There’s a somewhat unsettling trend occurring in baseball, that has been happening for some time but is only just recently becoming apparent – talent at 3 field positions has become heavily depleted. The positions in question are Catcher, Shortstop, and Center Field, and have long been considered perhaps the most important cogs in any team that wants to make a championship run.
What about these positions makes them so valuable? Their relative scarcity of talent. You can find a middle of the lineup corner infielder or outfielder pretty much anywhere, with perhaps 1B and RF being the primary talent overloads. Second base is a slightly different story, but is still more laden with talent than the other three positions mentioned between Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Martin Prado, Dan Uggla, Brandon Phillips, Aaron Hill, and so on.
Think about all the currently active established greats at the three positions mentioned. How many are there?
At catcher, you have guys like Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, Yadier Molina, maybe a few others. It’s not a very deep talent pool, although there is plenty of young talent in guys like Buster Posey, Carlos Santana and Matt Wieters.
At shortstop, there is obviously Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, and not much else (Ramirez is the only qualified SS in baseball this year to have an OPS above .800). Derek Jeter? He’s past his prime. Elvis Andrus? He has fielding and speed, but his hitting is atrocious. It’s just a wasteland of talent.
At CF, two names that jump out are Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez – the only problem is that each has spent more time as a corner OF this year than a CF as well as in recent seasons. Besides them? Torii Hunter is 35. Colby Rasmus is a great talent who’s playing well, but the good word on him is he’ll eventually move to RF because of his arm, and the door is open now that Ludwick was traded to the Padres. Unlike the former two positions, however, there is some good young talent that is on the cusp of breaking out – guys like Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Chris Young and Matt Kemp.
Teams understand the importance of these positions. Look at the 2010 MLB Draft, and the first 6 position players taken off the board:
Bryce Harper, C/OF – There are conflicting reports from the Nationals as to whether or not they want him to play C or OF, but he’s played C all his life, and that’s the position for him to be judged at for now.[pullquote]Teams understand the importance of these positions.[/pullquote]
Manny Machado, SS – Taken 3rd overall by the Orioles, has been compared to A-Rod.
Christian Colon, SS – Taken 4th overall by the Royals, great contact hitter and fielder.
Delino DeShields Jr, 2B – Not one of the three positions mentioned.
Michael Choice, OF – 10th overall by the Athletics, and while he previously played CF, there is talk that he’ll be moved into the corner outfield.
Yasmani Grandal, C – 12th overall by the Reds, the 2nd catcher off the board after Harper.
A 3rd baseman wasn’t taken until 18th overall. A 1st baseman didn’t go until the 4th round, although this doesn’t say much as many players are moved to 1B if considered to be inadequate fielders at their respective position.
This is not a new trend in the MLB Draft either – in 2009, 3 of the first 5 position players off the board played one of the three positions. In 2008, it was 6 of the first 8. In 2007, 2 of the first 3, including Matt Wieters.
Baseball teams historically have had great success when they can fill at least 2 of those 3 positions with very good players. The best example of this is the Yankees Dynasty of the late 90s, where they had Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at SS, and Bernie Williams at CF. Going through the most recent World Series winners…
The 2009 Yankees had great value at C and SS with Posada and Jeter, each of whom had an OPS+ of over 130. Melky Cabrera, a below average player, was in CF.
The 2008 Phillies had talented SS Jimmy Rollins and CF Shane Victorino, neither of whom was exceptional but when coupled with talents like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jason Werth and Cole Hamels, was more than enough to cruise to a World Series victory. Carlos Ruiz was a burden at C.
The 2007 Red Sox bucked the trend, with Jason Varitek having a mediocre year, and awful performances from Julio Lugo (SS) and and Coco Crisp (CF). This is a clear case of too much talent across the board not to succeed.
The 2006 Cardinals didn’t have much hitting talent from their C/SS/CF, but between Yadier Molina, David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds, they had an absolutely fantastic group of fielders that hasn’t been matched in a long while. Eckstein also went on to win the World Series MVP award.
[pullquote]Many good hitting catchers that aren’t defensively sound make the move to 1B.[/pullquote]Why is the talent so thin at these positions? At CF, you will often see talented players moved to the corners, especially if they have a lot of power and aren’t blessed with great speed. Someone like Mickey Mantle would be unlikely to play CF if he were born 50 years later. More likely he would be a RF, corner infielder or even exclusively DH in his later career. Current examples of this would be Josh Hamilton, Hunter Pence, Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez, David Murphy, David DeJesus, and even Milton Bradley.
For SS, it’s a similar story (along with 2B). If a player has enough hitting power, they will move to a corner spot unless they can’t or don’t put on enough weight. There are a handful of power hitting 2B (Cano, Phillips, and Hill come to mind) but almost no power hitting SS. Hanley Ramirez is the big example at SS, and he’s so athletically gifted a player that he could play almost any position.
Catchers face the simple problem of playing at a position where there has never been much hitting talent to start with. Compound this with the fact that many good hitting catchers that aren’t defensively sound make the move to 1B (this was almost the fate of Buster Posey before Bengie Molina was traded, and may still be the fate of uber-prospect Jesus Montero). Still, fielding abilities are valued for catchers moreso than at probably every other field position.
There will always be talent at every position in baseball, but make no mistake, the team that can find a strong foundation at catcher, shortstop and center field will go a long way towards winning a World Series.