We’re back with a look at the players in the Mariners’ system who could play a role with the big league club in the next few seasons. Today we look at the shortstops.
Before we look at actual players, let us take a moment to share a few words about that most important of ball-handlers, the shortstop. Throughout baseball lore, the shortstop has been the lynchpin of the defense, the captain of the infield. From the first days of little league, the most athletic, best fielder assumes responsibility for that huge patch of land between second and third, and that doesn’t change no matter how far one goes in baseball. They must cover the most ground and field the most balls. They have to have lightning for feet, a rocket for an arm, and the grace of a dancer around second base. Aside from the pitcher, the shortstop is the most important person on the field.
For all those reasons, little offense has traditionally been expected of shortstops. It was enough to do all of the above, and if one could chip in with the bat occasionally, so much the better. Those who could field the position and hit are legends. Honus Wagner is still considered the best shortstop of all time, and he played before Babe Ruth. There have been teams who sacrificed defense to gain some offense at short, but far more often teams have leaned the other way. It’s always tempting to think that a good hitting shortstop will have a big enough offensive impact to offset weak defense, but the fact that so few managers are willing to play a bad defender is an argument that statistical analysis is hard-pressed to counter.
Chad Harbach’s phenomenal recent novel The Art of Fielding brought the archetype to paper. The book opens with big Mike Schwartz, the catcher who carries his small college’s baseball program on his aching back, collapsed against the backstop after a doubleheader. The teams are packing up, but his opponent’s shortstop, a skinny thing who didn’t hit a lick the whole day, is fielding balls at short, over and over, and he is the best shortstop Schwartz has ever seen. His name is Henry Skrimshander and before the first chapter is over, he joins Schwartz at his tiny midwest college. The two of them, the manager at catcher and the shortstop who fields everything in his stratosphere, transform their team into a powerhouse. (Plenty else happens and I haven’t spoiled the book a bit. I’d highly recommend it, although I wouldn’t really say it’s a “baseball book”, just an excellent literary novel centered around a baseball team.)
It’s no surprise that Harbach picked a weak-hitting defensive whiz of a shortstop as the savior of the team. That’s the mythology that has always existed. In the last couple of decades, that mythology has been added to and shifted slightly. Starting with Cal Ripken, shortstops became offensive threats and MVP candidates. The triumvirate of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra took the position to another level, and suddenly it was necessary to have a gold glove shortstop who could hit like an MVP.
That perception has carried over to the present day. Unfortunately, shortstops who can hit and field are now in short supply. There are a few, as there always are, but it’s tough to find a good shortstop who can hit these days. They are nowhere near as common as they were ten, fifteen years ago. There’s a decent slew of prospects in the minors, so maybe the position will get another uptick in the near future, but right now most teams are back to deciding between the no-bat defensive star and the hitter with the spotty glove.
And that was 600 words on the state of the shortstop position in present day baseball, with a book review thrown in. On to the players!
Brendan Ryan is Henry Skrimshander, except that Skrimshander develops an All-American bat. Ryan is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, at least in my opinion. He makes plays other shortstops don’t come near. Unfortunately, he can’t hit. He’s rebounded from his horrid start and has actually been passable the last month or so, but he’ll never be a threat with the bat. That would be okay if the team had hitters at other positions. Teams can live with that weak bat at short if he’s one of the few holes in the lineup. Whether the lineup can improve enough to cover for Ryan is the question. The bottom line for now is that Ryan is cheap and adds a ton of value with his glove. I would keep him around for a while no matter what as at least a backup, but it would make things much easier if he would at least hit .250 or so.
Please pause for a moment to appreciate Munenori Kawasaki. Personality-wise, he is maybe the most entertaining player in baseball. If the Mariners were good, he’d be a huge cult hero. Unfortunately, he’s not a great baseball player, relatively speaking. Although, when you think about it, he might be better at his job than any Mariner but Felix. He’s a capable defender at short and the other infield positions, can chip in with the occasional hit when he gets a start, is a good pinch-runner, and is incredibly entertaining. That’s a great backup shortstop. Good job, Muni!
Moving to the minors, Tacoma is the current and future home of oneCarlos Triunfel. Triunfel has been in the systen since 1967, but he’s still only 22. Most thought he’d have to move off short, but he’s turned into an okay defender there, according to reports. He supposedly has good range but occasionally makes errors trying for tough plays. His bat has been average in Tacoma and would likely be well below average in Seattle. He still has time to develop, but unfortunately he’s out of options. That’s literally out of options, not figuratively. If he doesn’t make the Mariners next year, he has to clear waivers, where any team could take him. That makes holding onto him more difficult. He could clear waivers, but it’s no guarantee. We’ll see next spring how strongly the Mariners feel about him.
The more positive Rainier story is that of Nick Franklin, former first round pick and recently anointed Baseball America #35 prospect in all of baseball. He’s struggled with strikeouts since reaching Tacoma a couple of weeks ago, but he consistently rips line drives with a surprising amount of power for being a skinny guy. He has defensive questions as well, although they’ve quieted a bit since he was drafted. He’s probably a better option at second, currently, but he should see time at short in Seattle before next season ends. He’s by far Seattle’s best offensive prospect, so we’ll hope he makes a quicker impression than the current crop has.
Brad Miller at High-A High Desert has a similar profile as Franklin, but with maybe a better bat and more serious defensive issues. He’s probably the current leader for the system player of the year and could see Double-A anytime. I’m not going to look up his stats, but they’re ridiculous. He leads the system in doubles and probably a few other categories. The main question right now is just where he’ll end up playing.
Looking out a ways, two 2012 draftees are making early waves. Chris Taylor was considered a glove first guy at Virginia, but he’s been one of the best hitters in the Northwest League so far. Hopefully one of us will get a chance to visit Everett this summer to see him, if he’s there much longer. Timothy Lopes, a high schooler, is also off to a good start. He’s only in rookie ball and is years away from Seattle, but I thought I’d throw his name out there at least.
I don’t really know what the Mariners will do here. Franklin is the future, but a lot depends on the team’s perceptions of his defense and how soon they think he’ll be ready. They could maybe improve slightly over Ryan with a free agent for a year or so, but I’d be kind of surprised if they went that route. Dollars in free agency would seem better spent adding a legitimate impact bat, which won’t be possible at short. I guess I’m in favor of sticking with Ryan until Franklin or someone else is ready and looking for offense at other positions. Shortstop might seem like a big hole for the Mariners, but at least relatively speaking, they’re probably doing okay here.