Finding Major League shortstops is not easy


Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

If you are a Cincinnati Reds fan and haven’t heard someone you know clamoring for the club to either “get rid of Zack Cozart” or “trade for a shortstop” you may want to get your hearing checked or climb out of the hole you are living in, because you may be the only one.

For his career heading into the 2014 season, the 28-year-old Cozart had hit .252/.287/.393 for an OPS+ of just 82, where 100 is league average. That is very poor. Cozart of course is a good defender up the middle and his defense is often overlooked because of how poor his hitting has been.

Fast forward to the 2014 season, and heading into the game on Tuesday night Zack Cozart was hitting .148/.188/.235 for a league worst .423 OPS (190th of 190 qualified hitters). It would be fair to say that he has been the worst hitting starting player in baseball for the 2014 season and given that he plays in a hitter friendly park, it isn’t exactly all that close with the only two guys near him are both San Diego Padres who play in a still very pitcher friendly Petco.

With all of the problems Cozart has had in the past and his incredibly poor start this season, the screams are louder than ever to replace him. There is not a replacement in Triple-A Louisville. Double-A Pensacola may have an eventual option with Rey Navarro, but he isn’t ready today. The guys in the lower levels are even further away. Trades are always a possibility, but teams aren’t moving big league caliber shortstops too often, so the price would be steep.

Why are shortstops so tough to acquire? Well, for starters good ones are rare. The days of a bunch of solid hitting shortstops are long gone. In the 2013 season there were 29 players who qualified as shortstops that got at least 350 plate appearances. More players from that group were under the .700 OPS mark than were over it (16-13) and only two topped the .800 OPS mark (Tulowitzki and Peralta). Four players were under .600. Shortstops that can hit and remain at the position are incredibly hard to find today. When you do have one, they are valuable assets.

The Reds came into the 2014 season without a single middle infield prospect ranked in their top 30 prospects according to Baseball America. The highest ranked middle infielder in my 2014 Prospect Guide was Carlton Daal at #36. He currently finds himself playing in Low-A Dayton and is at best, several years from the big leagues. To say the Reds middle infield prospects are thin is not a stretch by any means.

Going back over the last five drafts, the Reds have drafted just three shortstops in the first five rounds of the draft. Billy Hamilton in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft, Devin Lohman in the 3rd round of 2010 and Cory Thompson in the 5th round last season. Tanner Rahier was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft as a shortstop, but he was immediately moved to third base, so I left him off of the list. Devin Lohman and Cory Thompson are still playing shortstop, though Lohman is now 25-years-old and has struggled to hit in his career and projects to be more of a utility player, while Thompson is a 19-year-old who has yet to play in his first full season.

On the international market there have been several shortstop signings over the years, with Carlton Daal and Ronald Bueno representing that group that has played stateside. As noted above, Daal is just now playing in Low-A Dayton, while Bueno has yet to make his full season debut.

So why haven’t the Reds spent more time looking at shortstops in the draft or on the international market? Well, it goes back to the whole rarity thing. I went back to the Baseball America Top 100 lists for the 2012-2014 seasons and found every player listed as a shortstop that made the list. I then looked up how they were acquired and for international signings, listed their signing bonus. Here is the list:

There were 18 shortstops that made the cut. Of the 11 players that were drafted, six of them were never available to the Reds. Of the remaining five, the Reds actually did draft two of them. The remaining three were Corey Seager in 2012, Chris Owings in 2009 and Andrelton Simmons in 2010. The Reds selected Mike Leake in 2009, so they certainly made a good decision there. In 2010 Simmons went late in the second round after the Reds had selected C Yasmani Grandal and OF Ryan LaMarre. They had also just drafted Billy Hamilton a year before. In 2012 they drafted RHP Nick Travieso over Corey Seager. Both players are still in A-ball.

When looking at the elite shortstop prospects from this list, there were four taken in the top 10 overall and not a single one drafted after the second round of the draft. The average spot for the players picked was 28th overall, though seven were taken well ahead of that spot.

When we look at the international market players you either have a bunch of big bonus guys who averaged $808,750 to sign or bargain types who were well under the radar who averaged $70,000 to sign. While the Reds have been players in the international market, you don’t always get the guys you want simply by offering the most money. There are a lot of politics at play and the players also get to choose where to go. The Reds did land Didi Gregorius here though on a bargain deal.

With all of this in mind, of the 12 players from the Baseball America Top 100 lists from 2012-2014 that were shortstops that were actually available to the Reds, they actually acquired three of them. Given that there are 30 teams in the big leagues, it is safe to say that they have absolutely done a good job at trying to and finding shortstop prospects.

So next time you or someone you know is openly wondering why the Reds haven’t upgraded the position or don’t have a ready replacement in the minor leagues remember all of this. Finding a shortstop is incredibly tough and the Reds have actually done a better job at trying to find them than most, it simply hasn’t worked out as well as you would hope.