So who was the AL’s best shortstop this year?

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In announcing their annual awards Wednesday, The Sporting News declared Alexei Ramirez the shortstop on the American League All-Star team. It’s a choice that will probably surprise a lot of people, but the AL shortstops really were so bad this year that a guy with 18 homers in a hitter’s ballpark and an unexceptional defensive reputation truly did deserve consideration for the award.

Just look at the AL’s regular shortstops this year:

Baltimore – Cesar Izturis – .230-1-28 – 545 OPS
Boston – Marco Scutaro – .275-11-56 – 721 OPS
New York – Derek Jeter – .270-10-67 – 710 OPS
Tampa Bay – Jason Bartlett – .254-4-47 – 675 OPS
Toronto – Alex Gonzalez – 259-17-50 – 793 OPS (85 games)

Chicago – Alexei Ramirez – .282-18-70 – 744 OPS
Cleveland – Asdrubal Cabrera – .276-3-29 – 673 OPS (97 games)
Detroit – Ramon Santiago – .263-3-22 – 662 OPS (112 games)
Kansas City – Yuniesky Betancourt – .259-16-78 – 692 OPS
Minnesota – J.J. Hardy – .268-6-38 – 714 OPS (101 games)

Los Angeles – Erick Aybar – .253-5-29 – 636 OPS
Oakland – Cliff Pennington – .250-6-46 – 687 OPS
Seattle – Josh Wilson – .227-2-25 – 572 OPS (108 games)
Texas – Elvis Andrus – .265-0-35 – 643 OPS

Ramirez had the highest OPS of the group and he tied with Pennington for the most games played at 156. Once one accounts for ballparks, he was no better offensively than Pennington or Jeter. But he was no worse either.

Taking defense into account, WAR does in fact rate Ramirez as the AL’s best shortstop, based mostly on his strong fielding rating. Here are the AL shortstops ranked according to WAR:

1. Ramirez – 3.8
2. Pennington – 3.7
3. Gonzalez – 2.7
4. Jeter – 2.5
5. Hardy – 2.4
6. Scutaro – 2.1
7. Santiago – 2.0
8. Jed Lowrie – 1.8
9. Andrus – 1.5
10. Nick Punto – 1.4

Of course, that’s putting a lot of faith in very shaky defensive statistics. Fangraphs data has Ramirez’s glove being worth 10.8 runs, while Andrus came in at 0.1. I don’t buy that for a second. I think Andrus is the AL’s best defensive shortstop, followed by Izturis and then maybe Pennington. I view Ramirez as average or maybe a little better.

Gonzalez was the AL’s best shortstop for 3 1/2 months, but he wasn’t so much better that he deserves the nod here. In my opinion, this mostly comes down to defense. Jeter compares to Ramirez and Pennington offensively, but not with the glove. I’m actually going to give the nod to Pennington here. While the triple crown stats point to a huge edge for Ramirez, when it comes down to OPS, the difference is just 57 points and Ramirez was playing in a kinder environment for hitters. Also, Pennington was 29-for-34 stealing bases, while Ramirez was 13-for-21. WAR actually rates Pennington as the more valuable offensive player by 1.7 runs.

In the end, though, this is just a remarkably weak class. This year’s top four shortstops were all National Leaguers: Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Stephen Drew and Rafael Furcal. Andrus should be the AL’s best shortstop going forward, but he might be another year away from impressing anyone with his numbers. Rebounds from Jeter and Cabrera are going to be needed for the AL shortstops to avoid being embarrassed by their counterparts again in 2011.

Jorge Soler diagnosed with strained oblique, Opening Day in doubt

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Royals outfielder Jorge Soler has been diagnosed with a strained oblique, making it likely that he begins the regular season on the disabled list, Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star reports.

The Royals acquired Soler from the Cubs in December in exchange for reliever Wade Davis. Over parts of three seasons with the Cubs, Soler hit .258/.328/.434 with 27 home runs and 98 RBI in 765 plate appearances.

When he’s healthy, Soler is expected to find himself in the Royals’ lineup as a right fielder and occasionally as a designated hitter.

Report: Cardinals, Yadier Molina making “major progress” on contract extension

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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that the Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina are making “major progress” on a contract extension. Molina told the team he won’t discuss an extension during the season, hence the rapid progress.

Molina is entering the last guaranteed year of a five-year, $75 million contract signed in March 2012. He and the Cardinals hold a mutual option worth $15 million with a $2 million buyout for the 2018 season. The new extension would presumably cover at least the 2018-19 seasons and likely ’20 as well.

Molina is 34 years old but is still among the most productive catchers in baseball. Last season, he hit .307/.360/.427 with 38 doubles, 58 RBI, and 56 runs scored in 581 plate appearances. Though he has lost a step or two with age, Molina is still well-regarded for his defense. The Cardinals also value his ability to handle the pitching staff.