Fantasy Baseball 2012: Top 20 Shortstops from This Point Forward

Jay Clemons@ATL_JayClemonsFantasy Sports Lead WriterJune 22, 2012

Fantasy Baseball 2012: Top 20 Shortstops from This Point Forward

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    The following countdown touts my picks for the top 20 shortstops in fantasy baseball—from this point forward.

    To clarify, this listing is not necessarily a celebration of those who posted stellar stats from April 4 to June 21, or those who were prominently featured in the preseason rankings.

    It's simply a compilation of the best assets moving forward. It's also a rundown of the 20 most appealing SS-eligible hitters to pursue in trades for the stretch run.

    When originally crafting the list, I was surprised that Erick Aybar, Ryan Theriot nor Sean Rodriguez made the final cut.

    But in a season where the real depth at shortstop runs almost 25 deep, hard choices had to be made somewhere.

    Enjoy the show!

Special Mention: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

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    2012 Stats: 8 HR, 27 RBI, 33 Runs, 2 Steals, .287 BA

    Skinny: With Tulowitzki coming off groin surgery—and a subsequent ban of physical activity for at least three weeks—it doesn't make sense to speculate on a hard-target return date for August or September.

    But I'll say this: If you have a vacancy at the "DL" slot, this would be the perfect time to orchestrate a low-key trade for the best shortstop in fantasy, when healthy.

    On a smaller scale, the same plan would work for dual-position infielder Emilio Bonifacio (thumb injury), who's slated to return to the Marlins lineup sometime in mid-to-late July.

20. Yunel Escobar, Toronto Blue Jays

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    2012 Stats: 4 HR, 21 RBI, 38 Runs, 1 Steal, .249 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 6 RBI, 12 Runs, 1 Steal, .228 BA

    Skinny: With injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and Emilio Bonifacio, Escobar garners a merciful spot in this countdown.

    In fact, "merciful" might even be a generous word here, given Escobar's poor batting average and deflating marks with on-base percentage (.302) and slugging (.331).

    There's also one more saving grace: Escobar has a track record of modest fantasy success, and at age 28, he's still a reasonable candidate for double-digit homers and 75 runs.

19. J.J. Hardy, Baltimore Orioles

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    2012 Stats: 11 HR, 28 RBI, 36 Runs, .247 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 7 RBI, 11 Runs, .245 BA

    Skinny: If this listing only rewarded seasonal stats, J.J. Hardy would have scored a significantly higher ranking.

    But when projecting his 30-day marks from above (and .266 on-base percentage) into the next three months, it's fair to wonder if Hardy is in the early stages of an offensive downturn.

    In a weird way, belting 30 homers last season might have been the worst thing for Hardy's current value.

    Sure, he got a nice three-year contract out with the Orioles during the offseason, but from a fantasy perspective, he's probably closer to the guy who combined for 17 homers in 2009-10, rather than the 30-homer marvel of 2011.

    Hardy's on-base percentage of the last four years (.304) reinforces that assumption.

18. Jhonny Peralta, Detroit Tigers

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    2012 Stats: 4 HR, 18 RBI, 23 Runs, 1 Steal, .267 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 6 RBI, 10 Runs, .274 BA

    Skinny: On track record alone, Peralta (132 homers before his 30th birthday) probably deserves a higher ranking.

    But it's hard to derive many positive notions from an asset who's cracking just one homer for every 52.5 plate appearances this season.

    The good news from Peralta's middling start: His batting average has nicely recovered from the .239 nadir of June 2. As things heat up in Detroit during the summertime, he'll likely get the average above .280 by season's end.

17. Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds

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    2012 Stats: 7 HR, 16 RBI, 40 Runs, 2 Steals, .262 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 4 RBI, 18 Runs, 1 Steal, .298 BA

    Skinny: Cozart's hot-and-cold tendencies have pleased and rankled fantasy owners at various times this season, which is difficult to do in the narrow shortstop market.

    But for those who haven't suffered with Cozart during the prolonged slumps, here's a chance to get on the ground floor with a blossoming talent.

    In his last 10 games, Cozart is hitting at a .400 clip. Since June 7, the 26-year-old boasts a .333 average with one homer and eight runs.

    Put it all together, and fantasy owners can still land a three-category dynamo for a waiver-wire pittance.

16. Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox

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    2012 Stats: 1 HR, 31 RBI, 23 Runs, 9 Steals, .235 BA

    30-Day Stats: 0 HR, 14 RBI, 12 Runs, 6 Steals, .290 BA

    Skinny: Before compiling the research for today's rankings, I had planned on only highlighting 15 shortstop-eligible assets.

    But given Ramirez's 30-day resurgence with runs, batting average and steals—not to mention his solid track record from 2008-11 (69 homers, 285 RBI, 47 steals)—it would have been wrong to leave him off the list.

    That isn't to say Ramirez will break out of a massive power slump before the calendar hits September, but at 30 years old, it's reasonable to conclude his numbers since May 23 will be replicated in consecutive 15- and 30-day windows.

    That is, unless Ramirez has been concealing a substantial injury or explanation for his deflating start to the 2012 campaign.

15. Rafael Furcal, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2012 Stats: 5 HR, 29 RBI, 43 Runs, 9 Steals, .288 BA

    30-Day Stats: 3 HR, 8 RBI, 13 Runs, 1 Steal, .204 BA

    Skinny: If we should revisit this countdown in four weeks, it's quite possible that Furcal won't even make the cut at No. 20.

    It's the unfortunate reality that comes with a 30-day tailspin involving a player who'll turn 35 in October.

    For now, though, Furcal gets a respectable ranking, based on a stellar start to the season (.315 in April/.349 in May) and the knowledge of his career batting marks for the months of July (.294), August (.284) and September (.288).

14. Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals

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    2012 Stats: 1 HR, 19 RBI, 23 Runs, 12 Steals, .292 BA

    30-Day Stats: 0 HR, 7 RBI, 7 Runs, 5 Steals, .278 BA

    Skinny: Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie: Escobar's lofty ranking here scares the fantasy life out of me.

    But instead of lamenting Escobar's fantasy drawbacks (homers, RBI), I'll focus on three projections that could be fulfilled by season's end—in the form of 57 runs, 26 steals and a .294 batting average.

    From my vantage point, that should be enough to forgive Escobar's 30-day struggles...and that he may never belt double-digit homers in a single MLB campaign.

13. Mike Aviles, Boston Red Sox

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    2012 Stats: 9 HR, 41 RBI, 37 Runs, 8 Steals, .265 BA

    30-Day Stats: 1 HR, 13 RBI, 10 Runs, 3 Steals, .253 BA

    Skinny: By all accounts, Aviles will likely post career highs in runs, homers, RBI and steals this season. In 38 games with the Red Sox last year, he batted .317 (with a .340 on-base percentage).

    But is the mojo or mystique of Fenway Park really that essential to Aviles' real-world and fantasy prospects? Or are his 15 minutes of fantasy fame coming to an end soon?

    Yes, Aviles has a plum spot in one of baseball's most vaunted lineups, but that's still no reason to go all-in on a 31-year-old journeyman with 35 career homers and 45 steals.

    Hence, the conservative ranking.

12. Marco Scutaro, Colorado Rockies

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    2012 Stats: 14 HR, 18 RBI, 38 Runs, 6 Steals, .278 BA

    30-Day Stats: 3 HR, 14 RBI, 16 Runs, 3 Steals, .327 BA

    Skinny: Marco Scutaro's seasonal stats are all nice and good, but it's his 30-day production (including a .363 on-base percentage/.500 slugging) that clinches a spot in the top 12.

    It's the kind of prodigious run that normally would be linked with Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki or Michael Cuddyer—not a player the Red Sox traded to the Rockies for a bag of balls (or something like that) during the offseason.

    Bottom line: There's really no downside to making a trade play for Scutaro. He's guaranteed to log 25 at-bats every week, and his dual-position versatility (2B/SS) makes him more attractive than most of his brethren at shortstop.

11. Jed Lowrie, Houston Astros

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    2012 Stats: 13 HR, 31 RBI, 29 Runs, 2 Steals, .269 BA

    30-Day Stats: 6 HR, 13 RBI, 11 Runs, .239 BA

    Skinny: Jed Lowrie's Boston-to-Houston baseball journey might not be has heralded as the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) trade involving Jeff Bagwell (Astros) and pitcher Larry Andersen (Red Sox) back in 1990, but it's a worthwhile story for this countdown.

    With the Red Sox from 2008-'11, Lowrie was nothing more than a part-time contributor with full-time talent. But with Boston in search of bullpen help (Mark Melancon) and Houston in need of a solid offensive asset, Lowrie's fantasy trajectory was altered by a simple post-trade, handshake agreement between team executives last December.

    Fast forward to the present, as Lowrie ranks second in homers (13) and fourth in RBI (31) among MLB shortstops. Of equal importance, he boasts superb marks with on-base percentage (.354), slugging (.498) and walk-to-strikeout ratio (29/46).

    To clarify, Lowrie is not a foolproof trade asset right now—the .239 batting average since May 23 screams that—but he's certainly worth the pursuit in roto/weekly leagues that feature a 2B/SS slot.

10. Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    2012 Stats: 1 HR, 15 RBI, 31 Runs, 21 Steals, .224 BA

    30-Day Stats: 0 HR, 6 RBI, 14 Runs, 9 Steals, .248 BA

    Skinny: At this stage of the rankings, every shortstop has a few warts that cannot be hidden.

    In Gordon's case, we're talking about deplorable marks in homers, RBI and batting average, with only modest numbers in runs.

    And then there's the threat of the Dodgers placing the 24-year-old speedster back in the minors for the dreaded S-word ("seasoning").

    So, why the prominent ranking?

    If you invested a Round 12 pick on Gordon for the sole purpose of steals, you're probably OK with how things are progressing.

    The kid trails only Tony Campana in steals (24), and if I was a betting man, I'd love Gordon's chances for 50 thefts by season's end.

9. Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals

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    2012 Stats: 11 HR, 33 RBI, 36 Runs, 8 Steals, .265 BA

    30-Day Stats: 3 HR, 15 RBI, 9 Runs, 3 Steals, .234 BA

    Skinny: From a seasonal perspective, Ian Desmond's numbers look pretty strong.

    But the 30-day marks of .234 batting and nine runs should frighten the fantasy owner who didn't envision Desmond as a 15-homer asset on draft day.

    Bottom line: Desmond owners can probably rationalize the lack of power in his game, but low marks in batting average and on-base percentage (.292) cannot be tolerated in any way.

    The next 45 days will be a crucial stretch in Desmond's fantasy existence—for the pennant chase of July-September...and next year's pre-draft positioning.

8. Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies

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    2012 Stats: 5 HR, 21 RBI, 39 Runs, 11 Steals, .260 BA

    30-Day Stats: 4 HR, 14 RBI, 17 Runs, 2 Steals, .303 BA

    Skinny: Jimmy Rollins may no longer be a Round 2 pick in fantasy drafts or a viable threat for 40 steals and 100 runs, but he's still fighting the good fight at age 33.

    And with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard targeting a second-half return to the Phillies lineup, Rollins' numbers hopefully won't taper off from this point forward.

    But then again, his marks in slugging (.382) and on-base percentage (.308) are approaching dangerous levels for regular fantasy starters at shortstop.

    It might be enough to wipe out the goodwill associated with encouraging 30-day totals in batting (.303) and runs (17).

7. Trevor Plouffe, Minnesota Twins

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    2012 Stats: 14 HR, 25 RBI, 27 Runs, .252 BA

    30-Day Stats: 10 HR, 18 RBI, 19 Runs, .345 BA

    Skinny: It's understandable for some owners to look past—or outright ignore—Plouffe's progress to date.

    It's been a while since the Twins had a shortstop (J.J. Hardy) that could excite the fantasy masses, and for we all know, Plouffe's run of excellence might be a short-term thing.

    But as this lofty ranking might attest, I have four big reasons to believe in Plouffe's season-long viability:

    1. Among the shortstop-eligible talent, Plouffe leads the fantasy realm with 14 homers.

    2. Since May 23, Plouffe has been raking the ball everywhere, tallying 10 homers, 18 RBI, 19 runs and a scintillating .345 batting average. His marks in OBP (.402) and OPS (1.176) also reflect this level of dominance.

    3. From a 15-day perspective, Plouffe boasts a .422 average (with seven homers).

    4. Plouffe's three-position versatility (SS/3B/OF) places his value in the trade market way above Jimmy Rollins, Ian Desmond or Dee Gordon.

6. Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers

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    2012 Stats: 1 HR, 28 RBI, 43 Runs, 13 Steals, .297 BA

    30-Day Stats: 0 HR, 7 RBI, 15 Runs, 5 Steals, .263 BA

    Skinny: The No. 6 ranking shouldn't send the wrong message here.

    As an Andrus owner in five leagues, I'm very pleased with his fantasy progress to date.

    Unfortunately, being a three-category dynamo can only take you so far when compared to other elite shortstops.

    The best example of Andrus' glass ceiling in the fantasy realm? His superb on-base percentage (.346) is counterbalanced by an anemic slugging rate (.368). There should never be a measly 22-point spread between the two categories.

    Bottom line: For those who expected minuscule power numbers from Andrus on draft day, there are no future worries here—especially if he notches 30 steals for a fourth consecutive season.

5. Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians

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    2012 Stats: 8 HR, 31 RBI, 34 Runs, 2 Steals, .300 BA

    30-Day Stats: 3 HR, 12 RBI, 12 Runs, .289 BA

    Skinny: Of the six elite shortstops in this countdown (Troy Tulowitzki doesn't count for now), one could easily make the case that Cabrera deserves to be No. 1 from this point forward.

    For starters, he's a four-category dynamo with the potential of going loco in a fifth category (Cabrera had 17 steals last year).

    Cabrera also has the highest on-base percentage (.390), slugging (.485) and OPS of the six elite shortstops.

    As a sublime topper, Cabrera has a positive walk-to-strikeout ratio through June 21 (30/29), placing him in the company of fantasy immortals like Joey Votto, David Wright, Joe Mauer and Jose Reyes.

    Bottom line: Conservative ranking be damned, fantasy owners should make an aggressive trade play for Cabrera right now. By any reasonable means.

4. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees

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    2012 Stats: 7 HR, 25 RBI, 40 Runs, 5 Steals, .313 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 9 RBI, 16 Runs, 2 Steals, .266 BA

    Skinny: Among shortstops, Jeter currently ranks fourth in runs, first in hits, seventh in homers, third in batting average (100 minimum at-bats) and sixth in on-base percentage (.364).

    Jeter and Yankees teammate Robinson Cano also comprise the middle infield of my most recent seasonal All-Star team.

    So, if Jeter has been a stellar fantasy asset from April to June and a lock for Cooperstown on his first day of Hall of Fame eligibility, what gives with the No. 4 ranking?

    For me, it comes down to two factors:

    1. I'm a little bothered by Jeter's high OBP rate (.364) and modest runs projection (91). In that lineup, a healthy Jeter should hit the century mark.

    2. If Jeter should hit below .300 from this point forward, what other category (steals, runs, homers, RBI) is he a cinch for the top five?

    Granted, we're nitpicking things here; but when it comes to separating the elite fantasy shortstops, the little things matter.

3. Jose Reyes, Miami Marlins

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    2012 Stats: 2 HR, 16 RBI, 32 Runs, 16 Steals, .274 BA

    30-Day Stats: 2 HR, 10 RBI, 11 Runs, 3 Steals, .306 BA

    Skinny: For the categories of runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, RBI, steals, batting average and OPS—nine total—Reyes has a chance to replicate last year's output in maybe two areas (homers and steals).

    But here's the good news from that deflating paragraph: Since many of the 2011 totals are so unreachable, Reyes shouldn't feel any pressure to match or eclipse that level of absurd production over the next three months with Miami.

    He should just enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of playing in south Florida and focus on making daily improvements for a club that's a viable playoff contender.

    As 30-day progress reports go, Reyes is doing a markedly better job at letting the game come to him—that's the best way to interpret a sterling batting average and impressive marks with on-base percentage (.359) and slugging (.463).

    One last thing: Reyes' OPS rate during the May 23-to-June 22 window (.822) is significantly higher than last season's .734.

    That counts for something. Right?

2. Hanley Ramirez, Miami Marlins

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    2012 Stats: 11 HR, 37 RBI, 37 Runs, 10 Steals, .255 BA

    30-Day Stats: 4 HR, 8 RBI, 12 Runs, 3 Steals, .263 BA

    Skinny: It's time for some brutal truth: With this No. 2 ranking (ahead of Jose Reyes and Derek Jeter), I'm taking a sizable leap of faith that Ramirez can shake off his recent mini-funk and reconnect with the dual-position dynamo (SS/3B) that crushed the opposition for all of May.

    In that 31-day span, Ramirez (.364 OBP/.890 OPS) finally announced his authority as a top-20 hitting asset. And from May 28 to June 3, Ramirez went a step further by collecting 12 hits (in 24 at-bats), four homers, six RBI, six runs and one steal.

    That revival conjured up pleasant recollections of Hanley's 2009 season—24 homers, 106 RBI, 101 runs, 27 steals, .342 batting.

    It came at a time when Han-Ram and Albert Pujols were the best offensive options in fantasy baseball. Bar none.

1. Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs

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    2012 Stats: 6 HR, 38 RBI, 33 Runs, 16 Steals, .302 BA

    30-Day Stats: 4 HR, 13 RBI, 15 Runs, 4 Steals, .291 BA

    Skinny: With Troy Tulowitzki on the shelf for maybe two months, someone has to fill that leadership void or assume the mantle of being the No. 1 shortstop going forward.

    And for reasons that are equal parts thrilling and scary, I'm siding with Castro until the season ends.

    Yes, the kid occasionally forgets the number of outs during an inning. Yes, his 30-day batting average has dipped below the magical .300 mark. And yes, Castro currently owns a ghastly walk-to-strikeout ratio of 6-to-51.

    But with Tulo' out of the short-term picture, Castro is now the best five-category option among shortstops.

    For video evidence supporting that unprovoked boast, check out Exhibit A or Exhibit B...or even Exhibit C.