In my main league, I picked up rookie Colorado infielder Josh Rutledge about six weeks ago off the waiver wire. This is hardly because I had any sort of prescient idea that Rutledge would suddenly become a red-hot hitter who would help propel me into the playoffs; mainly, it was because previous flavor-of-the-week Trevor Plouffe was hurting, and the guy who was at least likely to get a shot at shortstop playing time with Troy Tulowitzki injured and Marco Scutaro traded seemed like a better option than the Nick Puntos and Brandon Crawfords of the world. 46 games later, Rutledge’s teammates are calling him “Baby Giambi” and his .399 wOBA (headed into play on Thursday) would be good for fifth-best in baseball if he could keep that rate up over enough plate appearances to qualify.
Bright red “small sample size” alarms are justifiably ringing there, and it’s of course far from realistic to expect that kind of production from Rutledge over a full season. Still, even having this kind of conversation regarding offensive output from a middle infielder is impressive, and it’s worth looking into the 23-year-old Alabama product as fantasy playoffs loom this season and 2013 keeper decisions start to get made. While Rutledge has been exclusively a shortstop in his time in the bigs, he moved across the bag to make his first start at second base on Thursday, which is where he’ll remain now that Tulowitzki is nearly healthy.
Despite good numbers (in an admittedly hitter-friendly league) in A-ball in 2011, Rutledge came into the year as a relatively unheralded prospect, ranking 11th on Marc Hulet’s preseason Rockies list in some part due to questions about whether he could remain at shortstop. That meant that most projection services hadn’t included him, and so last month, less than 100 plate appearances into an impressive start, Mike Podhorzer took a crack at projecting a Rutledge season:
Below is my final projected batting line:
Over a full season, this projected stat line at shortstop would earn about $17 in a standard 12-team mixed league according to my valuation method. Amazingly, that would have ranked him fifth among all shortstops in my pre-season projections, just behind Starlin Castro.
In the month since Mike attempted to project Rutledge, the rookie has played in 25 additional games (again, headed into Thursday), despite spending a week as a pinch-hitter due to a strained quad. If he hasn’t been quite as fantastic as he was in his first month, he hasn’t been that far off, hitting .329/.345/.500 (.845) since that August 6 story. He’s actually not showing much of a home/road and GB/LD/FB rates are similar, overall, to what Mike suggested above, and so I would expect that if the projection was run again now, it wouldn’t be all that different – and that makes for an incredibly valuable middle infielder.
Now, let’s just take a moment here to acknowledge the sizable risk here. After just 173 plate appearances, small samples warnings are clear, and a 2.3% walk rate is troubling, to say the least; as expected, he probably doesn’t have the glove needed to stick at shortstop. On the other hand, he’s likely to have dual 2B/SS eligibility next year, and now has a career .329 batting average over his professional career. The bar is set so low at those positions from a fantasy perspective that finding any new source of offense is potentially very valuable. Overall, MLB second basemen have a .304 wOBA, a number which is just .298 at shortstop. That’s not only poor, it’s about one hundred points below what Rutledge has done so far.
So the question becomes: can Rutledge, with a good (if brief) offensive track record in the pros and the benefit of Colorado, manage to hit at least the averages at those two positions if playing every day? I think so, and with the potential for above-average power for the positions. Colorado certainly seems intrigued by the possibility of finding out, because unless you’re DJ LeMahieu’s mom or the world’s biggest fan of Chris Nelson, there’s little reason not to see what he can do on an everyday basis. In a world where middle infield offense is difficult to come by, he’s an interesting newcomer to the scene and someone well worth watching for the rest of the year.