The Tampa Bay Rays have answered nearly all of their major questions heading into the upcoming season -- questions like who will man first base? Who will be DH? Will Matt Moore start the year in the majors? (With his new contract, yes he will.)
The only remaining question: What will come out of the shortstop competition?
If we discount Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger, who are really more suited to platoon and utility duties, we have four contestants remaining:
- Sean Rodriguez (who played second base and eventually shortstop later in 2011),
- Reid Brignac (who was believed to be the shortstop of the future for a long while),
- Tim Beckham (who was selected No. 1 overall in the 2008 MLB Draft)
- and Hak-Ju Lee (who came to the Rays in the Matt Garza trade).
Looking at Dan Szymborski ZiPS Projections, we can get a good feel for the expectations on these four players stand:
2012 ZiPS Projections
|Player||Batting Avg.||On Base Perc.||Slugging Perc.||Defense|
|Hak-Ju Lee||.248||.308||.326||Very Good|
Here let us pause to once again berate the much-beaten statistic of batting average. Batting average says Rodriguez is the worst hitter in the bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not does he get on base the most (.315 OBP), he also hits for the most power (.391 SLG).
The fact that ZiPS projections say he will have the lowest batting average is simply a non-issue. We know this much: The best hitter of the group will likely be Sean Rodriguez.
That does not mean he is a surefire winner of the upcoming competition (and indeed there will be a competition) for the starting shortstop role. The Rays have long prioritized defense, and even if Rodriguez is a better hitter, the Rays are not really looking to the shortstop position for their offensive production, but rather a balance of strong defense and acceptable offense.
The American League average split in 2011 was .258/.323/.408, or a .731 OPS (on-base plus slugging). Rodriguez's .706 OPS would still be beneath league average, but for a shortstop, that is actually above average. The average AL shortstop hit .259/.317/.380 (a .697 OPS) in 2011.
Looking at league averages, we can see how clearly superior Sean Rodriguez's hitting is to his counterparts:
Zips Projections Vs. Expected League Averages
|Hak-Ju Lee||21||76||Very Good|
OPS+ is the same as OPS, except it is put to a scale where 100 equals league average (which is around .730 in these ZiPS projections), and move 1 point in either direction is 1 percentage point further from league average. So Rodriguez's 94 mean 6% below league average (as in 100 - 94 = 6).
Typically you want shortstops hitting somewhere between 85 and 95 -- though anything higher is gravy, assuming the defense is tolerable.
And Rodriguez's defense, according to Szymborski's projections, is average -- acceptable on a winning team, especially given his strongish hitting. In other words, at the Rays' shortstop position, Rodriguez is sufficient. It makes sense he is entering Spring Training as the favorite for the shortstop role. However, at second base, his defense is very good (again, according to ZiPS, but scouting reports and advanced stats back up this claim).
In other words, Rodriguez is okay at short and an asset at second. If (and when) the Rays part way with B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist will probably move to right field full-time and Rodriguez will get to play second full-time. In other words, because the Rays may trade Upton anytime ranging from today until the end of the season, Rodriguez cannot be counted as a long-term solution to shortstop (unless his defense improves considerably at shortstop and it becomes criminal to move him to a less valuable position -- a change that made Alexei Ramirez one of the league's most valuable shortstops).
So, between Brignac, Beckham and Lee, we have only one player who is MLB-ready (Brignac) and one who is nearly-MLB-ready (Beckham). Brignac has really struggled with his bat in the majors.
His ZiPS projections seem rather generous given his career wRC+ (which is much like, yet a bit better than OPS+) is a depressing 61. Also, unlike Rodriguez who hit 29 homers in his final year in the minors, Brignac has never fulfilled the hitting potential that helped make him the Rays top shortstop prospect for a long time.
Brignac's greatest asset, his supposedly gold-glove defense, has never seemed to shine through in his 240 MLB games. Advanced fielding statistics (which are unreliable in such a small sample) and ZiPS' projections both agree his defense near average. If he can find a means to let his defensive wizardry shine through, Brignac becomes a much more acceptable solution at shortstop, but until then, his gargantuan uppercut swing makes him incapable of hitting fly ball pitchers with any effectiveness -- which is about a third of the league -- and the remainder of the league he hits like an average shortstop -- which is not good enough.
Beckham is a former top draft pick who has not entirely lived up to expectations. He was drafted with the anticipation he could develop above average power, but instead it appears Hak-Ju Lee is the power-potential shortstop at present.
For all intents and purposes, Lee is the shortstop of the future, but he has only reached Double-A so far and will be 21 in 2012. He is likely to start the season at Double-A, but may even hit Triple-A in 2012. Because his age and the fact the Rays are looking to put a World Series team on the field, the MLB would be an unlikely leap for Lee.
Beckham, on the other hand, is blocking Lee at Triple-A. He is only 22, but he is also a top draft pick and a player who has hit near and above 100 wRC+ at almost every stop in the minors. Can he be an above average shortstop? It looks quite possible. His defense rates as average or almost above average, so he would presumably move to second base when Lee arrives and Rodriguez is gone, and his hitting -- though not spectacular -- has been great for a player much younger than his league, playing a prime defensive position.
Most Likely 2012 Starting Shortstop: Sean Rodriguez
Wild Card 2012 Shortstop Candidate: Tim Beckham