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Shortstop Central

The American League Central is pretty weak. Of all the teams in the division, only Cleveland has a positive run differential as of today, and that’s by only one run. A number of factors probably contribute to the divisional weakness: lower average budgets than some of the coastal divisions, poor decision making, and perhaps some bad luck. The division, however, is surprisingly strong this season in one area: shortstops. Can any other division compare?

According to the current WAR rankings, the AL Central has three of the six most valuable shortstops so far in 2011. It all starts with Alexei Ramirez, whose combination of a decent bat, good baserunning, and great fielding has enabled him to quietly become perhaps the American League’s best shortstop, as bloggers have noted. But a couple of surprises have really pushed the Central’s shortstops to the fore. UZR may not like Asdrubal Cabrera‘s fielding as much as DRS or the scouts (and I’m not taking a position on which is correct), but even so, his power spike this season has given him excellent offense for a shortstop this season. Even more surprising has been Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta. Originally brought in as a stopgap, his fielding has been better than expected and he’s hitting well enough to show that his 2005 wasn’t a total fluke. The Royals’ Alcides Escobar is no great shakes, but his glove is good enough to make up for his dreadful bat — not bad for the fourth best shortstop in the division. The only team in the Central with a bad shortstop situation is the Twins, where Alexi Casilla couldn’t stick (although he’s been surprisingly decent at second), and Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been awful. But that’s just one team: the Royals have¬†basically have¬†an average shortstop, and the division also has one great shortstop and two that are at least “good.” Generally speaking, are there any other divisions in baseball with overall shortstop talent this strong?

The National League Central is out. Chicago’s Starlin Castro is a good young talent, but he isn’t a superstar (at least not yet). The rest of the division is pretty sad (Yuniesky Betancourt, enough said), although Clint Barmes has been decent for Houston in limited playing time and Ryan Theriot has managed to be bad enough to avoid Tony LaRussa‘s (jealous?) fury. On the other end of the budgetary scale, the American League East is surprisingly weak. Toronto’s Yunel Escobar is right up there with Alexei Ramirez as one of the best overall shortstops in the league (although I’m sure the Jays miss Tim Collins), and J.J. Hardy has had a nice comeback year. Strangely, it is the top teams in the strongest division that are holding the East back. The Rays have a bit of a mess at shortstop, Marco Scutaro has been decent but nothing more for Boston, and Derek Jeter (a bargain at twice the price!) is currently tied with Alcides Escobar at 1.7 WAR.

The American League West has at least one good young shortstop in Elvis Andrus; Erick Aybar is a good player; and Brendan Ryan is showing the “genius” of LaRussa in Seattle. But none are are currently as good as Alexei Ramirez, and neither Aybar nor Ryan are players to over take Cabrera, and maybe not Peralta. We’ll leave poor Cliff Pennington alone in hopes he can recover.

The National League West might be a potential contender. Troy Tulowitzki is currently rated the most valuable shortstop in baseball for 2011, and given his excellence with both the bat and glove, few would dispute that. Is that enough to carry the division? Stephen Drew is a good player who was having a okay year before his surgery, but it was nothing that one would rank over Peralta or Asdrubal Cabrera. Jamie Carroll (we’ll pass over Rafael Furcal in respectful silence) and Jason Bartlett show that maybe average-ish shortstops aren’t as hard to find as some might think, but that’s hardly impressive. The less said about the Giants’ shortstop situation, the better. Tulo may be the best shortstop in baseball by hgimself, but I still think the Central has overall better shortstop talent.

The real contender, I think, is the National League East. There is a lack of balance here: Washington’s Ian Desmond looks like the a poor man’s Alcides Escobar (that isn’t a compliment to Desmond), and Alex Gonzalez has shown that the Braves must have really hated Yunel Escobar’s guts. But there is serious talent on top. Jimmy Rollins is having a really nice comeback season in Philadelphia. Jose Reyes is the real booster for this division, having a current 2011 WAR second only to Tulo so far. Reyes’ hamstring problems are a bit of a concern, but he’s a monster player, no doubt. The real question mark for placing the East is Hanley Ramirez. One one hand, prior to this season, he was one of the best shortstops in baseball, and arguable the best offensive player at his position. On the other hand, he’s had a horrible year at the plate this season, and questions about his ability to stick at shortstop have returned. It makes him tough to evaluate for this sort of thing.

I would rank Tulowitzki as the best overall shortstop in baseball, but the rest of NL West is rather lacking. The NL East has serious top-end talent, but there are too many question marks around Ramirez. It’s a tough call, but in terms of current talent, I would take the American League Centrals shortstops as a group over any other division’s. Hey, the AL Central has to be good at something.