It looks like the Golden Era for shortstops is over.
From 1984 to 1996, there was little debate about who should start the All-Star Game at shortstop for the American League. Cal Ripken, Jr. was always healthy, always playing, and often worthy of the start. Even when the numbers suggested someone else was more worthy, the fans voted for Cal.
By the time Ripken hung up his cleats, four superstar shortstops were emerging in the AL. Over the next nine seasons, Miguel Tejada started one All-Star Game and played in two more. Nomar Garciaparra started one and played in four more. Alex Rodriguez started four games and played in the other five. Derek Jeter started the other three games and played in three more. As newspaper ink gave way to virtual ink, perhaps more was virtually spilled on the shortstop revolution than on any other baseball topic. In the greatest era for offense since the early 1930s, if not ever, teams no longer sought out the good-glove, no-bat shortstop if a slugger was available who could stand between second and third for eight or nine innings without embarrassing himself.
By 2006, Rodriguez was a third baseman, Garciaparra was in the National League, and Tejada was a defensive liability having his last great offensive season. Jeter, meanwhile, was the captain of the team that had played in six of the last ten World Series and was enjoying a bit of a comeback. There was no logical choice but Jeter to start that year’s All-Star Game. Over the next eight years, if Jeter was remotely healthy, he started the midsummer classic. Asdrubal Cabrera and JJ Hardy each stole one when Jeter was out with a long-term injury, but even when Jeter was a shadow of him former self, the fans voted him in for old times’ sake.
2015 begins the post-Jeter era, when the starting All-Star shortstop vote may again be something like a meritocracy. After decades of superstar shortstops dominating the ballot, there’s no preordained choice this year. When I compiled my list of the 100 best players in baseball earlier this week, five National League shortstops were featured, but no AL shortstop made the list. I awarded four of them honorable mentions, each arguably worthy of a spot toward the end of the list, but none stood out from the pack. Here are several shortstops who might convince voters they deserve the starting nod in 2015:
Elvis Andrus, Rangers – This list is ordered by alphabet, not by likelihood. Andrus had the worst season of his career in terms of batting average, on-base percentage, stolen base success rate, and Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average in 2015. That said, he’s only 26, and if the Rangers still believe in him despite the glut of middle infielders at their disposal, it’s possible that he bounces back to the 4-WAR form he displayed at 22, 23, and 24, excelling in all facets of the game.
Erick Aybar, Angels – Aybar was probably the best shortstop in the AL in 2014, earning 4.1 WAR as a key component of the AL’s best team. At 31, he should still be a solid player in ’15, but he’s not a star on Tejada’s level, let alone Jeter’s.
Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox – At the midpoint last season, Bogaerts had a case as the league’s best shortstop. From there, the wheels fell off. The Red Sox signed Stephen Drew, moved Bogaerts to third base, and he stopped hitting and fielding for a hellacious stretch. It may take a few years before the 22-year-old emerges as a star, but it’s also possible that he breaks out this year and starts a Ripken-like run of ASG starts.
Alcides Escobar, Royals – Escobar always had the defensive reputation. Last year, he added some offense, hitting .285 with 31 steals and leading off throughout the Royals’ run to Game Seven of the World Series. If nothing else, he certainly got the attention of some fans who will look for a post-Jeter hole to punch on their ballots.
JJ Hardy, Orioles – The best shortstop in the AL this year is probably playing about forty feet to Hardy’s right. While Manny Machado hones his bat as a third baseman, the Orioles will settle for another guy who might be the league’s best shortstop. Hardy is a league-average hitter, but his glove has been great enough than he’s been worth over three wins each of the last four seasons, something no other AL shortstop can claim.
Jed Lowrie, Astros – Of all these choices, Lowrie is the closest to the Jeter/Garciaparra/Tejada mold. He’s slugged .526 and he’s topped 15 homers twice despite never playing as many as 100 games in a season until 2013, but he’s never been mistaken for Rey Ordonez with the leather. If he’s healthy, he could put up the offensive numbers All-Star voters like, though it’s unlikely he’ll match these other guys from a value standpoint.
Alexei Ramirez, White Sox – Ramirez may be the most well-rounded shortstop in the league, with some power (99 career home runs), decent batting averages (.277 career), big-league speed (118 steals) and an elite glove. On the flip side, he can’t draw a walk, so if he hits .260 instead of .280, he’s a league-average player.
Jose Reyes, Blue Jays – Reyes is probably the most accomplished shortstop in the league. Still just 31, Reyes has had separate seasons in which he batted .337, stole 78 bases, hit 19 triples, and accumulated 5.8 WAR. If he approaches some of those marks again this year, he’s probably an All-Star.
Danny Santana, Twins – Again, the alphabet, but Santana might just be my pick. In just 101 games in 2014, split between shortstop and centerfield, the 24-year-old Santana was worth an impressive 3.9 WAR, hitting .319 and stealing 20 bases. Reyes may be the past champ, Aybar was probably the best last year, Bogaerts may have the best future, but Santana feels like the AL’s best shortstop in 2015.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. The next AL All-Star shortstop could be a young player like Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller, Marcus Semien, or even Jeter’s replacement, Didi Gregorius. And if no one emerges as the perpetually obvious choice, well, sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised.