Sure, it was only April 2 and Brad Miller had just finished homering for the second time in the game, but I saw something in the immediate aftermath of that home run that has had me thinking since*:
With Jose Reyes on the DL, Brad Miller might very well be the best SS in the AL right now.— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) April 2, 2014
Now, I'm not prepared to go as far as Cameron is just yet - not with Miller showing us 335 plate appearances of .265/.318/.418 baseball in the latter half of the 2013 season, but it's not as crazy as you might think. Pretty much every viable candidate has a notable flaw, be it power, getting on base, defensive woes, lack of experience, or injury issues, there is a reason for or against all of the top options.
*It apparently got others thinking as well, as USS Mariner covered this topic that very night.
Who is the best shortstop in the American League right now?
- Brad Miller, Mariners
- Elvis Andrus, Rangers
- Jed Lowrie, Athletics
- JJ Hardy, Orioles
- Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
Let's start with Miller since his name spawned the subject matter. He brings both offense and defense to the table, though neither is there in spades. He's got enough range and good enough actions for the position, but showed a propensity to commit errors in the minor leagues thanks to occasionally stiff hands. He can hit though, as his career .334/.409/.516 minor league slash line can attest to. He's got the bat speed to hit for power and has never struggled to hit for average. His home park will depress his offensive statistics, but his true talent gets him into the discussion, at least. It's true that hitting in the minors and hitting in the majors are two different things, but the tools are there for Miller to bring a complete game to the table, something that's becoming a rarity for the position in the American League right now.
Andrus' claim to consideration is deeply rooted in his defensive prowess. As much as he's not bad on offense, he's pretty much not good either. He's never posted a wRC+ of 100, breaching 90 only twice. While that probably disqualifies him in many people's mind as a candidate for the honors (such that they are), the league average wRC+ for the position was 85 in 2013, and 86 in 2012 so he's actually been above-average on offense compared to the rest of his peers. As difficult as it can be for Andrus to hit for power, he does get on-base well, and when he does, he adds value on the bases, swiping 30+ bags in all but one season. Add his elite defense to his solid (for the position) offense, and it becomes a bit easier to see why Andrus received that eight-year, $120 million extension and earns a spot on this list. With Andrus only 25 years old entering this season, there remains the possibility that he could add to offensive game, which would make this decision a little easier on everyone involved.
Lowrie might be the most dubious selection for this list, but he's likely the most talented at the plate, posting a career wRC+ of 107, including last year's 121 in a full season. That full season is important because Lowrie has been one of the most injury prone players in the majors, never breaking 100 games in a season until 2013's 154. He's a high contact hitter but is able to generate power, a rarity for the position, smacking 15 home runs in the power-starved Coliseum. The downside is twofold. There are the aforementioned injury issues, as well as his defensive woes, with Lowrie rating a -9.2 per UZR in 2013. While his offensive number are good, I'm not sure anyone would pick Lowrie as the shortstop you would pick at any given moment, though he might always been among the top five options.
Hardy's worst attribute is his inability to get on base. His highest OBP dating back to 2009 is .320, and he's got a .313 career number. That's a lot of outs, since Hardy has played in 317 of a possible 324 games over the last two seasons. He balances his propensity for making out with his ability to hit home runs, belting 77 over the last three years. His career 95 wRC+ puts him well above average for the position and the 99 he produced in 2013 gets him to just under league average, all while providing excellent defense. He's not fast, stealing only eight bases over the course of his career, but he positions himself well and has one of the best arms in the league. His defense might get overlooked because he's rarely flashy, but the numbers back up the scouting reports, ranking Hardy as one of the better defensive shortstops in the league.
Inexperience, lack of information, whatever you want to call it, it's likely the only thing standing in our way of a clear-cut winner in this discussion. When it comes to tools, Bogaerts has all of them. He's not the defensive wizard that Hardy or Andrus is, but he's good enough to hang around league average with the glove. What he lacks on defense though, he should more than make up for with the stick. He's got the ability to hit for average and power, and could grow into one of the best players in baseball, period. The issue with Bogaerts' strengths is that they're heavily based on projections. He's been stellar to this point, but we're so early on in the season that we can't really draw conclusions. Process-wise, he's very good, and that's right now, not in the future. That said, he has to be able to make up the defensive deficit he's in with his bat, and that's asking a lot of a 21-year-old in his first full season at the major league level.
So there they are. None have the all encompassing qualities of Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Desmond, Jean Segura, the off-the-charts defensive ability of an Andrelton Simmons or the offensive upside of Hanley Ramirez, and while each of qualities that make them worthy of consideration, it's difficult to see how one could get past Andrus in this discussion. He possesses the most ability on defense of anyone in the American League, save perhaps Alcides Escobar, and while he's a zero offensively, he can still get on base and wreak havoc on them when he does. With Reyes injured, once again, Elvis is The King.