MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Shortstop

2011 should be remembered as a year of transition in the world of Dodger shortstops, since we said goodbye to one of the best shortstops in Dodger history and hello to a hopeful future star, with a healthy dose of solid fill-in work from Jamey Carroll. Also, Justin Sellers! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, though: the Dodgers had an infield position that ranked in the lower third of baseball by OPS, this time coming in 21st at .697. Funny how it’s hard to score runs when your infield is consistently below average, isn’t it?

Dee Gordon (B+)
.304/.325/.362 .686 0hr 24sb 0.5 WAR

Let’s simply start with this, illustrating the differences between Dee Gordon‘s two stints (the latter interrupted by injury) in the bigs:

1st Half 85 11 19 2 9 2 16 .232 .250 .280 .530
2nd Half 148 23 49 7 15 5 11 .345 .367 .408 .776

Well, then. But does anyone remember just how far away we thought he was at the beginning of the season? Remember, when Rafael Furcal first injured himself in April, people started pounding the drum for Gordon, and I wasn’t exactly on board at the time:

It’s not going to be Dee Gordon. Sure, it’d be fun, it’d be exciting – and it’d also be a terrible idea. Gordon is absolutely not ready right now, and I’m of the opinion that I’m not sure he’s even going to be ready for next year. It’s not good for him, and it’s not good for the team. It shouldn’t happen, and it won’t.

He wasn’t, but that only lasted until early June when Gordon, surprisingly, got the call:

All of this takes us to Gordon, and I must admit that I am torn. He’s the most exciting player the Dodgers have in their system, and a roster spot used on him rather than Castro pushes the team light-years ahead as far as watchability and interest. Yet, the speed of his promotion is difficult to wrap my head around. Many observers, myself included, expected him to start 2011 in AA, and were somewhat surprised that he was pushed to ABQ to start the year. In an offense-heavy environment, he has a good-but-not-stellar line of .315/.361/.370. (Lest you think I’m being too harsh, remember that this is the team on which career nothing JD Closser is hitting .298/.389/.529.) Not a single reputable analyst expected him here this quickly, and when I interviewed Christopher Jackson, who covers the ‘topes daily, he joked that if Gordon were put in the majors right now, he’d break Jose Offerman‘s errors record. As we’ve all heard so many times, Gordon, who didn’t play baseball seriously until high school, is an extremely raw prospect, and not the type likely to be rushed.

At the time, we were pretty sure what we’d get from Gordon, and that was uncertain offense, no power or plate discipline, inconsistent defense… and mind-blowing, game-changing speed. In no way was that initial expectation wrong, because even though he hit just .232/.250/.280 in 22 games before being sent back down for Furcal in early July, and had games like this

Gordon was speeding around the bases for a triple, beating a perfect throw home on a sacrifice fly, effortlessly making outstanding defensive plays… and booting a relatively simple grounder to start the 7th inning, an inning in which the Reds scored four to put the game away. That came after a play in the second inning in which Gordon mistimed his approach to the bag on a sure double play ball, and only got one out; with the runner safe on second, the Reds ended up getting their first run of the game later in the inning.

…he also left us with a season’s worth of highlights in his few weeks up with the big club. On June 14, he put on such a show in one game against Cincinnati that I’m sure I crashed all of your browsers with the amount of animated GIFs I put together. It’s worth clicking through to see all of them, but I can’t not show my favorite here, a bunt in which he blew down the line to first so quickly several readers refused to believe I hadn’t manipulated it:

When he was sent back down, I was okay with that, yet optimistic about what we’d seen:

The Dodgers haven’t made it official yet, but we all know that Gordon is getting sent down later today to make room for Rafael Furcal, and that’s fine by me. Gordon has been basically exactly what we figured he’d be – overmatched offensively, inconsistent defensively, and occasionally completely breathtaking on both sides of the ball. For a player who was never supposed to be up this early, he showed the talent was real, even if he has much to work on. I look at his first taste as a success, and hopefully he can take that back to the minors with a better idea of what it takes to be a big league ballplayer.

That’s basically what happened, though not without some hiccups. Gordon returned on July 31 once Furcal was traded to St. Louis, and made it only a week before seeming to seriously injure his shoulder on a botched rundown play in Arizona. He missed just one full game before re-injuring himself on August 9 against Philadelphia, first in attempting to avoid a Ryan Howard tag and then on a swing; he was placed on the disabled list the next day and missed about three weeks, time which probably saved Eugenio Velez from a DFA.

Though the repeated injuries raised concerns about his durability, the best was yet to come. When he returned on September 1, he had two hits, then three the next day, a double in his only plate appearance the following day, and then three more the next day. After an 0-5 on September 6, he picked up seven more hits over his next two games, on his way to a .372/.398/.451 September (buoyed by an unsustainable .404 BABIP) that pushed his season average over .300.

It was a smashingly successful end to his season, though it wasn’t all gravy; in addition to the defensive lapses, of the 325 MLB players who had as many plate appearances as Gordon, only three drew fewer walks than his seven. This is a large part of why I’m not sure I see him as a leadoff hitter despite his speed, though as I noted in September, I didn’t mind getting him as many plate appearances as possible in a lost season. Let’s hope that next season he can be moved lower in the order, though that’s probably not all that realistic.

Still, considering that we were positive that he was rushed and that even seeing him next year wasn’t a given? Yeah, I’d say that ended up going pretty well.

Jamey Carroll (B+)
.290/.359/.347 .706 0hr 1.8 WAR

Pretty much all of our Carroll-related discussion over the winter was pointing out that he was one of the few Dodgers who could be relied upon to get on base, particularly important after adding low-OBP players like Juan Uribe and Rod Barajas. That ended up working out exactly as we’d hoped – Carroll finished third on the team in OBP, behind Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier – but one thing we weren’t quite sure of was what Carroll’s role would be, since the arrival of Uribe to play second base seemed to relegate Carroll to a bench role.

That question lasted for all of about two weeks, until Rafael Furcal injured himself yet again, pushing Carroll into service as the everyday shortstop on April 11. Between then and Furcal’s return in late May, Carroll hit a typical .303/.357/.359, nearly mirroring his season total, and with the rest of the offense stagnant in the early going, I started including him in the “big three” along with Kemp and Ethier (though a brutal error in Florida on April 25 only served to increase the growing furor around Jonathan Broxton).

When Furcal returned, Carroll returned to his bench role, seeing plenty of playing time at both middle infield positions. As you can see by his midseason review in July, we were more than pleased with his contribution:

Last season, Carroll had a .718 OPS and was largely hailed as the team MVP for stepping in to cover for Rafael Furcal at shortstop for nearly the entire season. For a 36-year-old career backup who had played in more than 113 games just once, it was quite the impressive feat. More impressive? The fact that he’s exceeding that this year, currently with a .734 OPS. In a lower run scoring environment, that’s good for a 111 OPS+. Once again, the team has been crushed by injuries. Once again, Jamey Carroll has risen to the occasion and more. I’m not sure what the future holds for Carroll in Los Angeles – this is the last year of his contract, and unsurprisingly teams are showing trade interest – but he has consistently outperformed expectations. I’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Carroll fell off in the second half – that .734 pre-break OPS was not quite matched by a .662 post-break mark – and since Dee Gordon got the call when Furcal was injured again and then traded, the main interest in Carroll the rest of the way is just when exactly we’d be saying goodbye to him, since several teams were showing strong interest in him at the deadline. At the time, I argued that it was best to trade him, and when it didn’t happen, I didn’t seem to be the only one who was disappointed, according to this story from ESPN/LA’s Tony Jackson:

An hour or so later, when it had become clear to everyone that Carroll wasn’t going anywhere, he was inserted into the game, replacing the still-hitless Eugenio Velez, who probably was in the starting lineup only because the Dodgers were discussing a trade with some team that was interested in Carroll — there is strong evidence that team was the Atlanta Braves. But that trade never came together before the 1 p.m. PT deadline for players who had waiver claims on them, and there is no doubt Carroll was one of those players.

Later, in the clubhouse, Carroll had a look on his face like that of someone who had just been told he had won the lottery, then told that it was a mistake. But then, that’s kind of the way the soft-spoken, ever-stoic Carroll looks all the time.

“Am I still a Dodger?” he asked as two reporters approached him at his locker.

Told that he was, Carroll wasn’t about to publicly admit to being disappointed by that fact.

So what next? Carroll far outperformed the modest two-year contract that we weren’t so sure about when he received it in the 2009-10 offseason, and I need not remind you that second base and OBP are still giant holes for this club. But though I was certainly proven wrong about giving a multi-year deal to a 36-year-old, I’m not sure I can feel any better about it for a guy who is going to turn 38 in February (and yes, there will be enough teams interested that he should be able to pull another two-year deal if he wants). Regardless of what happens, Carroll has been an unbelievably valuable Dodger, and as tough as the last two seasons have been, I can’t imagine how much worse it might have been had he not been available to step in as needed. Wait, yes I can; we saw it in 2008 when we had to live with Angel Berroa and even the corpse of Nomar Garciaparra to step in at shortstop when Furcal was out. If this is it for Carroll as a Dodger, he will certainly be missed. Best of luck, Akbar.

Rafael Furcal (D-)
.197/.272/.248 .520 1hr -0.5 WAR

Furcal’s recap probably reads a lot like that of Casey Blake‘s, in that he was a popular and long-tenured Dodger who had little chance of staying healthy all year, didn’t, and contributed little in the time he was available.

Sidelined for much of the season by two serious injuries – 37 games in April and May with a fractured left thumb on a head-first slide and 26 games in June and July with a strained left oblique – Furcal played just 37 games as a Dodger. It probably says a lot about his Dodger tenure that 37 games isn’t even the fewest he played in a season, as he got into just 36 games during his 2008 season which was ravaged by back trouble. In between, he never really got going, with the fourth-worst wOBA of any shortstop with as many plate appearances as he had – and two of the guys below him lost their jobs. When he was traded to St. Louis at the end of July, it seemed like less of a trade worth analyzing and more of a foregone conclusion at the end of a nice Dodger career. (Though it was lost somewhat in the Trayvon Robinson excitement, outfielder Alex Castellanos hit .322/.406/.603 after joining AA Chattanooga in return for Furcal, raising hopes that he might be slightly more than the fifth outfielder which he’d been profiled as.)

Despite the injury-filled and unproductive end to his time as a Dodger, Furcal leaves as the best shortstop in Los Angeles Dodger history and arguably the best in team history alongside Pee Wee Reese. I’ve seen some suggest that perhaps he could come back to Los Angeles to play second base, but I think it’s more likely that some team that misses out on Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins will buy an ill-advised lottery ticket for multiple years to try and fill their own shortstop hole.

Justin Sellers (C-)
.203/.283/.301 .583 1hr 0.6 WAR

And the curse of first impressions strikes again: Justin Sellers comes up, hits a three-run homer in front of his hometown crowd in his third career game, and all of a sudden my Twitter feed is lighting up with people suggesting that Dee Gordon be traded so that Sellers can be the everyday shortstop going forward. Of course, after that… well,  you can see his line above, right?

But let’s first go back to spring training, when I actually was intrigued by having him on the club:

Sellers is someone who I’ve never talked about much around here, and I’ve been meaning to for a while. Despite looking like he’s about 14, his 2010 AAA stats were impressive: .285/.371/.497, with 14 homers. Don’t put too much stock into that, however; while I can’t say for sure because the great is no longer around, the power displayed is almost certainly a result of the Albuquerque environment, since he had just 17 homers in five previous seasons.

Still, there’s reason to like him. Most of the reports I’ve been able to dig up claim he’s an above-average glove, possibly making him the best defensive choice of these four, and he’s shown improvement in mastering the strike zone. In two seasons as a Dodger minor leaguer, he’s put up OBP of .371 and .360, thanks to a very good K/BB ratio of 115/99. In January, Baseball America gave him the title of “Best Strike Zone Discipline” in the Dodger system, and you don’t need me to remind you how starved this team is for that right now. Though it’s early, he’s off to a good start in the spring, having walked three times without a whiff. Unlike DeJesus, he did attend the winter development camp.

If there’s a knock against him, it’s that he’s been exclusively a middle infielder, though with Jamey Carroll and Juan Uribe both able to handle third base, that wouldn’t seem to be an issue. He’s not a highly touted prospect, clearly, so at 25 and on his third pro organization, I wouldn’t be all that worried about having him riding the major league bench as opposed to playing every day in AAA.

Sellers lost that competition and headed back to AAA, where he put up a superficially impressive .304/.400/.537 line with 14 homers, numbers that seemed nice, but which didn’t stand up when looked into further, as I did when he was recalled to replace Furcal on August 12:

I assume that by now I don’t need to tell you not to trust Albuquerque numbers, but don’t trust Albuquerque numbers. Never has that been more true than with Sellers, who should probably buy a home in ABQ (.387/.460/.737 with 11 homers) and never be allowed to put on the Isotopes’ road grays (.218/.338/.331). So you can imagine what that’ll look like in the big leagues.

And, well, that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it? I know I’m usually the guy saying “don’t judge a rookie by his first brief look,” but don’t forget that this is a 25-year-old rookie without much of a non-altitude-inflated minor-league track record while bouncing among three organizations. That’s not to say that Sellers has no future whatsoever, of course; as a plus glove who can play three positions for the minimum salary, he could be a reasonably useful bench piece for a few seasons. It’s just not someone I choose to think of as a possible starting solution, despite the gaping hole at second base.


Next! Jerry Sands makes his mark! The flaming catastrophe that was JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr.! And Jamie Hoffmann and Xavier Paul exist, briefly! It’s left field!