The Magic Twenty (Shortstop)

You know the age-old question: “Who would you take if you were starting a team from scratch?”

No good debate about young players can go on without some version of that question being brought into the mix. In the spirit of that, Craig and Aaron will each be choosing an entire team made up of 24-and-under players. The goal here is to draft the best team for the long haul, starting in 2005 and ending whenever the last guy decides to join Jesse Orosco in retirement (2095, or thereabouts).

The rules are simple and just slightly longer than those for Fight Club:
– Craig and Aaron alternate picking first at each position.
– Each player they pick must be 24 years old or younger in “baseball years” this season.
– Each player must play the/a position they actually play currently or in the very near future (in other words, no Albert Pujols at third base).
– Money and contracts are not an issue.
– They start picking at 9 (right field) and move down to 1 (pitcher).
– They’ll each pick a starter and a reliever, for ten positions total.

It’s that simple. And away we go …

TEAM      #     PLAYER                   REAL TEAM                AGE
Aaron     1     B.J. Upton               Tampa Bay Devil Rays     19
Craig     2     Juan Uribe               Chicago White Sox        24

AARON: When we first started this draft of ours, I thought shortstop would be one of the spots where I picked up a big advantage. I figured you had quite a few positions of strength over me (two of which we’ve already covered — left field and right field), but that by taking B.J. Upton, my #2 prospect in all of baseball, I would even things out a bit here. When the time came to actually pick our shortstops, however, I wasn’t so sure.

My second choice at shortstop, the guy I thought you’d be ending up with, is Bobby Crosby. I thought very highly of Crosby prior to the season, ranking him just behind Upton at #6 overall (in fact, a lot of people thought that ranking was too high). After watching Crosby’s first half-season in the big leagues and after seeing the sort of numbers he’s put up offensively after a rough first month, his stock has gone up quite a bit in my mind.

At the same time, Upton is playing extremely well in the minors this year, which is why I’m sticking with him despite being convinced that Crosby is a future star (and perhaps already one). If they were the same age, I would take Crosby. However, Upton is just one step behind him and he’s nearly five years younger than Crosby, which is just huge on a development and projection level. What do you think? I had to take Upton, right?

CRAIG: First of all, let me say that I agree that Upton would also have been my #1 choice. Usually I’ll take the “bird in the hand” of an established major leaguer over the prospect still in the bushes, but Upton’s case is too strong to ignore. I would say that he, along with David Wright (very difficult to separate the two), is one of the two best prospects in baseball right now.

My choice, with the second pick, is a difficult one, but not at all an unpleasant one. There aren’t (outside of Upton) any shortstops out there who look likely to supplant the American League’s Big Four (temporarily a Big Three, with Alex Rodriguez playing the ancient role of The King Over The Water). But there are a large number of excellent young shortstops and shortstop prospects to consider.

To name just the few I considered, there is San Diego’s Khalil Greene, Oakland’s Bobby Crosby, LA’s Cesar Izturis, Milwaukee prospect J.J. Hardy, and Juan Uribe of the White Sox. Of these five, Hardy is 21 and the other four are all 24.

To sum each player up in a couple of sentences …

Greene — Greene’s senior year at Clemson in 2002 was one of the great college seasons of all-time, as he massacred NCAA pitching. Greene was already in San Diego in his second pro season last year and flashed a little power. He has shown doubles power this year and has a good on-base percentage, and is starting to show up regularly on the highlight reels, making a few spectacular-looking plays at short.

Izturis — Known to fans everywhere from his weekly appearances on ESPN highlight reels, Izturis is (on defense) as impressive on a day-to-day basis as he is at his very best. I know this well, having seen him in Toronto before his trade to the Dodgers. With the stick, Izturis has potential, and no more than that. He hit brutally in his first two full seasons, but has broken out somewhat this season.

Crosby — A superb hitter. Crosby’s Major League Equivalency (MLE) from 2003 would have made him one of the best shortstop hitters in baseball — at the age of 23. He hasn’t disappointed this season, hitting .273/.331/.476 taking over for Miguel Tejada, and has 31 extra-base hits in half a season. In the field, he’s been serviceable.

Hardy — The young pup here at the age of 21, he is unfortunately lost for the season from surgery on what turned out to be a torn labrum. Originally, Hardy’s injury was thought to be a separated shoulder — it was a lot more serious. He was hitting very well at Triple-A Indianapolis (.277/.336/.495) before the injury, and had also hit well at 20 in the Double-A Southern League. But what he’s earned the most plaudits for is his defensive ability, with great instincts and a cannon arm.

Uribe — Easy to forget after toiling for three years in the media desert of Colorado, Uribe is a defensive standout who has held his own (more or less) with the bat — playing in Coors Field makes it hard to tell. He’s hitting much better this season (now with the White Sox), though playing mostly as a second baseman. Make no mistake, this guy’s a shortstop and one of the game’s very best. His .282/.338/.491 figures make anyone sit up and take notice.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I would think that if a poll were taken about these players’ futures, the verdict would likely be 1) Crosby 2) Hardy 3) Greene 4) Izturis 5) Uribe. So it should be no surprise that I’m taking the contrarian position — my selection is Juan Uribe.

AARON: Okay, so it turns out neither of us is getting Crosby. This is definitely the first major curveball of this draft. Oh, and by the way, you’re insane for taking Uribe over Crosby. That’s not hyperbole, either. I actually think you are insane.

CRAIG: Why Uribe? The answer is simple … defense defense defense. I have always viewed shortstop as a defensive position first and foremost, and Uribe is one of the very best defenders in baseball. His defensive numbers at shortstop are consistently among the very best.

He has averaged 14 runs above average per 162 games for the past four seasons according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) — a simply superb record. For all his flash, Izturis rates at five runs above average over the same period. Crosby and Greene just don’t have a particularly strong record of defensive numbers in the minors (or so far this season) to indicate that they will be more than major-league average shortstops. No matter what method of analysis you adopt, Uribe looks about a dozen runs, maybe more, above what the other 24-year-old guys can do on a yearly basis.

How about Hardy? Hardy’s defense is his #1 asset, and his upside is probably higher than Uribe’s. Two signs worry me though. One is his foot speed, which is consistently rated below average. Foot speed doesn’t count for a lot at shortstop, but it counts for something, and if Hardy’s below average now he might grade out very badly at 25 or 26. The second worry is his labrum surgery; if he doesn’t come back as good as he was, and that cannon arm loses some of its zip, he may be a much less effective defender.

AARON: From what I’ve seen of Uribe, both at second base and at shortstop, he looks very good defensively. And, like you, I am a big fan of UZR for judging defensive contributions. With that said, a shortstop, no matter how much you think of it as a defensive position, still has to hit.

Once upon a time, after Uribe hit .300/.325/.524 as a 21-year-old with the Rockies in 2001, I drafted him very high (or, more accurately, bid a high amount on him) in one of my Diamond-Mind leagues (one you also happen to be in). He looked to me like a future stud who would not only put up big numbers thanks to Coors Field, but who would legitimately be an impact hitter at shortstop.

Now it’s a few years later and, just to show you how far Uribe’s stock has fallen in my mind, I wasn’t convinced enough by his strong first-half to even vote him onto my hypothetical American League All-Star team.

That’s not to say Uribe hasn’t turned the corner, just that it’s hard for me to ignore a guy who, over the course of two seasons, hit .245/.290/.372 while playing half his games in Coors Field. In fact, during his time with Colorado (2001-2003), Uribe hit .288/.324/.468 at Coors Field and .227/.271/.345 on the road. That looks a little too close to what Neifi Perez did as Colorado’s shortstop and what he’s done since for my taste.

Look how eerily similar their career numbers are …

                         AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
Uribe at Coors          .288     .324     .468     .792     .263
Perez at Coors          .320     .344     .480     .824     .275
Uribe not at Coors      .245     .290     .394     .684     .229
Perez not at Coors      .238     .275     .320     .595     .204

Now, I’m not saying Uribe’s in the same class as Neifi when it comes to stinking as a hitter, because frankly no one is. That said, the fact that he has a .684 OPS and a .229 GPA in his career outside of Coors Field is very discouraging to me. Uribe’s still young enough to make major improvements as a player, and I certainly think he’s better than a .229 GPA guy, but those are just awful, awful numbers. And really, his .792 OPS and .263 GPA at Coors Field stinks too.

Of course, Uribe hasn’t played any games on Planet Coors this year and he’s hitting .282/.338/.491, so what do I know?

CRAIG: I need to defend my guy here, because while I’ve talked defense (and my team needs a defensive anchor in the worst way; my outfield of Adam Dunn and Miguel Cabrera on the corners with Laynce Nix in center isn’t going to help the pitcher a lot), I haven’t addressed the obvious question, which is why I’m going with a guy with career numbers as bad as what you just showed.

First of all, let’s use a 2004 baseline to get a handle on the four 24-year-olds. As of right now, Uribe has a .278 Equivalent Average (EqA) in 311 plate appearances, Crosby has a .278 EqA in 291 PAs, Greene a .273 EqA in 300 PAs, and Izturis a .257 EqA in 337 PAs. Their current offensive production is very, very close.

The problem is that Uribe has a familiar backstory, hitting poorly for two years in Colorado (after a good rookie year). Meanwhile, Crosby was enjoying a relatively anonymous first full year as a pro, before exploding on the scene in 2003 with a great year in Sacramento at Triple-A. Greene, meanwhile, was using a metal bat in 2002, before playing an abbreviated season in the California League, then zooming through three levels in 2003.

Uribe’s 2002 and 2003 performances weren’t hugely worse than Crosby’s or Greene’s; they were just different, because they were happening at the big-league level. It looks better to hit .295, as Crosby did in 2002, than to hit .240, as Uribe did. But Coors Field or no, Uribe faced the greater challenge.

Going forward, I think Crosby will be the better hitter. But I think it’s close; close enough to justify picking Uribe on the strength of his defense.

AARON: I’ll grant that credit should be given to a young player for simply playing in the majors and not making a complete fool of himself. That said, the argument you’re using with Uribe sounds an awful lot like the one I’ve been trying to fight against with Luis Rivas. Being young and struggling in the majors is one thing, but doing it for multiple years is another issue (and doing it for multiple years while playing games in Coors Field is yet another).

But enough about Uribe and Crosby. I just realized I’ve barely said anything about the guy we both agree is the elite young shortstop in baseball right now. The interesting thing is that I suspect Upton will make his major-league debut this season, at the age of 19, so we’ll get to put that whole “young player simply being in the majors is a good thing” theory to the test with him, too.

Upton has the total package. He is extraordinarily young, he hits for high batting averages, takes tons of walks, shows good power, has great speed, and plays what most people think is good defense (despite very high error totals).

Upton started this year at Double-A, played 29 games there, and was promoted to Triple-A. Combining his numbers at both stops, you get the following …

 G      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     BB     SO     SB     CS
77     .320     .419     .516     15     13     48     84     16      2

Those are just incredible numbers for a guy who turns 20 in August and is playing in the high minors. The strikeouts are higher than I’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with anything else. Projected out to a full season, you get around 30 doubles, 25 homers, 100 walks and 30 stolen bases. And he hit .297 with 44 extra-base hits and 40 stolen bases in 130 games at Single-A last year.

He still needs to cut down on his errors, but as I showed in my write-up of Upton prior to this season, it’s not unusual for a young shortstop to make a ton of errors at such a young age. Upton has 28 errors in 68 games at shortstop so far this year, which works out to 62 errors per 150 games played. When Derek Jeter was 19, he made 66 errors per 150 games, while Miguel Tejada made 53 per 150.

Even if Uribe proves me wrong and you right, and puts it together at the plate in addition to his fielding, I still think having Upton gives me a huge edge. He’s the best prospect in baseball, and he’s all mine!

Previous Positions:
The Magic Twenty (Right Field)
The Magic Twenty (Center Field)
The Magic Twenty (Left Field)

The Teams So Far:

POSITION            CRAIG                    AARON
Right Field         Miguel Cabrera (1)       Austin Kearns (2)
Center Field        Laynce Nix (2)           Rocco Baldelli (1)
Left Field          Adam Dunn (1)            Jeremy Reed (2)
Shortstop           Juan Uribe (2)           B.J. Upton (1)

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