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Cliff Pennington: AL's Best Shortstop?

Given the title it shouldn't be too hard to figure it out, but guess who led the AL in brWAR last year? That would be Oakland's Cliff Pennington, with 3.2. He also came in second in fWAR with 3.7 (just behind Alexei Ramirez's 3.8). Could the 26 year-old really be the best shortstop in a league once dominated by Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Miguel Tejada?

Pennington only hit .250/.319/.368 in 2010, but that was while playing half his games in the spacious Oakland Coliseum. His wRC+ was just a tick below average at 99, which matches his career mark. A shortstop who can hit even that well will be a solid player, but Pennington was a plus with the glove according to the fielding metrics. Both UZR and Total Zone had him at +10 runs defensively, while DRS and Fan Scouting Report were at +9. Can Pennington maintain that level of production going forward, cementing a place as one of the better shortstops in the Junior Circuit?

Offensively, Pennington doesn't bring much power to the table (just 10 home runs in 922 career PA) but he's both walked and struck out at a slightly better than average clips. He was more patient at the plate last year than he had been, swinging at pitches in the strike-zone and (even more so) out of the strike-zone less often than average. That makes it seem reasonable that he'll continue walking at a decent clip. He also upped his contact rate pretty substantially from where it was in 2009 (80% to 87%), so it's possible there's still some room for a decrease in K's even if that regress somewhat. Obviously Pennington's BABIP will play a big part in how productive he ends up being at the plate, but it was .296 last year and .307 for his career. Meeting in the middle there would leave Pennington somewhere around average if not a bit above. Add in his prowess on the bases (40 career steals with a 78% success rate), and the A's should have a relatively useful offensive player.

Defensively, there's probably a fair bit of regression in store. Pennington posted good numbers last year, but previous seasons were not as kind. His career UZR at short is just +1; same with Total Zone; and DRS is -6. It's possible that his 2010 showing was due to consistent playing time, but it's more likely that Pennington is more a +1-2 runs fielder than a +10 fielder. If that's the case, then almost a full win is getting knocked off his WAR.

If he's only a 2.5-3 win player in 2011, it's improbable that Pennington will be the AL's top shortstop with Derek Jeter, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, and J.J. Hardy around. He's got a solid chance to be in the conversation though, which is pretty good for guy that many baseball fans still haven't heard of.

Certainly things could be different if Pennington doesn't come back from his shoulder surgery (non-throwing arm) healthy, but it sounds like he dealt with the injury for the latter half of last season and the timetable for recovery should have him ready by the start of the season.