If you doubt whether a position can change much in year's time, compare what the shortstop pool looked like on opening day in 2015 against how it looks now. No position saw its landscape change more dramatically last season.
The Big Three of Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes has quickly been whittled down to the Kinda Large One. Not only did the position's elite fall short of expectations, but they were leapfrogged by a trio of early twentysomethings: Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Francisco Lindor.
Even though shortstop got a drastic makeover in 2015, there are likely to be more changes on the way soon. Correa, Lindor and Corey Seager are typically being drafted in the early rounds, being treated as elite or near-elite options, but will they justify the hype or disappoint? Ketel Marte will also be playing his first full season, and Addison Russell will suit up for opening day for the first time as a major leaguer, and they bring similar levels of uncertainty.
Two high-end prospects -- Orlando Arcia and J.P. Crawford -- appear to be on the brink of making their debuts. How these seven shortstops fare could have a lot to say about how shortstop is perceived over the course of this season, as well as for years to come.
It's not just the youngsters who are reshaping the position. Jung Ho Kang appeared to emerging as a force among shortstops before his season ended as the result of a Chris Coghlan takeout slide. Brandon Crawford, Defensive Specialist, came out of his cocoon as Brandon Crawford, Fearsome Slugger. Tulowitzki, Ramirez and Reyes looked mortal, with only Tulowitzki finishing among the top five shortstops. Should Ramirez rebound this season, he won't impact the position, as he no longer qualifies there.
The shortstop pool is now defined by youth, which means it's full of upside as well as uncertainty. Correa played just enough (99 games) and was dominant enough (.857 OPS with 14 stolen bases) that he is the consensus top choice at shortstop. His popularity as a first-rounder is about the rest of the shortstop field as much as it is about his own accomplishments.
Tulowitzki has always come with injury risk, but now alarming decreases in plate discipline and power are part of the package. Bogaerts hit for average and produced runs last season, but what if he reverts back to his pull-happy ways without the payoff of more power?
Seager and Lindor have been nearly as popular as Tulowitzki and Bogaerts, largely on the merits of their minor league track records and some late-season slugging last year. Once leagues have blown through the top five, the next-best options at the position consist of a grab bag of inconsistent veterans (Brandon Crawford, Ian Desmond, Reyes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro) and more young talent (Russell, Marte). Shortstop still may not have much proven talent, but particularly in the middle ranges, it has gotten much more exciting.
Even in the endgame, there are some intriguing fallback options. The Reds' two shortstop-eligible starters, Eugenio Suarez and Zack Cozart, both showed power potential last season. With his season delayed by at least a month, Jhonny Peralta (thumb) could now be a late-round bargain. Jean Segura and Alcides Escobar have Rotisserie appeal for steal seekers. Arcia and J.P. Crawford should come cheap and could be among the more valuable rookies, regardless of position.
With so many young players, there's all sorts of breakout potential here. Bogaerts is a classic candidate. He's 23, made progress as a contact and all-fields hitter last season but has yet to add the power he displayed as a minor leaguer. Russell and Kang both had periods of struggle in their rookie seasons, but there were plenty of highlights, too. The possibility of more highs and fewer lows offers hope for improved performance as sophomores. Given that Kang is about to turn 29 and will be coming off serious leg and knee injuries, his potential to break out is not as strong as Russell's.
Castro and Marcus Semien are entering their peak years, and Castro in particular had the look of a breakout hitter late in 2015, when he compiled a 1.033 OPS over his final 35 games. Semien seemed to be making good on his potential to provide power and speed last April and May (six home runs and seven stolen bases in 53 games), but then the power disappeared for two months, while the steals didn't show up again. Much of Semien's attention was focused on improving his defense last season, so perhaps this year he can focus on maintaining the pace of his offensive production.
For some breakout candidates, taking that extra step in their development is just the final stroke that completes a masterpiece. For others, it might be a necessity that saves their career. Put Castro and Semien in that latter group. Before his late-season hot streak, Castro had merely mustered a .578 OPS through 116 games. Reverting to that form won't cut it with Rob Refsnyder waiting in the wings. If Semien regresses at the plate or in the field, the A's could slide Jed Lowrie over from second base or call up Chad Pinder from the minors.
Segura stands a better chance of remaining a regular, now that he has been dealt to the Diamondbacks, but his new team still has Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings around to handle the position. His steals may come in handy for Fantasy owners, but unless Segura reverses his free fall at the plate, he could get demoted into a utility role.
I'd be remiss not to include Reyes in this discussion, even though he is unlikely to lose his job for performance reasons. Reyes is currently on paid leave and could face an extended suspension depending on the outcome of his upcoming assault trial. The Rockies' shortstop was charged last November with abusing his wife, and his trial will begin April 4.
Seager has barely played a month's worth of regular season games, and already he is verging on elite at his position. He may not be the only rookie to start at shortstop on opening day. Trevor Story is in the running to be at least a temporary replacement for Reyes, and if he wins regular playing time, he could provide home runs and stolen bases. Trea Turner faces a much steeper battle to emerge as the Nationals' starting shortstop, and he needs to play there to gain eligibility. Coming into 2016, Turner is eligible only at second base.
Seager aside, the rookies likely to make the biggest waves are Arcia and J.P. Crawford. Arcia is ticketed for Triple-A to begin the season, but he could be one of the earlier prospect callups. He will be a welcome contributor to the pool of steal sources and could provide moderate power as well. Crawford doesn't profile to be the base-stealer that Arcia could be, but he could be a boon to owners in leagues that use OBP or walks as a category.
The Big Picture
For the time being, shortstop should continue to earn its reputation for being one of the weakest positions, as there are still few reliable producers to target in the early rounds. That could change quickly, though, if young stars like Bogaerts, Seager, Lindor and Russell develop as we expect them to. Still, no one has yet to show the all-around skills of Correa, so for now, he's in a class (or a tier) unto himself.
If you wait until late to fill your shortstop void, you could opt for a steals specialist or a solid-but-unspectacular type, like Brad Miller, but you don't have to. There should be some actual upside available, in the form of Peralta, Semien, Arcia and several others. With many good prospects still in the pipeline, the growing bounty of Fantasy-relevant shortstops may be something we will have to get used to.