Egads, shortstop. The one position I have been dreading writing on since I conceived of this multi-part project earlier this month. It is one of the toughest positions to fill at the minor-league level, chock full of athletes with a variety of issues that will probably keep them from ever attaining the status of everyday player at the big-league level. Many shortstops in the minors end up playing second, or becoming utility guys, or just disappearing into the netherworld of the Quad-A player who bounces from team to team, city to city.
Even going to Asia is usually not an option for these guys, as Japanese and Korean teams almost universally keep domestic players at all the up-the-middle positions. The life of a vagabond minor-league shortstop is a lonely one, usually without much pay and even less stability. Still, teams have to fill out their full-season rosters, so someone has to play there.
For that, teams usually prize defense at an average level when seeking out shortstops for their Single-A through Triple-A teams. Guys who can swing a bat, too, usually do not stay in the minors long. A total of 13 MLB teams last season employed a foreign-born player at shortstop for the majority of the season. The American-born shortstop is often referred to as an endangered species, but in truth they still constituted the majority last season.
Nonetheless, the elite shortstop is a prize possession. Just ask anybody who plays fantasy baseball, the good ones go fast in the draft, even though there might be outfielders, first basemen, and pitchers who offer up more statistical value.
The Dodgers, with their lack of international spending, are not surprisingly quite short at shortstop down on the farm. Things are so thin that right now there is no obvious starter at Double-A Chattanooga after Jake Lemmerman was traded to the Cardinals for Skip Schumaker.
So read on for what little there is down on the Dodgers’ farm at the upper levels, while taking note of some talent forming up in the lower levels.
Dee Gordon: Pretty much everybody knows Gordon’s pluses and minuses. He can make the spectacular play with his tremendous range and cannon arm … but he often botches the routine play. He has game-changing speed … but does not hit much at all and he can’t take a walk to get on base. Plenty has been written about his transition from basketball to baseball as a teenager, his raw tools, his baseball bloodlines, etc. The Dodgers have had the opportunity to trade him, but for now it looks like he’s staying put, though it seems almost certain he opens with the Isotopes barring an injury to Hanley Ramirez or the complete implosion of Luis Cruz.
Justin Sellers: In a perfect world, Sellers would be the Dodgers’ late-inning defensive replacement, a slick fielder with a good, accurate arm but not much of a bat. The Dodgers, though, under Ned Colletti, have shied away from handing such responsibilities to young players, instead acquiring the Nick Puntos of the world. Sellers is clinging to a 40-man roster spot by the skin of his teeth, and he could get bumped off should someone else get signed to a big-league deal or one of the non-roster invitees forces his way to Los Angeles. For now, Sellers projects to serve as a utility player at Albuquerque, on tap for a call-up in the event of an injury to someone on the bench or a short-term injury to someone like Ramirez, Cruz or Mark Ellis.
Osvaldo Martinez: The Dodgers acquired him from the White Sox last summer for depth purposes. He is not on the 40-man but opted to stay with Los Angeles this off-season. Martinez hit .255/.296/.275 in 102 at-bats with the Isotopes and just .203/.246/.244 overall last year. He was once a high-average hitter with some speed but little pop, earning him the lofty status of being Baseball America’s No. 5 Marlins prospect after the 2010 season. Now he just seems to be a good glove off the bench, searching for the swing that left him. With plenty of other middle infield types in the mix for an Isotopes roster spot, Martinez is not guaranteed to still be with the organization come April.
Alfredo Amezaga: The ex-Marlin has returned to the Dodgers organization after playing in one game with Chattanooga in 2010 before missing the rest of the season due to problems with his surgically-repaired knee. A super utility player, Amezaga can play second, short, third, and the outfield. He will compete for a bench spot with Albuquerque after hitting .274/.336/.372 with six home runs, 42 RBI, and 12 stolen bases at Iowa (Cubs) last year.
Miguel Rojas: Another free-agent signee, the soon-to-be 24-year-old comes over from the Reds organization where he hit just .199/.263/.224 between Triple-A Louisville and Double-A Pensacola last season. He has played the vast majority of his career (460 games) at shortstop with a reputation as a decent defender who simply cannot hit (.234/.301/.282 career). Yet with so few options, the Dodgers might not have much choice but start him at Chattanooga. One would have to hope that the organization takes a long look at Cuban defector Aledmys Diaz, who is a free agent, and could slot in nicely with the Lookouts.
Alexis Aguilar: One of the Three Shortstops of the Apocalypse at Rancho Cucamonga last year, the 21-year-old Venezuelan hit an unimpressive .255/.301/.313 with one home run and 15 RBI for the Quakes. With Charlie Mirabal (.191/.240/.245) having been released, Aguilar figures to get a shot at moving up to Chattanooga by default and competing with Rojas for the Lookouts’ starting gig. Fans in Southeastern Tennessee might want to close their eyes for the season. Aguilar has played 126 games at shortstop, 50 at second base and 24 at third base in his career, so at worst he is a utility player with average defensive skills.
Casio Grider: The final member of the aforementioned TSA at RC, Grider hit a dismal .217/.286/.329 with two home runs and 11 RBI. At 25, he is getting awfully old for what he is, basically a utility player who spent more time at shortstop last year than second base, his previous position. Grider was a 14th-round pick out of Newberry College in 2009, marking him as purely an organizational player who hopes to move up to Double-A and keep his career going at least one more season.
Darnell Sweeney: Caution, this young man might actually have a future beyond the minors. A nice sleeper pick, the Dodgers selected him in the 13th round of last year’s draft out of Central Florida. Sweeney responded by hitting .294/.374/.430 with five home runs, 33 RBI and 27 stolen bases between Great Lakes and Ogden. John Sickels ranked him No. 18 among Dodgers’ prospects over at Minor League Ball. Dustin Nosler had him one spot higher at No. 17 on his list at Feelin’ Kinda Blue. Keep a close eye on Sweeney’s development, which will likely continue this year at Rancho Cucamonga. He lived up to expectations defensively, but keeping up his lofty debut hitting stats will be the challenge as he faces more advanced pitching.
Pedro Guerrero, Justin Boudreaux, Delvis Morales: Meet the trio of utility guys who actually appeared in more games at shortstop than other positions in 2012. Guerrero, no relation to the former Dodger, hit .220/.265/.387 with 10 home runs. He is a 24-year-old Dominican with no previous showing of any power (career .361 slugging). Boudreaux was the Dodgers’ 14th-round pick out of Southeastern Louisiana in 2011; he hit .201/.304/.312 with three homers and 36 RBI last year. Morales is a 22-year-old Dominican who hit .261/.341/.328 with zero homers, 23 RBI and 12 stolen bases. They will battle for bench spots at Rancho and Great Lakes.
Corey Seager: The crown jewel of Dodgers minor-league infielders, Seager may seem destined for third base but I will list him as a shortstop until the day he stops playing there. The 2012 first-round draft pick is one of the organization’s top prospects, ranking as high as No. 2 (Minor League Ball) on the preseason lists. Seager hit an impressive .309/.383/.520 with eight homers and 33 RBI at Ogden, going up against mostly older competition. The younger brother of Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, Corey should move up to Great Lakes. At 6-3, 195, he is built like a third baseman, but there is always the chance he sticks at shortstop, with a big-league ETA of 2015 or 2016, at which point he could fill a major hole for the Dodgers.
Jesmuel Valentin: The son of former Dodger Jose Valentin, Jesmuel was drafted in the supplemental first round last summer. He showed decent, if not great, defensive skills in the Arizona League, while batting .211/.352/.316 with two homers and 18 RBI. Valentin’s bat has a ways to go, though the fact he drew 35 walks versus 24 strikeouts is encouraging. FanGraphs ranked him as the Dodgers’ No. 5 prospect, though most other lists put him in the 12-13 range. He could end up at second base or in a utility role down the line, but the Dodgers will try to keep him at shortstop as long as possible, hoping his bat develops and defense solidifies at shortstop. Valentin should hang back in extended spring training until Ogden’s season starts in late June.
So that wraps up shortstop, which is bleak at the top and somewhat promising down below. There are no guarantees for the Dodgers, much less any other team, but in Seager, Sweeney, and Valentin, at least there are some options coming along. The key to the present will likely be in whether or not Gordon can ever refine his tools, while one of the three of Seager/Sweeney/Valentin develops into a long-range replacement.
Next up, third base, where the hot corner is barely even spitting out a wisp of smoke.