Today we're going to look at who might be the best shortstop by the year 2020 and although trying to predict the future is a fool's errand, we had a little fun with this exercise. Realistically, who knows what baseball will bring in 2020! Baseball may be played with jet-packs and rocket launchers. (Yes, I'm aware that Yadier Molina already plays with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder, and I know Mike Trout uses his invisible jetpack to rob home runs that are well above the center field fence, but maybe by 2020, every player will have access to these same amenities!) We tried this same exercise back in 2010, attempting to forecast the best starting pitcher in 2015. And this happened. So five years from now, we will probably be sitting around laughing at this article. Or, more accurately, you'll be linking it to your team's blog or retweeting it and having a good laugh at it with all of your buddies while we cry.
First, here is some context for the title "best shortstop in baseball". The SS WAR leaders (we will be using fWAR for all WAR calculations) for the last three years have put up marks of 4.7, 5.3, and 5.3 (in 2015, 2014, and 2013 respectively). In fact, since 2010, there have been 73 individual 6-WAR seasons and none of them have been shortstops. In other words, the bar for "best shortstop in baseball' is considerably lower than it is for the other positions. Keep that in mind when viewing candidates that may not seem like they have superstar potential; however, the future at shortstop looks bright. We could be entering another golden age at shortstop, the likes of which we haven't seen at the position since the days of A-Rod, Jeter, Nomar, and Tejada. The young talent at or close to the Majors is so plentiful that we came up with 12 potential names, with many other deserving candidates on the honorable mentions list. I teamed up with five other BtBS writers to present the case for the players from multiple different perspectives.
The high-profile nature of Russell's career is based off of projection rather than performance. He certainly has the prospect pedigree, having been rated by Baseball America and Baseball Prospecuts as the second-best and third-best prospect in baseball, respectively, heading into the 2015 season. The book on him was that his hitting would propel him to All-Star levels throughout his career, and hopefully the defense would be good enough to keep him at shortstop. Even if he were to move to second or third base, the bat would still play well. However, defensive metrics loved Russell in his rookie campaign, crediting him with an astounding 20.4 UZR/150. That mark led all shortstops in 2015, among shortstops who played at least as many innings as Russell. Even if his defensive ratings come down from that lofty mark, it would be hard to envision Russell not rating as an above-average fielder for years to come.
That plus defense puts a high floor and raises the ceiling on Russell's future projections. Despite posting a disappointing offensive season in 2015 relative to expectations, he did show optimistic signs for the future. His OPS jumped .094 points from the first half to the second. Russell's strikeout rate was incredibly high, but there are multiple reasons that it was a fluke. First of all, he never had strikeout problems in the minors, unlike fellow rookies Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant. Second, Pitch F/X indicates that his O-swing% was actually a remarkably-low 29.8 (league average is roughly 30%). His contact% was 71.1, which was low but still higher than Justin Upton, who struck out 3% less than Russell did in 2015. It's highly unlikely that Russell will ever strike out again as much as he did this past season. Even with his disappointing offense and the fact that he didn't start the year in the Majors, Russell still put up a more-than-respectable 2.9 WAR. It isn't difficult to see him as the top shortstop in 2020.
-- Austin Yamada
In trying to project a player's performance five years out, there are a lot of factors you may need to take into account. Progression, regression, decline, how certain skills may fare while others stay stagnant. Don't try this at home, kids. For all the variables that make up a professional ballplayer's performance, there are even more we can't easily measure: workrate, team influences, personal struggles. So when asked to pick which shortstop might be the best in five years ... during an era in which the field of great young talents at the position is unquestionably large ... the safest bet is to pick the option with the least variability.
Carlos Correa is already one of the five best shortstops in baseball-by both performance and by true talent-in my humble estimation. For his age-21 season, he ripped off a .345 on-base percentage and a .512 slugging percentage, hit 22 homers and posted a wRC+ that was 33 percent better than the league average, and posted 3.3 fWAR ------ and he did all of that in less than a full rookie season, for a playoff team. (it's worth mentioning he dialed up his production in the playoffs, no less.) He earned the Rookie of the Year award, despite Francisco Lindor possibly accruing more on-field value by virtue of his defense.
The two biggest factors in Correa's favor are his youth and his bat. Never projected to be an out-of-this-world power threat, Correa built his scouting bona fides by doing everything well, including fair bat-to-ball and the potential to add power mid-career. Well, he's already added the power, with those 22 dingers a fine example. Most projection systems expect him to carry an above-average overall offensive load going forward -- 2015 doesn't appear to have been a blip or a fluke. This is who we might want to expect him to be: a reliable offensive contributor at the game's toughest non-catching position.
Today, the biggest dig on Correa is probably his defense. Compared to other great shortstops, it's not very good. He's a bigger guy, and likely to fill out even more as the years go by. At the same time, he is still young, and with his makeup and work ethic, one could expect him to improve as he moves through his twenties, rather than get worse. Usually players see their skills with the leather diminish as time wears them down, but Correa could potentially improve over time. This knock actually helps him, just a little, in my estimations. Defensive metrics shift wildly over time; sample sizes for defensive metrics are usually best taken in three-year intervals. Also, when elite defensive skill goes away, it tends to do so in a hurry. Compare that to offense, which tends to stabilize earlier and is viewed as a bit more reliable year-over-year. In all cases where I try to remove error bars, I tend to favor offense over defense.
Choosing Carlos Correa is choosing the total package over one transcendent skill. Pure size may cause Corey Seager to move off shortstop, making him ineligible for this list, and while Manny Machado could certainly handle life at the six, it's an open question whether the Orioles will ever give their superstar a shot at the position. Truthfully? My second choice is probably Addison Russell of the Cubs, who possesses Correa's wide range of skills (including better defense than the Astro), just not the same offensive upside.
The other candidates are too unproven (J.P. Crawford, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Orlando Arcia, etc.) or too likely to be on the wrong side of a prime (Andrelton Simmons, Brandon Crawford, Troy Tulowitzki, Jung-ho Kang). And, as always, all current and former Seattle Mariners are barred from consideration.
Throughout his career, Correa has demonstrated a wide set of impact tools, fabulous makeup, and striking consistency. Among the players currently manning the shortstop position, he strikes me as the least likely to fail and still maintains a very high ceiling, which makes him the most likely to succeed five years down the line. The Astros famously passed on Derek Jeter more than two decades ago. In drafting and developing Correa, I don't think they made that same sort of mistake twice.
-- Bryan Grosnick
Jung Ho Kang
As a rookie, Kang led all NL shortstops with a 130 wRC+. Unlike most of the other players on this list, Kang has the track record to back up that performance. Kang played at the highest level of Korean baseball for nine years and performed, posting a combined .298/.383/.504 in those seasons. His performance culminated with a ridiculous .356/.459/.739 line in his final season in the KBO before coming stateside. In his first season in the United States, Kang accumulated 3.9 WAR while bouncing between shortstop and third base. While this versatility is something that makes him more valuable in real life, this could hurt his case for best shortstop in 2020 because, well, he might not be playing shortstop. Also, while he isn't old, he's much older than many of the other players on this list.
Even considering the facts that may hurt his case (poor BB/K ratio, 2020 age, and multi-position versatility), it still isn't hard to see Kang as the best shortstop in 2020. His game could resemble something like Jhonny Peralta in 2014, who led all shortstops that season in WAR. And Kang will be just age 33, which is only one year older than Peralta in 2014. At a position where offense is always lacking, Kang could easily possess the most potent bat come 2020.
-- Austin Yamada
In 2020, should one expect Carlos Correa to be a better player than JP Crawford? Probably, yes. Would guessing the same thing about Corey Seager be smart? Sure. How about Xander Bogaerts or Addison Russell? It wouldn't be crazy. However, even if all of the above are true, it's completely possible that Crawford will be the most valuable shortstop in baseball.
All of the other names mentioned have questions surrounding how long they'll be able to field the position. Seager is categorized in MLB.com's 2016 list as a SS/3B. Some scouts have mentioned for years that they believe Correa and Bogaerts will eventually outgrow the position, and move to the corner. Russell already spent more of 2015 at second base than short (746.0 innings versus 471.1 innings).
Crawford, on the other hand, is lauded for his fielding and is universally ranked as the best sure-thing defensive shortstop prospect in baseball. He also features a plus-or-better hit tool, a plus arm, and strong instincts. There's a feasible world where Crawford reaches his ceiling, and Francisco Lindor's bat regresses to something closer to his Minor League numbers. Current stars like Brandon Crawford and Troy Tulowitzki will be in their thirties, and his bat-first contemporaries could move to the hot corner, clearing his path to the top of the leaderboard.
-- Spencer Bingol
Orlando Arcia may have the highest upside of any shortstop in baseball, and I say that without hyperbole. Seager and Correa are more hyped, and rightfully so, but they basically have to hit. Guys like Trea Turner and Alex Bregman might be safer but probably lack that superstar potential. Arcia's game is built on speed and defense, the perfect foundation for a superstar. Why? Speed and defense are more tools-based. A player might be able to become a better baserunner or more consistent on defense, but players don't magically get increased range or speed. Range and speed are physical attributes and have a strictly downward aging curve. Offense is a skill that can be improved with time, and we have seen many defense-first players develop their offense and enter that elite stardom (i.e. Lorenzo Cain, A.J. Pollock, Yadier Molina, etc.). Possessing speed and defense as the base for a skill set just puts such a high floor, and consequently a higher ceiling, on the future value of a player. Arcia possesses both skills in spades, with many scouting outlets referring to him as a premium glove.
Of course, if we just targeted all-field, all-run, no-bat shortstops, we could find quite a few players for this list. Arcia isn't no-bat, though. His offense is already at a point where it could be a contribution at the highest level, and it's getting better every year, even as he moves up rungs on the minor league ladder. His seasonal OPS has moved from .647 in 2013 to .738 in 2014 to .800 in 2015. As a 20 year-old in AA this past season, Arcia was one of the youngest players in the league while putting up offensive production that (by wRC+) was 26 percent above league average. He also avoids the strikeout, posting a K rate of just 13 percent.
Arcia will be 25 in 2020 and should just be entering his prime. His well-rounded game should translate fantastically into MLB production and it isn't outlandish to see Arcia putting up Francisco Lindor's 2015 production on a yearly basis. If Lindor could maintain that, he'd have a strong argument for this as well. However, that is a questionable outcome; Arcia's 2015 season was far better than anything Lindor ever did in the minor leagues. If Arcia can maintain his offensive gains for the future, then it isn't difficult to see him as the best shortstop in 2020; if he improves again, watch out.
-- Austin Yamada
In the year 2020, Francisco Lindor will be 26 years of age -- exactly the age at which MLB players typically peak. The thought of Lindor's peak should strike fear into the hearts of the other twenty-nine teams, because the switch-hitting shortstop is already really good. As a 21 year-old in 2015, Lindor challenged Carlos Correa for the American League Rookie of the Year award, ultimately finishing second and garnering 13 first place votes compared to Correa's 17. However, there is a strong case to be made that Lindor was a better player than Correa in 2015, and in addition much reason to think that Lindor will be the best shortstop in the majors - and maybe by a lot - in 2020.
Lindor was worth 4.6 fWAR - compared to Correa's 3.3 -- in just 438 plate appearances last season. Had Lindor kept up his pace, he would have been worth 6.3 fWAR in a full season of 600 plate appearances, a total good enough to challenge for the MVP some years. The former overall pick was advertised as a defensive whiz, and his glove did not disappoint, accruing 10.5 UZR in his first year. His UZR/150 -- which scales UZR to a league average number of chances - sat at 18.9, an elite number that placed him second in the majors among shortstops. Defense is a skill largely reliant on athleticism, but Lindor should remain an asset in the field for years to come.
What really jumps off the page about Lindor's 2015 season, however, is his offensive output. Perceived as more of a glove-first player coming up through the minors, Lindor surprised almost everyone by excelling at the plate in 2015 to the tune of a 128 wRC+. His .169 ISO was higher than any number he produced during his (albeit limited) time in the minors. In addition, Lindor demonstrated a solid ability to hit the ball to all fields, with his 29.3 percent opposite field rate ranking just outside the top 30 in the majors.
Shortstops with defensive numbers such as Lindor's are equally rare and valuable, and he should sustain a long career on defense alone. If, however, Lindor is able to maintain - or even improve - his numbers at the plate from 2015, he thrusts himself into a different circle of peers. There are precious few shortstops that can both hit and field at an above average level, and if Lindor joins them, he likely takes his place as the league's premier player at his position.
-- Tom O'Donnell
Seager broke onto the MLB scene immediately upon his arrival, posting an elite .337/.425/.561 with a 12.4 percent walk rate and just a 16.8 strikeout rate, which combined to produce an otherworldly 175 wRC+. Detractors may point to his .387 BABIP and small sample size as reasons for pessimism, but his supporters would be quicker to point out that his batted ball profile was BABIP-friendly, while his minor league track record (career .307/.368/.523) perfectly backs up the MLB performance.
Other than maybe Carlos Correa, Seager seems like the odds-on favorite to claim the crown of best shortstop after the next five seasons. The only real threat to that, other than unforeseen injury, would be a move off of the position. However, he has been incredibly durable his career so far, and the Dodgers claim that he is their long-term shortstop of the future.
Seager's MLB defensive data is too limited to draw any conclusions, but the eye test says that he is a lot better than a player waiting to move off of shortstop. His lack of quickness, relative to a smaller, more agile shortstop, is offset by long strides to cover ground, while his arm is well above average and more than adequate for the position. Seager is universally lauded as the best prospect in baseball headed into this season, and it would be making a lot of people correct if Seager were to be the best shortstop in 2020.
-- Austin Yamada
Xander Bogaerts is primed to be the best shortstop in 2020. He is currently entering into his age-23 season and so far in his career has taken significant steps forward in all aspects of his game. Bogey hits for average and power, he gets on base, and he steals bases. His defensive skills continue to improve as well, and in 2015, he put up his best FanGraph's defensive metric of his MLB tenure.
In 2015, Bogaerts put up a .320/.355/.421 slash line and 7 home runs. In 2016, he's projected to more than double his power while continuing to maintain an average around .300. He continues to get better at the plate and Shawn Brody did a great job examining Bogaerts' improvement against sliders -- one of his most important and necessary improvements to date.
Bogaerts' success is not unexpected, either, considering his pedigree. He was rated Baseball America's number two prospect after the 2013 season and was the youngest player in the American League when Boston assigned him into the left side of their infield in 2014.
Boston fully expects Bogaerts to be the shortstop of the future at Fenway, and the position is his for the taking. Unlike other players on our list who may end up moving off the position, there is no reason to think he will not be the best shortstop until 2020 and beyond. Bogaerts continues to get better, and despite his young age, is already one of the best shortstops in the majors.
-- Steven Martano
Swanson has been quite prominent in the baseball world despite his young age. He won the College World Series in 2014 and was named the Series MVP. A year later, Swanson led his team back to the CWS and he was drafted first overall by the Diamondbacks. Then, this past offseason, Swanson became the earliest-traded number one overall pick in baseball history, getting dealt to the Braves for Shelby Miller. Throughout all of this, Swanson has performed everywhere he's went. In a relatively small sample size, Swanson dominated the minors, putting up a .289/.394/.482 line with identical walk and strikeout rates of 14.1 percent.
Swanson is good at every aspect of baseball, and as Bill James proved a long time ago, you don't have to be elite at anything to be elite. Simply being above-average in all aspects will make you an elite player, and that's something that Swanson is more than capable of doing. The comps to Derek Jeter don't hurt, either. His makeup is off the charts, and he has been described as a team leader for as long as he's been relevant. In a shortstop-heavy draft, with each of the top three picks being shortstops, there is a reason why Swanson was chosen first. He very well may finish the 2020 season as the top shortstop in baseball.
-- Austin Yamada
Since he debuted in late 2012, Manny Machado has met or surpassed any reasonable expectations. His offense has steadily improved, with his yearly wRC+ rising from 97 to 102 to 110 to 134. The average and power combination that he featured last season has made him a force at the plate. On the other side of the ball, his production speaks for itself: He's accrued 62 DRS at third base, along with 51.5 UZR, in less than 4,000 career innings. Add it all together, and you get one of the most valuable players in baseball. As a 27-year-old in 2020, Machado wouldn't seem to have anything holding him back -- would he?
Machado's case comes down to two factors. We'll begin with the obvious one: position. As noted above, Machado has played almost exclusively at third base in the show -- only 1.3 percent of his major-league innings have come at shortstop. J.J. Hardy, who has started 570 games there over the past four seasons, bears the responsibility for that. However, Hardy's days are numbered. His offense fell off a cliff in 2015, and at age 33, he'll likely see his defense follow suit. Once he becomes a free agent in two years, there's a good chance that the Orioles let him walk and move Machado to shortstop, where he played in the minors. Given two full seasons (2018 and 2019) to reaccustom himself to the position, Machado will hit the ground running in 2020.
In addition to his teammate, something else could inhibit Machado: injuries. He missed nearly half of 2014 recovering from two separate knee maladies, which delayed his offensive progress and set the team back. If he can't stay healthy, he could fall short of his potential. Of course, he's shown remarkable durability aside from that, playing 156 games in 2013 and 162 games in 2015. He doesn't have a perfect record to this point, but he could be much worse off, and the skills he has shouldn't wane too much. All in all, Machado should make a strong case for best shortstop in the game five years down the road.
-- Ryan Romano
Want a good reason why Brandon Crawford might be the best shortstop in 2020? Well, he was the best shortstop in baseball this past season, topping everyone at his position with a 4.7 WAR. Crawford is neither elite on offense nor defense, but he is above average at both, and that combination makes an elite player. His offensive numbers don't jump out at you until you realize that he posted them while calling AT&T Park his home for 81 games. His sub-.800 OPS still represented a 117 wRC+, which is both a career high for Crawford and a very good mark for any shortstop. He made substantial gains on offense this season, upping his ISO to over .200 while simultaneously lowering his K rate. In comparison to previous seasons, Crawford's HR/FB% was incredibly high, so some of his power should regress to the mean. However, on the flip side, he posted a career-high Hard-hit percentage, and increased his groundballs, which should lead to a higher BABIP. Crawford's BABIP actually dipped below the .300 mark in 2015 and should see an improvement if Crawford maintains his current approach.
There are no questions about Crawford's defense. He has posted a positive UZR and Defensive Runs Saved every year he's been in the big leagues, and there shouldn't be a question that Crawford will still be manning shortstop in 2020. If Crawford's offense returns to his pre-2015 days, the Giants should have a nice player on their hands. However, if Crawford maintains or improves on his 2015 offense gains, then Crawford should have little trouble repeating on his 2015 WAR crown in 2020.
-- Austin Yamada
Despite all the gushing about Dansby Swanson above, Rodgers was pretty unanimously considered the best prospect in the 2015 draft. Draft pick security and proximity to the Majors are a thing, and that tends to penalize high schoolers in comparison to collegiate players in the draft. However, proximity to the Majors has nothing to do with upside, and Rodgers may have more than the two shortstops selected ahead of him. Rodgers will be just 23 in 2020, but it isn't unreasonable to envision Rodgers in the Majors by then, having already established himself in the previous one or two seasons.
Coming into the draft, Rodgers' bat was so special that it elicited some Troy Tulowitzki comps, even before Rodgers was ever selected by the Rockies. The bat is potentially so good that Rodgers remains a premium prospect despite questions of possibly moving off of shortstop. That can be seen as a negative, but it also shows just how electric his offense can be, and how high his upside could be should he remain at shortstop and prove himself as a reliable defender. Out of all the players on this list, Rodgers probably has the lowest expected value in terms of future MLB production. There is a flip side to this -- because he is the furthest away from the Majors and least sure thing here, the sky is the limit for this kid. He is the youngest candidate on this list and has plenty of time to develop multiple aspects of his already promising game, meaning any lofty prediction of Rodgers five years from now can't be dismissed as unrealistic or unattainable.
-- Austin Yamada
Honorable Mentions: Troy Tulowitzki, Andrelton Simmons, Dee Gordon, Ian Desmond, Javy Baez, Trea Turner, Tim Anderson, Alex Bregman, Ketel Marte