Shortstops are not usually considered the superheroes of the baseball world. Often smaller in stature than their teammates, they might seem more like alter egos than superheroes. But the shortstops of the NL West include a few heroes in their ranks. Let’s see which players can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and which are more likely to have sand kicked in their face.
Our superhero shortstop candidates include Everth Cabrera of the Padres, Hanley Ramirez (LAD), Brandon Crawford (SF), Troy Tulowitzki (COL), and two youngsters battling for the position in Arizona, Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings.
Troy Tulowitzki (COL) – Tulo has certainly been a superhero in his career. But which superhero? I think he most resembles Thor. At 6’3”, 215 pounds, he dwarfs his competitors. His strength at the plate is legendary when he’s healthy. His career .295/.367/.509 slash line would be impressive at any position, let alone a defensive-oriented position like SS. He defends his position like Thor defends Asgard, with a career RF/9 of 5.00, a full half-point better than any other NL West shortstop. (RF/9 is Range Factor per 9 innings, that is, combined assists and putouts per 9 innings. It’s a good indicator of how many balls he gets to on defense.) And he has magical powers. Anyone who doubts that should refer to September 2010, when he hit 15 homers and drove in 40 runs in a single month to bring the Rox from non-contender to a within a game of first place. Like Thor, his only weakness is against physical attack, and Tulo has spent more than his share of time on the DL with physical ailments. But with his talents, both offensive and defensive, like Thor, Tulo is a god among mortals.
- Hanley Ramirez (LAD) – Hanley Ramirez should be the best shortstop in the division. He has as much natural talent as anyone in the game not named Mike Trout. But HanRam used to be Mike Trout. At 23, he hit .332 with 29 HR and 51 steals, and by the end of 2009, his fourth year, he had slashed .316/.385/.530 with 103 homers and 162 SB for the Marlins. But in 2010 he had a famous war of words in the press with then-manager Fredi Gonzalez after being benched for a lack of hustle, and his production numbers began to drop. Many believe this was due to his unhappiness with the team and playing situation, which included an unwanted move to third base when Jose Reyes joined the team. Whether it was due to his emotional state or not, the fact is that both his offense and defense suffered for 2-3 years, with his BA dropping to the .250 range and his RF/9 dropping well below 4.00. Once described by Marlins president Larry Beinfest as an “uber talent,” Ramirez was eventually traded, basically for minor-league pitcher Nate Eovaldi. So, let’s see, massive amounts of talent, but in a constant battle with his negative emotions? Ramirez is Bruce Banner / the Incredible Hulk. He quieted a lot of doubters last year, hitting .345 with 20 HRs and 57 RBI in just over half a season. But if Dodgers manager Don Mattingly isn’t able to keep Hanley happy, will they be dealing with the Incredible Sulk?
- Everth Cabrera (SD) – This one’s easy — Superman. Cabrera can fly. In 2012, he became the only Friar ever to lead the league in steals, with 42. And he was well on his way to a second consecutive crown last year, with 37 swipes in 95 games. (The eventual leader ended up with 46.) But of course, Cabrera met his Kryptonite in the form of performance-enhancing drugs, and was incapacitated for the remainder of the season. So how will Everth fare in his return to the leadoff position this year, presumably PED-free? That remains to be seen, but last year we saw a player who improved his BA from .246 to .283 and his OBP from .324 to .355, while increasing his aggressiveness on the basepaths and putting up the 6th best RF/9 (4.68) in the majors. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that EC can continue to put up the same kind of numbers, stay off the juice, and be the kind of on-field leader that the Padres can be proud of. That would be super, man.
- Didi Gregorius/Chris Owings (AZ) – Not everyone is a superhero. Gregorius and Owings are just normal, everyday shortstops trying to make their way in this crazy business we call baseball. Arizona’s SS situation likely won’t be decided until well into Spring Training. Last year, rookie Gregorius held down the starting role while veteran Cliff Pennington provided frequent relief. The athletic Gregorius was more impressive in the field than at the plate, showing a strong arm and decent range (4.34), but struggled against left-handed pitching, with a .200 BA and only 3 RBI in 110 AB. Didi will face a strong competitor in Chris Owings this year. Owings was the Player of the Year in the PCL, putting up a .330 average with 52 extra base hits and 20 steals. While not the fielder that Gregorius is, he still managed to lead PCL shortstops in assists last year before being called up to join the D-backs in September. While PCL numbers can be quite inflated due to small ballparks, Owings appears to give the Snakes a reasonable chance to compete offensively at SS in the hitter-heavy realm of NL West. Look on the bright side, Dback fans. Maybe one of these guys will be bitten by a radioactive spider.
- Brandon Crawford (SF) – In the Justice League that is the NL West, Crawford is Aquaman. And, as everyone knows, Aquaman sucks. This is really not to take anything away from Crawford. He’s a defensive specialist, and a good one. His play in the 2012 postseason showed his great range and his cannon for an arm. And while his 4.46 RF/9 doesn’t put him in Troy Tulowitzki’s category, it does put him in the upper echelon for the position. Offensively, Crawford can’t compete with the likes of Tulo, HanRam, or Everth Cabrera. His OPS of .674 was in the bottom third of major league shortstops with at least 300 ABs last year, and he hit below the Mendoza line against lefties (.199). But Crawford/Aquaman has one prized possession that none of the other superheroes here have – a World Series ring. Great Atlantis!
In the battle of NL West shortstops, Troy Tulowitzki reigns supreme while Hanley Ramirez and Everth Cabrera are flawed heroes. All have the potential to be difference-makers in this year’s run for the division title. Yet all three have their Kryptonite. Who do you think will be the most super this year?
Next time: The Hot Corner