teams and check out the shortstops, what we might very well be seeing again soon.
The league is starting to load up at shortstop again. The established stars are there or will soon be in the form of Jeter, Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins, Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus of the Rangers, Toronto's Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez of the Dodgers, Ian Desmond of the Nationals and Starlin Castro of the Cubs, but there's a new crop of young players showing remarkably versatile skill sets.
The Angels had to like the deal they orchestrated for starter Zack Greinke at the Trade Deadline last year ... that is, until not even Greinke could get them into the playoffs and one of the prospects they traded became one of the best shortstops in baseball for the first half of 2013.
Enter Jean Segura, 23, who has been that good for Milwaukee, with a .334/.367/.528 line through Tuesday, 100 hits, eight triples, 11 homers, 32 RBIs and 23 stolen bases that not only have him in the All-Star Game conversation but in the MVP conversation.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Andrelton Simmons is 23 years old and is still learning the position he was born to play. Simmons once hit 98 mph with a fastball in a not-so-long-ago former life as a pitcher, and now he's wowing fans on a nearly nightly basis with his defense as Atlanta's infield leader. He is by far the best shortstop in the Majors in UZR and DRS.
Simmons isn't there yet with the bat; through Tuesday, he had a slash line of .247/.282/.333 with five home runs and 22 RBIs. Those numbers need to improve if he is going to achieve elite status. There have been flashes of raw power, however, like on May 6, when he hit two homers and drove in four runs in a Sunday night win over Cincinnati.
But his defense is elite and has been elite for a while -- even in Spring Training of last year, when now-retired Braves legend Chipper Jones couldn't help but notice and predicted great things.
"He's confident, but he's not outwardly showy," Jones said. "That's fun to watch."
Some scoffed when the D-backs got rid of pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-team deal with Cleveland and Cincinnati that netted, among others, Shin-Soo Choo for the Reds and Drew Stubbs for the Indians. Arizona's big-time haul for Bauer ended up being Didi Gregorius, a 23-year-old shortstop prospect born in the Netherlands who was supposed to have a great glove and possibly a utility man's bat.
Fast forward and Gregorius is the unquestioned starting shortstop for the team that's in first place in the tough National League West, and he's hitting. He entered Wednesday's play with a .293 batting average, a surprising .358 on-base percentage and four homers and 16 RBIs in 191 at-bats.
The defense has been as advertised -- solid, and, at times, a lot better than that.
"He has made spectacular plays and he has made the routine plays. He looks very under control for a young guy and you don't see that," said D-backs third baseman Eric Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner. "I don't want to say he's making it look easy, but he's making it look pretty easy."
Another to watch is Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins, a 24-year-old Cuban who has made some sensational plays of late but has a long way to go with offensive consistency.
Elsewhere, three of the best future shortstop prospects are currently playing other positions.
Baltimore's Manny Machado, one of the best all-around offensive and defensive players so far this year at age 20, is playing third base because J.J. Hardy is a fixture at shortstop at the moment.
Boston's Jose Iglesias also is at third while Stephen Drew plays short for the Red Sox. Twenty-year-old Jurickson Profar of the Rangers is employed in a super-utility role with Andrus at short and a now-healthy Ian Kinsler at second base.
In other words, the already strong crop of young shortstops could get even stronger in the coming years.