Today we continue our position-by-position preview of the American League East with the shortstops. Two teams in the division will have new starting shortstops on Opening Day, including one who will be replacing a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Here's a breakdown of where the A.L. East clubs stand at the position, including stats from the past two years and two sets of projections for 2015. I've ordered them based on my personal rankings from worst to first.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Although it often seemed like there was nobody playing shortstop when Derek Jeter was in the field, the Yankees were really left with nobody to play the position when he retired. With few free agent options available, they were forced to give up starting pitcher Shane Greene to land Gregorius in a three-team trade with Arizona and Detroit. Gregorius was the #80 prospect in baseball entering the 2013 season, and had a solid rookie year, but regressed quite a bit in 2014. He struggles mightily against left-handed pitching (career .470 OPS), so light-hitting veteran Brendan Ryan may get some starts against southpaws. Prospect Jose Pirela may earn a call-up if Ryan struggles in that role, which isn't unlikely given Ryan's Brandon Fahey-esque .167/.211/.202 batting line last season.
Gregorius is not a stolen base threat, and both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) seem to agree that he's an average fielder at best, so New York will need his bat to return to at least 2013 form for him to be of any value as a starter. He has not yet hit arbitration and is only owed $500,000 for the 2015 season. He's also a knight, which sounds impressive until you remember Sidney Ponson is too.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
The Rays, anticipating a Ben Zobrist trade, signed Cabrera to a one year, $7.5 million deal this offseason. They ended up dealing both Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to Oakland (Escobar was then flipped to Washington), leaving Cabrera and Nick Franklin as the main candidates for the shortstop position.
Cabrera is a strange fit in Tampa considering their usual defense-oriented roster construction. He's a well below average fielder, and not the hitter he was when he was OPSing around .800 five years ago in Cleveland. He does bring some power to the position, and is definitely a useful player, but he's a step down from both of the guys they traded away. Until recently it was unclear whether Cabrera would start at shortstop or second base, but Nick Franklin's oblique injury led the Rays to announce that Cabrera will indeed be at short to start the year. If he struggles, Franklin could man the position once healthy, and Logan Forsythe could step in at second base.
The first full season for Boston's top prospect was a disappointment. Bogaerts was wildly inconsistent at the plate and in the field in 2014. He split his time between 3rd base and shortstop (and was actually less terrible at short), but with Pablo Sandoval in the fold he'll probably be the full-time shortstop in 2015. Despite his struggles last year, he was the top prospect in the Red Sox system for a reason, and a disappointing age-21 season shouldn't change the outlook for his career just yet.
Both sets of projections have him taking a major step forward at the plate, which would make him a very solid starter. With the shortstop situations in New York and Tampa, he may not even need to improve all that much to end up as the 3rd best in the division. If Bogaerts were to falter again, he's still only 22 and could end up back in AAA, with someone like Brock Holt (or even Hanley Ramirez?) filling in until he's ready.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Reyes was able to stay on the field for most of the season in 2014 after missing a significant chunk of 2013 due to injury. Entering his age-32 season he may not be quite the hitter that he was, but he's still above average at the plate, and nearly any team in the majors would take Reyes' 2014 season from their shortstop. Reyes is still a stolen base threat, although he's more likely to swipe 20-25 bases these days than the 78 he stole in 2007. The one area where age seems to have caught up to him is his defense - he's probably about league average (or worse) at this point, a far cry from his excellent defense earlier in his career.
The bottom line is that even though Reyes isn't what he used to be, he's still one of the better players at his position in baseball. If he can stay healthy like last season, which is a big if, Toronto should be all set at shortstop. If he gets injured, the Jays will have to choose from a slew of unimpressive utility-type guys that include Maicer Izturis, Jonathan Diaz, Ramon Santiago, and Ryan Goins.
Putting Hardy above Reyes may be a homer pick, but there's definitely a case to made here. Many of us thought J.J. might walk after the 2014 season, but the Birds inked him to a contract extension that not only ensured he'll spend the rest of his good years in Baltimore, but also ensured he wouldn't spend them as Derek Jeter's replacement in the Bronx. Hardy hit 25 dingers in 2013 but had a power outage last year, taking half the season to hit his first home run and finishing with only 9. Some of that can be attributed to his nagging back injury, and some of that can be attributed to luck, since his batted ball profile wasn't drastically different enough to explain that big of a drop-off. The projections for 2015 have him somewhere in between, and 15-20 home runs is a reasonable guess.
Since J.J. doesn't walk much, he needs to hit for power to be an above average hitter, but he's such a fantastic fielder that he's still valuable even if 2014 is the new norm. He's probably the best defensive shortstop in the game not named Andrelton Simmons, and even with his lack of power hitting in 2014 he was still a 3.4-win player according to both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. The only real concern is that his defense may suffer as he ages, but that's something to worry about in a couple years, not today.
If Hardy were to get injured, the O's have a nifty new backup in Everth Cabrera. As much as he struggled in 2014, he was a well-deserved All-Star the season before. Not many clubs have a 28-year-old backup shortstop with an All-Star Game apperance under his belt. All things considered, the Orioles' situation at the shortstop position should be the envy of most of the other teams in the league.