Seager, Correa, Lindor in top tier; Bogaerts, Story, Villar not far behind
By Jason Catania
A position with few elite fantasy options not long ago, shortstop has been rejuvenated by a deluge of talented youngsters.
Said influx is evident in the first two tiers, which contain six players who are 25 or younger. Fantasy owners, though, will find quite a drop-off after that. Those who miss out on one of the top six players at this position will not be able to count on their shortstop as a fantasy-lineup linchpin.
MLBPipeline.com's No. 1 overall prospect this time a year ago, Seager more than made good on that lofty status in his first full season. The Dodgers star won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in unanimous fashion and finished third in NL MVP voting after posting an incredible .308/.365/.512 line with 26 homers, 72 RBIs and 105 runs in his age-22 campaign. Possessing colossal upside at the plate, Seager can overcome a nearly nonexistent speed game (three steals in six attempts last year) to rank as the No. 1 fantasy shortstop in 2017.
Following his American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning '15 debut, Correa came into his first full season with as much hype as any player in fantasy. While he may have fallen short of the immense expectations, he was still an outstanding fantasy asset in '16 (20 homers, 96 RBIs, 13 steals). Still just 22 years old, Correa could put up monster numbers in a much improved Astros lineup this year.
Like Correa, Lindor proved his impressive '15 debut (.313 average, 12 homers, 12 steals in 99 games) was for real. Though he didn't quite maintain his rookie-year home run pace, the switch-hitter held his own in that department (15 long balls) while contributing 78 RBIs, 99 runs, 19 steals and a strong .301/.358/.435 slash line. The 23-year-old may not possess the same elite offensive ceiling of Seager or Correa, but he has shown the most diverse skill set of the first-tier trio.
The next tier starts with Bogaerts, who followed up a breakout '15 season with an even better showing last year. Wielding a much more potent bat, Bogaerts was a terrific five-category contributor in '16. The Red Sox shortstop crushed 21 homers -- one more than his MLB career total before last season -- to go with 115 runs scored, 89 RBIs, 13 steals and a .294 average. Boston sports a lineup that once again could lead the Majors in runs scored -- even without David Ortiz -- and Bogaerts is going to be a big part of that.
Story turned heads with a record-breaking barrage of home runs in the first days of his debut '16 season. He would go on to lead all rookies with 27 long balls -- yep, one more than Seager -- despite missing the final two months after suffering a torn ligament in his left thumb. Between that injury, which might compromise his power a bit in '17, and a lofty 31.3 percent strikeout rate, Story is among the riskier early-round fantasy selections. But the 24-year old certainly will benefit from hitting at Coors Field and being part of one of baseball's most dynamic and dangerous lineups.
Arguably no player provided more value relative to average draft position last season than Villar. A late-round selection in most leagues -- if he was picked at all -- the switch-hitting speedster made the absolute most of getting an everyday job for the first time in his career and being allowed to, ahem, run with it. That's right: Villar led MLB with 62 steals. The 25-year-old also hit a shocking 19 long balls, becoming the first player to pull off a season with at least 19 homers and 60 steals since Jose Reyes in '06. The elevated .373 BABIP and 19.6 HR/FB rate likely won't be sustainable, but Villar should pick up some value by virtue of his eligibility at shortstop, third base and, eventually, second base -- where he'll play regularly in '17.
A quick peek at the overall Fantasy Player Preview rankings reveals an enormous gap after the tightly bunched Bogaerts-Story-Villar trio. Like, a 50-plus-spot ravine. So while this group of shortstops technically comprises the third tier, it's more like the fourth (or even fifth) in a practical sense.
Peraza saw his fantasy value skyrocket when longtime Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips approved a trade out of Cincinnati. While Peraza offers limited power, his speed-and-contact-oriented approach could lead to a solid average and possibly 40-plus stolen bases. The 22-year-old will also provide value with his multi-position eligibility, as fantasy owners can slot him at both middle-infield spots and in the outfield.
Another rookie shortstop who burst onto the scene in '16, Diaz emerged from relative obscurity to seize the Cardinals' starting job when Jhonny Peralta went down with a thumb injury in Spring Training. All he did thereafter was earn an NL All-Star nod and finish at .300/.369/.510 with 17 homers, 71 runs and 65 RBIs in just 111 games, missing six weeks along the way with a fractured right thumb. Whether the 26-year-old can put together a repeat performance remains to be seen, but his underlying numbers -- including 13.0 percent strikeout and 8.9 percent walk rates, as well as a sustainable .312 BABIP -- point to a promising future.
Staying in the NL Central, Russell may have more upside than anyone in tier three. Sure, the Cubs shortstop owns a lifetime .240 average through 293 big league games. But he also recorded 21 homers with 95 RBIs a year ago while advancing both his strikeout and walk rates significantly, relative to his rookie season. Still just 23 years old, Russell could be on the verge of a major breakout.
Miller delivered perhaps the most surprising 30-homer season by anyone in baseball last year. But fantasy owners must be concerned that Miller -- whose value heavily depends on his power output -- is headed for regression in the HR/FB rate arena (20.4 percent in '16; 9.7 percent over '13-15). On the plus side, he's a Swiss Army-knife fantasy option who will soon add second-base utility -- he's pegged to be the Rays' starter at the keystone with Logan Forsythe gone -- to his eligibility at shortstop and first base.
Andrus and Tulowitzki represent the old guard among fantasy shortstops, as both players have been pushed down draft lists by the next wave of talent at the position.
Andrus typically provides 20-30 stolen bases with enough runs and RBIs to keep owners happy, but don't bank on a repeat of his career-high .302 average or .800 OPS from last season. Both marks were well above his .270 and .679 figures from '09-15, and the Rangers shortstop didn't spark the improvement with a notable advancement in his skills.
Meanwhile, Tulowitzki is not far removed from being the top shortstop off the board in most leagues. But the veteran has declined since joining the Blue Jays in a July '15 trade, posting a .745 OPS over 172 games with the club -- compared to an .885 OPS over 10 seasons with the Rockies. To his credit, Tulo did overcome a tough start to finish with 24 homers and 79 RBIs last year. However, fantasy owners who draft him are taking a big risk that the notoriously injury-prone shortstop will play enough to provide top-12 value in mixed leagues.
Jason Catania is a fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.