Highlighting top SS prospects for 2012
The shortstop position has been a challenge for many owners in recent seasons, but there is some elite talent in the pipeline. As Scott White writes, let's hope some of them remain shortstops going forward.
As rare as Fantasy-relevant shortstops are in the majors, they're everywhere in the minors.
Don't get too excited. Chances are half of them will either outgrow the position or move to another just to placate whatever veteran stands in their way at the time they reach the big leagues.
But do get a little excited. After all, they'd only move to other positions if their bats profiled at those positions. And at the end of the day, bats are what matter most in Fantasy.
And if, as could be the case for high-end types like Jurickson Profar, Manny Machado and Javier Baez, your shortstop happens to be the one that sticks at the position, you'll be the envy of everyone in your dynasty league.
Note: This list has been adjusted for Fantasy purposes. Long-term potential is one of several factors that influence the order and is arguably less important than the player's expected role in 2012. These prospects don't all profile as superstars, but they're the names most worth knowing in Fantasy right now.
1. Jurickson Profar, 19, Rangers
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .286 BA, 12 HRs, 23 SBs, .883 OPS, 65 BBs, 63 Ks
This time a year ago, Profar's Fantasy worth was entirely speculative. He had done almost nothing in professional baseball, and what little he had done hardly justified the hype. But he didn't need long to make the scouts look like geniuses, putting up stud numbers as a wiry 18-year-old in his first full minor-league season. His plate discipline is like that of a grizzled veteran, and his power is surprising for a player who hasn't even begun to fill out. Plus, unlike many of the prospects on this list, he actually projects to remain at shortstop. With so much offensive potential at such a weak position, Profar could develop into a perennial first-rounder in Fantasy, which is about as bold of a prediction as you'll find for a 19-year-old still in the lower levels of the minors. The Rangers already have a young shortstop in Elvis Andrus, so they can afford to take their time with Profar. But with another strong showing, the Curacao native could push for a call-up in 2013. He should be one of the first prospects drafted -- shortstop or otherwise -- in long-term keeper leagues.
2. Manny Machado, 19, Orioles
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .257 BA (382 at-bats), 11 HRs, 11 SBs, .756 OPS
After all the pomp and circumstance that comes with being the third overall pick in the draft -- the Alex Rodriguez comparisons, the projected All-Star appearances -- Machado got a rude awakening in his first professional season, showing that he's likely still a couple years from reaching the majors. Of course, that's kind of the norm for a 19-year-old, no matter how talented he is. It's not that Machado necessarily underachieved -- in fact, the game came almost too easily for him at first -- but he struggled once he moved up to high Class A Frederick in June, hitting .245 with a .692 OPS. He still has the power potential to become a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter, which is rare for a shortstop, and the Alex Rodriguez comparisons, though exaggerated, do say something about his abilities. Still, when the Orioles decided to extend starting shortstop J.J. Hardy's contract through 2014, they gave a pretty clear indication of Machado's timetable. He'll be an early-round pick in Fantasy someday, but he's far enough from the majors that he should go undrafted outside of long-term keeper leagues.
3. Hak-Ju Lee, 21, Rays
Where played in 2011: Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .292 BA, 5 HRs, 15 3Bs, 33 SBs, .781 OPS
When the Rays acquired Lee from the Cubs as part of a package for Matt Garza prior to 2011, he wasn't considered the best prospect in the deal. But he probably is now. The minor-league numbers that got him there would be even more impressive if not for a late-season promotion to Double-A Montgomery, where he hit .190 in 100 at-bats. As far as shortstop prospects go, Lee doesn't have quite the ceiling of a Jurickson Profar or Manny Machado, but he has everything you'd want in a leadoff hitter: a high contact rate, good batting eye and the ability for 30-plus steals. He even showed some extra-base pop last season -- something that should increase as he adds muscle to his wiry frame. It's a skill set that falls somewhere between that of countryman Shin-Soo Choo and longtime leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal. No matter where exactly Lee lands on that spectrum, he's a player you'll want to start in Fantasy for years to come. He'll likely fill the Rays' gaping hole at shortstop at some point in 2013, making him a better pick for long-term keeper leagues than seasonal formats.
4. Zack Cozart, 26, Reds
Where played in 2011: Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .310 BA (323 at-bats), 7 HRs, 9 SBs, .825 OPS
Major-league stats: .324 BA (37 at-bats), 2 HRs, 0 SBs, 0 BBs, 6 Ks
Cozart isn't a flashy player, but he does everything just well enough to be an asset in Fantasy. He certainly didn't look overmatched during his brief stint in the majors last season, serving as the Reds' starting shortstop for two weeks before needing Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in late July. Given manager Dusty Baker's history of shying away from rookies, the Reds' willingness to make Cozart the everyday player at the most important infield position with a division title still on the line tells you everything you need to know about the 26-year-old's major-league readiness, as does his performance in the role. He'll enter 2012 with the inside track on a starting job and should be recovered (from both the elbow surgery and a later ankle surgery) in time for spring training. Though his lack of plate discipline and relatively limited ceiling will likely make him no more than a late-rounder in mixed leagues, his modest power and speed could make him a bargain at that price.
5. Billy Hamilton, 21, Reds
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .278 BA, 3 HRs, 103 SBs, .340 OBP, 52 BBs, 133 Ks
Hamilton topped 100 stolen bases last season, which is something no minor-leaguer had done since 2001 and no major-leaguer has done since 1987. Clearly, his best tool is speed, and he might have as much as any player in recent memory. He's the kind of player who will successfully steal bases even on pitchouts and pickoff throws, so if he hits enough to reach the majors, you know he'll run enough to make a significant Fantasy impact. But that's the question: Will he hit enough? The scouts seem to think so, but Hamilton's lack of plate discipline is something he'll need to overcome to make the most of his abilities. In fairness, he did hit .316 after May after hitting only .195 before it, so he already seems to be making improvements. At age 21, Hamilton can afford to spend a couple more years in the minors, and he'll likely need every bit of that time. But if he develops as expected and is able to remain at shortstop, his league-leading number of steals should make him an elite Fantasy option down the line.
6. Jean Segura, 22, Angels
Where played in 2011: Rookie, Class A
Minor-league stats: .293 BA (215 at-bats), 4 HRs, 18 SBs, .787 OPS
After batting .313 with 10 homers, 50 steals and an .829 OPS to emerge as a top prospect in 2010, Segura didn't get a chance to progress in 2011, missing three months of the regular season with a hamstring injury. But he returned as good as new in August and had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League to confirm that he does indeed deserve to remain among the top prospects at his position. Why exactly? Hey, his career .316 batting average in the minors speaks for itself. He's also a good base-stealer and rarely strikes out, so even as a 12-to-15-homer guy, he'd be a significant Fantasy asset. And if his doubles and triples power eventually leads to more, even better. Segura is relatively new to shortstop and is no guarantee to stay there, but even if he doesn't, he'll simply slide over to second base. Either way, he profiles as a top Fantasy option at a weak position. He's one of the safest long-term keepers you'll find on Draft Day. Expect him to compete for a starting job as early as 2013.
7. Nick Franklin, 21, Mariners
Where played in 2011: Rookie, Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .281 BA (352 at-bats), 7 HRs, 18 SBs, .770 OPS
Franklin has been an enigma so far in his professional career. He was one of three minor-leaguers to put together a 20-20 season in 2010 (setting a franchise record with 23 homers at Class A Clinton) but then had disappointing power numbers over half a season in the heavy-hitting California League. He rebounded to hit .325 with an .825 OPS after a midseason promotion to Double-A Jackson but then hit only .258 in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League. In other words, he's at his worst when he should be at his best and vice versa. Still, Franklin has offered enough good with the bad to suggest he'll be a major-league regular in the not-too-distant future. Whether or not he'll be a 20-20 player in the majors is a matter of debate -- his speed seems to be more of a certainty than his power at this point -- but he'll be productive enough in both areas to start in Fantasy when he reaches the majors. Depending on his development, that could happen at some point in 2012, so AL-only owners shouldn't sleep on the 21-year-old.
8. Tyler Pastornicky, 22, Braves
Where played in 2011: Double-A, Triple-A
Minor-league stats: .314 BA, 7 HRs, 27 SBs, .773 OPS, 32 BBs, 45 Ks
If the Braves have their way, Pastornicky will begin 2012 back in the minors. But if they can't find anyone to bridge the gap between him and Alex Gonzalez, then the 22-year-old might just be the team's starting shortstop come opening day. It wouldn't be the biggest leap in the world. Pastornicky hit .365 in 104 at-bats for Triple-A Gwinnett following a midseason promotion and likely would have been a September call-up if not for a high ankle sprain. He actually did spend a day on the major-league roster, but he didn't see any time on the field. Though he won't hit a bunch of homers, Pastornicky's line-drive stroke and high contact rate should allow him to hit for a high average even in the majors, and he clearly knows how to steal bases. If his transition to the majors goes smoothly, he could find himself batting near the top of the Braves lineup at some point, which would make him useful even in mixed leagues. He's clearly a sleeper at the weak shortstop position, though his long-term appeal is in question with Andrelton Simmons in the same organization.
9. Javier Baez, 19, Cubs
Where played in 2011: Rookie, Class A
Minor-league stats: .278 BA (18 at-bats), 0 HRs, 2 SBs, 0 BBs, 4 Ks
Baez is still a virtual unknown in Fantasy with only 18 at-bats in his professional career, but he was the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft for reasons that go beyond just his .711 batting average and 20 homers as a high school senior. Scouts rated his bat speed the best of his draft class and even used Gary Sheffield as a comparison. That's some serious offensive potential for a shortstop, and though Baez is no guarantee to remain at the position as he fills out over the next few years -- Sheffield, to use one example, didn't -- his arm strength at least makes it a possibility. Baez likely has several years of minor-league ball ahead of him, and a lot could go wrong for him during that time, but his ceiling is impressive enough that owners in long-term keeper leagues should begin stashing him away already.
10. Wilmer Flores, 20, Mets
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .269 BA, 9 HRs, 81 RBI, .689 OPS, 27 BBs, 68 Ks
Flores has landed on the Baseball America top 100 list three straight years, making his spot on this list almost obligatory. But he doesn't seem to be developing in the lower levels of the minors. In fact, he actually took a step back in 2011, declining in every major statistical category despite remaining at Class A St. Lucie. Granted, his numbers were never what attracted scouts to him in the first place, so if the idea is that his talents will suddenly click one day and turn him into an overnight middle-of-the-order threat, then that theory is still intact. But it'd be nice to see a little progress in the meantime. If nothing else, Flores makes good contact, never striking out more than 77 times in a minor-league season, so if he learns to swing at pitches he can drive and lay off the ones he can't, maybe he'll bring those power numbers up where they belong. Because his production is still theoretical at this point and because scouts give him virtually no chance of remaining at shortstop, Flores isn't quite the long-term keeper he used to be.
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