Golden age for shortstops could have hefty MLB free-agency effect: Sherman

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This is a golden age for major league shortstops.

Let us count the ways:

Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. just signed contracts worth $681 million combined — $341 million for Lindor and $340 million for Tatis. Those now represent the third- and fourth-largest contracts ever, behind those signed by Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.

Did those contracts elevate the market for other shortstops, chill it or both? When Tatis signed his 14-year contract with the Padres before reaching arbitration, it raised the bar for others in such circumstances. For example, the Blue Jays, before Tatis signed, believed they might be able to do something long-term with their own pre-arbitration son of a former major leaguer, Bo Bichette. But Tatis moved the pay structure to a place where the Blue Jays did not want to venture.

The Astros had made a six-year, $120 million bid for their shortstop who is entering his walk year, Carlos Correa. But Correa didn’t see that as fair, and once Lindor — entering what would have been his walk year — signed for $221 million more than Houston had offered Correa, it pretty much nuked the chances of an extension.

Thus, one of the biggest storylines of this season remains the positioning for dollars among the looming greatest free-agent shortstop class ever. That class was diminished from five to four after Lindor signed the largest shortstop deal ever. But Correa, the Cubs’ Javier Baez, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and the Rockies’ Trevor Story remain. Just how much will Lindor’s contract have an upward drag effect?

Of that group, Baez perhaps has the best chance to sign long term before free agency, but he is coming off his worst season at a moment in which the Cubs are playing the austerity game. Baez and, especially Story, have the best chance to be traded during the season — though Colorado is notoriously defiant (delusional?) about facing its realities as a team and might be slower to act with a fan favorite such as Story.

The stealth shortstop in his walk year is Marcus Semien — because he is playing second for the Blue Jays. But he was third for the MVP in 2019 as the Athletics’ shortstop. He did not play as well in an abbreviated 2020 season and gambled on himself by agreeing to a one-year, $18 million pact to play away from his normal position (and next to Bichette) for a likely contender.

Amazingly, with so many good shortstops, Semien is not the only one who has been moved off the position. Jorge Polanco’s persistent ankle problems convinced the Twins to emphasize defense by signing Andrelton Simmons. Polanco, like Semien, is now a second baseman. Meanwhile, Amed Rosario, now in Cleveland, is a center fielder — after all those years of the Mets wondering if he could handle such a transition.

Cleveland is delving into whether Rosario can be a jack-of-all-trades with an emphasis on the outfield. Cleveland determined quickly what the Mets recognized last year, it was better to have Andres Gimenez as a starting shortstop. Cleveland obtained both as part of the package for Lindor.

By the way, that list does not even include the Astros’ Alex Bregman, the Padres’ Manny Machado and the Mariners’ Ketel Marte — all of whom have been off shortstop for several years, but probably would still be stars at their original position.

The talent is so good at shortstop that I am not sure the White Sox’s Tim Anderson, the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts or the Nationals’ Trea Turner would make most rankings of the top three at the position (my guess is that would be generally reserved for Lindor, Seager and Story). Yet hit-machine Anderson, steady Bogaerts and speedy Turner are among the 30 best players in the game. In fact, they would lead my list of most underrated players in the sport. Neither Anderson nor Turner has been an All-Star — yet.

So, with an overflow of shortstops having to play elsewhere, you wouldn’t think there would be players being shoehorned into shortstop. But there are. The Yankees remain focused on trying to get 13 righty power hitters into one nine-man lineup, which means continuing to convince themselves that a championship can be won with Gleyber Torres at short.

The Rangers traded their long-time shortstop, Elvis Andrus, to Oakland and want to see what Gold Glove third baseman Isaiah Kiner-Falefa looks like at short. Amazingly, Kiner-Falefa has started 66 games at catcher in his major league career. The Reds wanted to get their 2018 first-round pick, third baseman Jonathan India, onto the field after a strong spring, so they moved long-time third baseman Eugenio Suarez to short.

Expect the overflow to continue. The consensus best prospect in the sport is the Rays’ Wander Franco, a switch-hitting wunderkind who turned 20 last month and soon might be displacing Willy Adames for the AL champs. And in talent and trajectory to the majors, the Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. and the Padres’ CJ Abrams are not far behind. At some point soon, the Padres could have Tatis, Machado and Abrams in their everyday lineup. That would be quite a short story.

Yet the most intriguing prospect of all just might be the Pirates’ Oneil Cruz. When we think of tall shortstops, historically the 6-foot-4 Cal Ripken Jr. comes to mind. Correa and Seager also are listed at 6-4. But Cruz is 6-7. At the same size, Joel Guzman had cups of coffee in the majors in 2006-07 playing shortstop. But no one taller than 6-4 has been consistently used as a starting shortstop in the majors. Can Cruz, who has a shot at Triple-A (and more this year), retain the skills to play shortstop in the majors?

That would be yet another sign that the talent at the position is growing.

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