Jupiter, FL - See the Rankings Here
This year’s group of high school middle infielders cannot compare to 2010’s, but the funny thing is that few noticed how loaded the last draft was. It was nothing short of historic.
There were 14 prep shortstops and second basemen drafted in the first-three rounds in 2010. To put it into perspective, the average number for the previous decade was seven. Never over that period was there a draft with more than nine prep middle infielders taken in the first-three rounds.
Add to those 14 the Toronto Blue Jays’ 5th-round selection of Dickie Thon, who received a hefty $1.5 Million bonus, and you have quite a class of high school middle infielders. His bonus ranks third behind Delino Deshields (Houston, $2.15M), another namesake son of an ex-big leaguer, and Manny Machado (Baltimore, $5.25M), both of whom went in the true first round.
For the Class of 2011, we have thus far given “5” pro grades to six middle infielders, which signifies that at this point we project only four as first-three round talents, a far cry from the 15 of 2010.
But it’s not to say that won’t change or that there isn’t considerable talent. The 2011 group has, perhaps, more true shortstops than did the Class of 2010. Of the “Fantastic 14”, Machado was the earliest pick at third overall and the Orioles see him as a shortstop, but many others think he’s a third baseman before long. The rest of the list is filled with good athletes who can play good defense somewhere, but I’m hesitant to stick out my neck and call one out as a big league shortstop.
In this year’s class, #1 Francisco Lindor (Montverde HS, FL) stands out as having the smoothest defensive actions in recent memory. Though his 60 yard-dash times have hovered around average, Lindor has very quick feet and excellent balance as a shortstop. The 6’3”, 173 lb Gabriel Rosa (International Baseball Academy, PR) has a plus arm and very good actions, earning the #3 ranking. Even after he fills out and gains bulk, I believe Rosa still has a chance to play a big league-caliber shortstop.
But perhaps the most polished fielder of them all is #4-ranked Julius Gaines, the very lanky 5’10”, 154 lb shortstop from Luella HS in Georgia. Gaines has light feet, an average arm, very soft hands, and the ability to make plays both routine and difficult. He should always have a shortstop’s body which gives him as good a chance as any to stay at the position.
Beyond those three, both #19 Ricardo Jacquez (El Paso Franklin HS, TX) and #20 T.J. Costen (First Colonial HS, VA) have very good run-and-throw skills and the kind of body control and hands that will work at shortstop. Their bats aren’t nearly at the level of those at the top of the list, and Jacquez is likely to go out as a pitcher. Still, that “Top-5” compares favorably to any list of best defensive shortstops from 2010, even though this class of middle infielders isn’t nearly as deep in high draft picks.
I’d imagine that the bulk of the list will begin their pro careers as second baseman. One who jumps out as almost a prototypical second baseman is #5 Joshua Tobias (Southeast Guilford HS, NC), who lacks a shortstop’s arm but has very good range, a pesky switch-bat, and the speed to be a leadoff man.
But second base isn’t the only alternative. If history is any indicator, you’ll see players on this list play all over the infield, the outfield, and even behind the plate if they get to The Show. We believe the players on this list project well as middle infielders, but because of their athleticism and overall skill-set, they can move almost anywhere.
Javier Baez (#2, Jacksonville Country Day, FL) is one player we’ve already ranked #3 at catcher and he’ll surely be near the top of the third basemen. Shon Carson (#7, Lake City HS, SC) has just a little bit of Tim Raines in him. He’s a 5’9” speedster built like “Rock” who can play second base but might end up an outfielder in the long run.
Jamal Golden (#11, Wetumpka HS, AL), Roman Quinn (#17, Port St. Joe, FL), and Jake Wakamatsu (#23, Keller HS, TX) are three more who possess the toolbox required to play both in the middle infield and in the outfield.
If we call Lindor the flashiest gloveman, Rosa the best arm, Gaines the best overall fielder, and Carson the most dangerous baserunner, the best power hitter would go to either #10 Sean Trent (Bishop Moore HS, FL)or #12 Tyler Greene (West Boca HS, FL). Trent is a solid and mature 6’0”, 200-pounder who hits punishing line-drives from the right side while Green is a lankier 6’0”, 175 lb kid with natural loft and more projection.
The best pure hitter goes to Javier Baez by a good margin.
IS IT TRUE THAT BIG LEAGUE SHORTSTOPS ONLY COME FROM LATIN AMERICA?
That’s a perception held by fans and scouts alike, but it’s not entirely true. My survey of the 30 starting Major League shortstops reveals that indeed a whopping 18 were signed out of the Latin American nations of The Dominican Republic (7), Venezuela (7), Cuba (3), and Colombia (1). That is 60%, but it also means there’s another 40% that came domestically and out of the draft.
Eight of the drafted players were chosen out of college and four out of high school. The quartet of prep products consists of Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, J.J. Hardy, and Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals. Not surprisingly, all four were taken in the first three rounds, out of the states of Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida respectively.
So there’s no question that teams often find their shortstops in the Caribbean and in South America, but that doesn’t mean the youngsters in the Class of 2011 don’t have a chance.
WHAT ABOUT SECOND BASEMEN?
The positions are similar enough that it’s become routine to group them together as “middle infielders”.
But when you look at the demographics of the 30 Major League starting second baseman, you see they come from a different world altogether than the shortstops. Latin America accounts for “only” six of the 30 (Two from D.R., four from Venezuela) and American colleges produce 16. That’s a whopping 53.3%.
Seven more were drafted out of high school and one out of junior college, making a total of 24 domestic players. That makes 80% compared to 40% for shortstops.
The second base position is less demanding on arm-strength and athletic balance since throws are not nearly as far. Contrary to perception, there’s just as much ground to cover; the field is symmetrical on both sides of the bag! But it’s become convention to put the quicker-footed man at shortstop and with the preponderance of righthanded hitters, there are more balls hit that way than to second.
Still, is that enough to make such a dramatic demographical shift from Latin free agents to college draft picks?
Apparently it is and it has a lot to do with the higher emphasis on power over athleticism at second base. While five second baseman hit 25 or more home runs, the feat was accomplished by only one shortstop.
MIDDLE INFIELDERS TEND TO MOVE OUT, BUT NOT IN
We discussed in the Top-35 Catchers article how many major leaguers were converted to the position in pro ball. Shortstops and second basemen are different animals, by and large they’ve played the middle infield their whole lives. Many high school and college middle infielders move to other positions, but it’s increasingly rare a player from another position moves to the middle infield and gets to the big leagues there.
But there are at least two notable exceptions at second base.
The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Skip Schumaker as an outfielder out of the University of California-Santa Barbara and he played there his first eight years in pro ball. Then, at age 29 in 2009, the Cardinals converted him to second base. Many, including myself, thought it was a losing battle. While Schumaker is still a below-average fielder, he has actually made himself adequate and has held the starting job for the last two seasons.
Here’s an even more unlikely conversion. Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of a local high school in 2004. He converted to third base in the minors in 2007 and then three years later was asked to learn both the outfield and second base in AAA.
Undeterred by the changes, Walker hit his way to Pittsburgh in 2010 and became their starting second baseman and one of their best players as a rookie. Walker hit .296 with 12 home runs in 2/3rds of a season while his defense was adequate and improving every day.
But there are no such miracles at shortstop. To the best of my knowledge, all 30 starting shortstops played the position as amateurs and from day one of their pro careers.
So in reference to the Class of 2011, it will be a huge upset if someone not on this list ends up moving and becoming a big league starting shortstop down the road.
It’s hard enough for those who are already playing there.