In a division where Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra previously towered over their fellow shortstops in terms of talent, the AL East is now in a more balanced state. There are still a couple shortstops whose recent prodcution exceeds the others, but the gap is no longer as wide. It's a new generation with interestingly only homegrown shortstop in the bunch. So who is the class of the division?
Likely starting shortstop: Jose Reyes
2014: 143 G, .287/.328/.398, 33 2B, 9 HR, 102 wRC+, 3.1 WAR
It's still a little strange to see Reyes not decked out in the familiar Mets orange and blue, but he's been gone from Queens for over three years now. Although it feels like the 12-year veteran has been around forever, he's still only turning 32 in June. When healthy, Reyes remains the top shortstop in the AL East. That's a big qualifier though, as Reyes was limited to 93 games in his first season with the Blue Jays in 2013 due to a nasty ankle sprain. He did rebound in 2014 to miss under 20 games however, and his 160-game stint with the Marlins in 2012 demonstrates that it's still possible for him to keep himself together, even as the number of nicks and bruises on his Baseball Prospectus injury history page escalates.
Reyes is still fast and effective on the bases, as evidenced by his 30 steals in just 32 opportunities last year. He hasn't been a 50+ steal guy for several years now, but it's not like he's Jorge Posada on the bases these days. Like late-career Jeter with more speed, Reyes focuses on picking the right spots for a steal these days. His defense is clearly slipping, but the switch-hitter remains a pest in the batter's box, providing equally annoying headaches for both righties and lefties with steady offensive numbers. If healthy, Reyes should continue being a dangerous presence in the Blue Jays lineup. Manager John Gibbons better hope so, too--it's a big step down to Steve Tolleson if not.
Likely starting shortstop: J.J. Hardy
2014: 141 G, .268/.309/.372, 28 2B, 9 HR, 90 wRC+, 3.4 WAR
Once considered a possible successor for Jeter at shortstop, the O's didn't let Hardy reach free agency, locking him up to a nice three-year, $40 million extension just before the start of last year's ALCS. Even though it only pays him about $12-13 million per year, there have been some red flags to emerge over the past couple years. Back spasms early in 2014 seemed to mysterious sap his power at the plate, as he slipped from 25 homers in 2013 to just nine last year. Overall, he maintained a roughly league-average bat for a shortstop, but a shoulder strain suffered in this year's spring training is already making some O's fans nervous.
Hardy's a superb defender, and his solid approach at the plate still makes him a threat to go deep at any time. Skipper Buck Showalter will just have to hope that these early injuries aren't a sign of what's to come. Backing up Hardy and taking his spot in the Opening Day lineup for now is enigmatic former Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera, who might never be as a good as he was during his All-Star first half in 2013 again. Sure, there's a chance that he recaptures some of that form in the more hitter-friendly Camden Yards and the O's don't miss a beat with Hardy down, but a 65 wRC+ in 2014 will keep him an easy target for doubters. I still like the Hardy extension, but it's not off to a grest start.
Likely starting shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera
2014: 146 G, .241/.307/.387, 31 2B, 14 HR, 97 wRC+, 0.9 WAR
As previously noted in the second base preview, the Rays had initially hoped Nick Franklin would grab the starting job as shortstop. However, since that didn't pan out, signing Cabrera was not a bad backup plan at all. He's not much of a shortstop anymore and second base would have suited him better, but so it goes.
Like Reyes, it feels like Cabrera has been around the majors a lot longer than he has been, as he will be 29 for the duration of the 2015 campaign. The two-time All-Star might not approach his 25-homer 2011 campaign numbers again, but with 49 extra-base hits in 2014 with the Indians and Nationals, the switch-hitter is far from a give-up at bat. For just one year and $7.5 million, the Rays did a nice job finding a relatively healthy one-year stopgap who should capably fill in a lineup spot.
Likely starting shortstop: Xander Bogaerts
2014: 144 G, .240/.297/.362, 28 2B, 12 HR, 82 wRC+, 0.2 WAR
After bursting onto the scene as a newcomer in 2013 with an .893 postseason OPS, Bogaerts was a favorite to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors last year in his first full season. That goal never really came close to materializing though, as for the first time in his young professional career, the to prospect really struggled at the plate. Of course, the other side of the coin is that Bogaerts was only 21 in 2013. For someone that young to still post an 82 wRC+ at the big league level, that requires talent.
Boston fans were also quick to point out that up until the Red Sox signed Stephen Drew, Bogaerts was hitting a superb .296/.389/.427 through the season's first two months. Drew's arrival necessitated a shift to third base, and Bogaerts's production sharply dipped after that. While he was able to cover the position short-term during the playoffs in 2013, it was a different matter handling it for the majority of a season after basically only playing shortstop during his minor league career. It's possible to reason that Bogaerts's focus on handling the challenge of the position led to less time that he could have spent working on his hitting approach. Only Bogaerts knows for sure, but either way, he hit a meager .206/.240/.324 from June onward. With fewer distractions, the Red Sox are banking on a rebound. Can Bogaerts deliver?
Likely starting shortstop: Didi Gregorius
2014: 80 G, .226/.290/.363, 9 2B, 6 HR, 76 wRC+, 1.1 WAR
With the Curacao-born Bogaerts in Boston and Netherlands native Didi Gregorius in the Bronx, the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry will have a decidedly more Dutch feel. Since Didi just turned 25 in February, both teams are hoping that it stays that way for quite awhile. Previously a popular name to link to the Yankees as a possible Jeter successor, Gregorius became available after a shaky 2014 season with the Diamondbacks that saw him lose his starting shortstop role to fellow infield prospect Chris Owings. The Yankees bought low on Didi while selling high on Shane Greene in a three-team December trade, and now they have a defensive wizard at shortstop for the first time in quite awhile.
Didi's defense will be a breath of fresh air after years of "pasta diving Jeters," but the Yankees need Gregorius to fare better at bat than the 76 wRC+ he posted in 2014. He did produce a 92 wRC+ in his rookie 2013 campaign, a league-average figure which I'm sure the Yankees would sign up for in a heartbeat. He hadn't had a BABIP as low as his .257 in 2014 since his Rookie ball days, so it stands to reason that a rebound is inevitable, though the wrist sprain he suffered the other day was a little scary. Nonetheless, Yankees fans will still be crossing their fingers when he comes up to hit. Hopefully, Didi can lay such fears to rest with a solid Bronx debut.