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Breaking Down MLB's Next Golden Era of Shortstop Prospects

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Breaking Down MLB's Next Golden Era of Shortstop Prospects
USA Today

It’s hard to believe it’s been roughly two decades since the last great wave of shortstop prospects reached the major leagues.

From 1994 to 1998, Major League Baseball saw the arrival of five future All-Star shortstops: Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Edgar Renteria, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada.

Though each player debuted at a different time during that five-year span, they all still managed to put together impressive and lengthy—and in Jeter’s case, Hall of Fame—careers at the highest level. More significantly, the group’s offensive potential, both individually and collectively, set a new precedent for shortstop prospects in the major leagues.

Career Statistics: Shortstop Prospects to Debut from 1994-98
Player Debuted Games BA/OBP/SLG HR SB wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Alex Rodriguez 1994 2,568 .299/.384/.558 654 322 .400 143 111
Derek Jeter 1995 2,602 .312/.381/.446 256 348 .365 121 73.7
Nomar Garciaparra 1996 1,434 .313/.361/.521 229 95 .376 124 41.6
Edgar Renteria 1996 2,152 .286/.343/.398 140 294 .327 95 35.7
Miguel Tejada 1997 2,171 .285/.336/.456 307 85 .341 106 42.1

FanGraphs.com

However, with a majority of the aforementioned shortstops having either already retired (Garciaparra, Renteria) or essentially been forced out of professional baseball due to issues related to performance-enhancing drugs (Rodriguez, Tejada), the stage seemingly has been set for a new wave of young players to make an impact in the major leagues.

While I am yet to release Prospect Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects for 2014—be on the lookout for it at the beginning of next week—it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that five shortstops will rank within the overall top 10 for the upcoming season.

Headlining the group is Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, who represents the most advanced shortstop of the group given his experience (and success) in the major leagues last season. However, Javier Baez (Cubs), Carlos Correa (Astros), Francisco Lindor (Indians) and Addison Russell (Athletics) aren’t far behind the 21-year-old and are likely to follow his lead and reach the highest level within the next two years.

Here’s an in-depth look at MLB’s next golden era of shortstop prospects.

 

Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

Javier Baez: 2013 MiLB Statistics
Level PA BA/OBP/SLG HR SB BB% K% wOBA
A+ 337 .274/.338/.535 17 12 6.2% 23.1% .391
AA 240 .294/.346/.638 20 8 7.9% 28.8% .435

FanGraphs.com

After a sluggish start to the season at High-A Daytona, Javier Baez eventually caught fire and received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June. After that, the then-20-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues with a .983 OPS and 20 home runs over his last 54 games.

Between both levels, Baez batted .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored, 75 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 111 RBI, 20 stolen bases and a 147-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 games.

A right-handed hitter, Baez generates obscene raw power with his extremely strong wrists, elite bat speed—the best in the minor leagues—and violent swing. He still struggles with pitch recognition and flails at too many breaking balls out of the zone, though it doesn’t detract from his overall production.

While his pitch recognition may need further refinement in the minor leagues, Baez could still probably post an .800-plus OPS in The Show right now. Baez has the upside of the game’s most productive hitter during his prime, with the potential to put up 30-plus home runs annually.

Baez is an impressive athlete with smooth, natural defensive actions, and a plus arm that’s ideal for the left side of the infield. However, he struggles to control his body and slow down the game at shortstop, which helps explain the high error totals in the early stages of his career.

 

Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

Xander Bogaerts: 2013 MiLB & MLB Statistics
Level PA BA/OBP/SLG HR SB BB% K% wOBA
AA 259 .311/.407/.502 6 5 13.5% 19.7% .409
AAA 256 .284/.369/.453 9 2 10.9% 17.2% .374
MLB 50 .250/.320/.364 1 1 10.0% 26.0% .304

FanGraphs.com

Assigned to Double-A Portland again to begin the 2013 season, Xander Bogaerts posted a .909 OPS with 24 extra-base hits and a 51-35 K/BB ratio in 56 games before a midseason promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. Bogaerts didn't skip a beat at the more advanced level, posting an .822 OPS with nine home runs and an improved 44-28 K/BB ratio in 60 games.

As a result of his regular-season success, the Red Sox ultimately included Bogaerts on their postseason roster. The youngster rewarded the team by batting .296/.412/.481 with nine runs scored, four extra-base hits and six walks in 12 games. More importantly, he played a major role in Boston winning the World Series.

While Bogaerts has always projected to be a plus hitter in the major leagues, he’s raised the bar over the last year by adding strength and sharpening his approach. With lightning-quick bat speed and preternatural bat-to-ball skills, the 21-year-old could easily sell out for power if desired, but he instead stays short and quick to the ball and utilizes his tremendous plate coverage.

However, as Bogaerts matures, both physically and as a hitter, he should be capable of hitting 20-25 home runs in a given season.

Bogaerts is an outstanding athlete with slightly above average speed and similar range at shortstop, and he improved his long-term projection at the position last season with better body control and more accurate throws across the infield.

Red Sox third base coach and defensive guru Brian Butterfield spoke very highly of Bogaerts to the Boston Herald last week:

One thing we did notice with Xander is he didn’t seem to be overwhelmed by anything. Moving to a position like third base (in the playoffs), you’re concerned that a guy might be scared to death. But he’s mature beyond his years. He lives for the moment. The bigger the situation, the more relaxed he is. He wants to be a great player.

Scouts remain divided about his chances of remaining at shortstop, but there’s no question that he has the glove and arm strength for the left side of the infield.

Bogaerts has the ceiling of one of baseball’s top players, with the potential to offer star-level production at a premium position. Even if he’s forced to slide over to the hot corner, Bogaerts’ potent bat should make him a perennial All-Star.

 

Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

Carlos Correa 2013 MiLB Statistics
Level PA BA/OBP/SLG HR SB BB% K% wOBA
A 519 .320/.405/.467 9 10 11.2% 16.0% .400

FanGraphs.com

Correa, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 draft, proved to be more advanced than expected last year as one of the younger everyday players at a full-season level, showcasing impact potential on all sides of the ball as well as an overall mature feel for the game.

Making his full-season debut at Low-A Quad Cities, the then-18-year-old batted .320/.405/.467 with 45 extra-base hits (nine home runs), 86 RBI, 10 stolen bases and an 83-58 K/BB in 117 games.

Correa’s bat proved to be far more advanced than anyone expected last year. The right-handed hitter has a simple, direct swing in which he attacks the ball and utilizes the entire field. However, it’s the advanced plate discipline and pitch recognition that will make him a special hitter in a few years.

Despite his size and present strength, Correa has a swing geared toward consistent hard contact rather than over-the-fence pop. That being said, he’s already an extra-base machine who will undoubtedly develop more power as he matures physically.

The 6’4”, 205-pounder has fluid actions despite size, showing excellent instincts with above-average speed. His arm is a legit plus-plus tool (an absolute cannon) that’s ideal for a career at shortstop. Even though he has soft hands and a smooth transfer, Correa can struggle with body control at times and is still learning some of the intricacies of the position.

 

Addison Russell, Oakland Athletics

Addison Russell: 2013 MiLB Statistics
Level PA BA/OBP/SLG HR SB BB% K% wOBA
A+ 504 .275/.377/.508 17 21 12.1% 23.0% .386
AAA 13 .077/.077/.077 0 0 0.0% 69.2% .070

FanGraphs.com

As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As one of the youngest everyday players at the level, the then-19-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 504 plate appearances.

At the end of the year, the A’s promoted Russell to Triple-A Sacramento for the team’s stretch run, though he went just 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games.

Russell has the makings of an All-Star shortstop, with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience. The right-handed hitter’s combination of plus bat speed and a deep point of contact should produce above-average to plus power, if not more. Also, given his ability to use the entire field, Russell should always tally a high number of doubles and triples.

The 20-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present (125-61 K/BB last season), though that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a young player facing advanced pitching. Russell is a plus runner with the athleticism, range and arm strength to stick at shortstop, as well as the instincts to swipe 20 bags annually.

 

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Francisco Lindor: 2013 MiLB Statistics
Level PA BA/OBP/SLG HR SB BB% K% wOBA
A+ 373 .306/.373/.410 1 20 9.4% 10.5% .363
AA 91 .289/.407/.395 1 5 15.4% 7.7% .376

FanGraphs.com

Francisco Lindor’s rapid ascension through the minor leagues continued in 2013, as the then-teenager batted .306/.373/.410 with 26 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases at High-A Carolina before finishing the season with a strong showing (.801 OPS in 91 plate appearances) at the Double-A level.

Regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, Lindor is an absolute wizard with the glove and has the potential to be an elite defensive shortstop in the major leagues.

Even if the switch-hitter’s bat doesn’t develop as expected, he has the potential to enjoy a long, successful career in the major leagues based on his defensive prowess, superb instincts and ability to control the speed of the game.

With that being said, the 20-year-old shows all the signs of becoming an average or better hitter, as he has an advanced approach (46-49 K/BB in 464 plate appearances last season) and smooth stroke from both sides of the plate.

 

Future Projections and Tool Grades

As was the case with the wave of young shortstops in the mid to late '90s, the incoming class is a collection of top-notch athletes with loud, game-changing tools on all sides of the ball.

Yet when looking specifically at the five tools (all future projections and based on the 20-80 scouting scale) across the group, there surprisingly isn’t one player who stands out in multiple categories.

2014 Shortstop Prospects: Future Tool Grades
Hit Power Run Arm Field
Javier Baez 60 80 50 65 50
Xander Bogaerts 70 60 50 60 50
Carlos Correa 60 65 50 75 60
Francisco Lindor 60 40 55 60 70
Addison Russell 60 60 55 60 60

Mike Rosenbaum, Prospect Pipeline

 

Hit: Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts offered a taste of his offensive potential in the major leagues last season (especially in the postseason), showing mature plate discipline and pitch recognition as well as an understanding of how to use the entire field.

The fact that he’s already established such a consistent approach and overall feel for the strike zone is a testament to his ability to make adjustments against advanced competition. Of the five shortstop prospects, Bogaerts has the potential to post the highest batting averages in his prime.

As the only player with big league experience, not to mention a spot on Boston’s infield for the upcoming season, Bogaerts arguably has the best chance at becoming the first All-Star in the group. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened this year. He’s simply that talented.

 

Power: Javier Baez

Yes, you read that correctly—Javy Baez has 80-grade power. Every aspect of his power profile is elite: the bat speed, his sheer strength, the hand-eye coordination, the leveraged bat path and extension after contact and the ability to jump the yards to all fields.

Everything. Based on all those components, it’s hard not to see him blasting 30-plus home runs over a full season in the major leagues, and he’ll probably claim his share of home run titles too.

However, with current shortstop Starlin Castro under contract through the 2019 season, Baez’s future position in the major leagues is currently up in the air. If the Cubs choose to deploy him at other positions during spring training, such as second and third base (which will create other logjams), then expect the 21-year-old to also be considered at both positions during the regular season.

It will be difficult for the organization to keep his potent bat in the minor leagues next year because everyone knows he’s going to rake at Double- and/or Triple-A. And if he debuts by mid-summer, then there’s a good chance he’ll pace all rookies in home runs and slugging percentage.

 

Run: Addison Russell

Addison Russell is arguably the most well-rounded shortstop of the bunch, as he’s a plus athlete with strong future grades for all five tools. Besides Carlos Correa, Russell seemingly has more untapped potential than his peers as a result of his aggressive assignment to High-A last season.

He is expected to hit for more average and power as his baseball skills mature and he learns to make adjustments at the dish, and like all other aspects of his game, his defense should improve with more experience.

Though he and Francisco Lindor are both 55-grade runners, Russell possesses more natural and explosive speed, whereas Lindor’s is rooted in his instincts and first step.

Russell represents the only impact prospect in the A’s farm system headed into the 2014 season. Assuming he opens the 2014 season in Double-A and stays healthy, it's probable that Russell will debut as Oakland's big league shortstop before his 21st birthday.

 

Arm: Carlos Correa

Carlos Correa is arguably the most physically blessed shortstop of the group, with great athleticism for his size and the potential for four plus-or-better tools at maturity, including plus-plus arm strength that produces high-90s lasers across the infield.

Personally, I absolutely love this guy. Everything about him screams future superstar, including makeup that is off the charts for a player his age, which will undoubtedly continue to aid his success in the minor leagues.

Given his overwhelming success last season as one of the younger everyday players in the Midwest League, Correa should receive an assignment to High-A next year and likely reach Double-A as a 19-year-old. But who knows; with his makeup, Correa could even get a taste of the major leagues if he continues to blow past the expectations for his development.

 

Field: Francisco Lindor

Francisco Lindor is hands down the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, and it won’t be long until he holds the same title at the highest level.

Compared to his peers, the 20-year-old is a lock to remain at the position long-term, with 70-grade defensive chops and a feel for controlling the game that are both rare for a player his age. While his success in the major leagues will always be tied to his glove, Lindor will likely continue to surpass expectations at the plate thanks to his contact-oriented approach and advanced plate discipline.

Lindor reached Double-A last year as a 19-year-old, receiving a midseason promotion to the level after thriving in the High-A Carolina League.

With a realistic ceiling of the best defensive shortstop in the major leagues, anything Lindor offers at the plate is merely a bonus. He’ll open the 2014 season back at Double-A with the potential to reach Cleveland well ahead of schedule.

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