Here's the third installment of my series ranking the NL East teams on a position-by-position basis. Today we'll look at shortstops. Again, the numbers in parenthesis are the previous season's plate appearances and fWAR, and all of the WAR numbers discussed are fWAR.
Fifth Place: Marlins: Adeiny Hechavarria (578/-1.9)
Hechavarria, going into his second major-league year, is really hard to project at this point. He came up with a reputation as an all-glove, no-bat infielder. Sure enough, he logged a wRC+ of only 53 in his rookie season, but... he also made 15 errors in 1297.1 innings at shortstop, and UZR absolutely hated him with a UZR/150 rating of -10.0, hence the alarming fWAR. He also did poorly in baserunning, being caught stealing in 10 of 21 attempts.
Oliver very optimistically projects him to OPS .625 with excellent defense, adding up to 1.7 WAR. None of the other Fangraphs systems (not even the fan oracle) projects him above 1 WAR. In Mike Petriello's power rankings at Fangraphs, he has Hechavarria and backups rated dead last in MLB (even behind the cast of thousands in Detroit), and projects Hechavarria for 0.1 WAR. I'll guess that he will hit about what he did in 2013, with poor BA and OBP but a little bit of power, and that he will play defense closer to his reputation and post a small positive UZR. That's about where ZIPS has him and they project 0.2 WAR. I'll go slightly more positive on the assumption that he becomes a less reckless baserunner and say 0.4 WAR. There's a possibility that Hechavarria will have a breakout season and make us all look like fools.
Fourth Place: Mets: Ruben Tejada (227/-0.4)
It's possible that by Opening Day the Mets will have upgraded at this position, either by signing Stephen Drew or via trade (Didi Gregorious?), but for the time being at least, Tejada is the Mets' shortstop. Justin Turner actually provided more value for the Mets at this position in 2013, but he's five years older; the Mets non-tendered him and he signed with the Dodgers.
Tejada should improve over his 2013 season, in which he suffered numerous injuries including a badly broken leg, limiting him to 499 innings. He's still right on the fringe of having enough career innings for UZR to be meaningful, but what there is of it shows him to be an average-to-slightly-above-average shortstop. When Tejada was in the game last year, he had a horrible year with the bat, slashing .202/.259/.260 with a wRC+ of 48. He'll never hit with any power, but even including last year he has a career OBP of .323, and last year he did actually reduce his strikeout rate, which has been rather high for a slap hitter. The interesting note about Tejada is that he has has one of the highest line drive hitting percentages in the major leagues; even including last year his career LD% is 25.7%. He was very BABIP-unlucky last year (.228) and is almost certain to improve there.
As in the case of Rollins described below, there are some intangibles in play which may negatively effect Tejada. He is not popular with the New York media and there are currently a lot of rumors about the Mets seeking an upgrade, as noted above. But Steamer and ZIPS both project him for hitting numbers around his career averages, good defense, and WARs of 1.1 and 1.3 respctively. (Oliver is considerably more pessimistic.) I'll split the difference and say 1.2 WAR.
Third Place: Phillies: Jimmy Rollins (666/1.6)
Rollins has been an All-Star for a long time in Philadelphia, but at 35 he's starting to show his age. He's still a plus defender despite some loss of range, but last year his power disappeared completely; he hit only 6 home runs and posted a .097 isolated power, both of which are his lowest numbers ever in a full season. He still gets on base, but whereas he could once be used as a #2 or 3 hitter, he now will be confined to the #8 slot unless he can either regain his power or improve his always-indifferent on-base percentage, neither of which appears likely at his age.
All four of the Fangraphs projection systems regard Rollins' low UZR/150 from last year (-2.7, second worst of his career in the UZR era) as a statistical anomaly that will regress upwards. Given the known instability of the defensive metrics, this is a reasonable assumption. Steamer also assumes that his offensive performance will be about the same as last year, which sounds about right. There is a wild-card factor that has appeared in spring training, which is that Rollins has apparently gotten crosswise with new Phillies' manager Ryne Sandberg, and that the team would like to trade him but Rollins has stated absolutely that he will not waive his 10-and-5 rights. I don't know how to factor any of this in, so I'll go with Steamer's projection of 1.9 WAR. But there is potential for it to be a lot lower.
Second Place: Nationals: Ian Desmond (655/5.0)
It's hard to argue that a guy who has posted 9.9 WAR over the past two seasons in't the top shortstop in his division, and if the competition wasn't Andrelton Simmons, I wouldn't even try. Desmond does just about everything: he plays plus defense at the highest-skill defensive position, he gets on base at about a .320 clip, and he's got 15-20 HR power.
However... there are a few cracks in the armor. Desmond's 2012 numbers were helped by a rather inflated .511 slugging percentage, which he was not able to repeat in 2013 (he dropped back to .453, closer to his .432 career average). Subsequently, his 2013 numbers were aided by a rather high .336 BABIP. Now, that's not a whole lot above his career average, but he did post a big spike in his line drive %, which is probably not sustainable. His 2013 WAR was also aided by a unusually high baserunning runs above average, which is subject to random fluctuations.
But I'm not as pessimistic about Desmond as the Fangraphs projections. All but the fan oracle have Desmond projected for under 4 WAR, and Steamer has him at only 2.7 based on an assumption of a big power dropoff. I don't see that; it was 2012 that was anomalous in that department and 2013 was close to his career averages. That line drive spike does concern me, and there's also the fact that Desmond has always struggled with his strikeout rate. But one thing that jumps out at me is that his past two great years (as compared with his 2010-2011 seasons) correlate with a big improvement in his ground ball rate, so evidently he figured out something before the 2012 season. Based on that, I don't see him dropping off very much. I'm going above the Steamer/Oliver/ZIPS numbers and saying 4.5 WAR.
First Place: Braves: Andrelton Simmons (658/4.6)
Here's why Ian Desmond and his 9.9 WAR over the past two seasons doesn't rate first in the division. Desmond is very good, but Andrelton Simmons is the second coming of Ozzie Smith, with the possibility of being a better hitter than Smith was. You want to see Simmons' UZR/150 from last season? 23.9. DRS? +41. Out-of-zone plays made? 111. Those are numbers that make you think there's a typo in the stats, or you're looking at the wrong column. Simmons is so good that the Braves' fans claim they can do without a third baseman, which is why they put Chris Johnson there. (Ahem... more about CJ later.)
It must be said that, as things stand right now, Desmond is a better hitter than Simmons. Andrelton's slash line from 2013: .248/.296/.396, for an OPS of .692 and a wRC+ of 91. However, he has shown signs of developing 15-20 HR power. There's also the fact that Simmons had horrible BABIP luck with a .247, and that he led the majors with an infield fly ball rate of 17.8% – a statistical fluke unlikely to be repeated. He should walk more, but he doesn't strike out much which helps make up for it. The one concern in the Braves' camp is that he will fall in love with his undercut swing, but at least it has reduced his ground ball rate from 55.8% in his rookie year to a more respectable 42.4% last year. To top it off, Simmons is only 24 and should continue to develop as a player.
All of the Fangraphs systems except ZIPS (which is unaccountably pessimistic about Simmons' defense) project Simmons to improve on his 4.6 WAR. Oliver may be a tad over-optimistic about the defense. The fan oracle actually looks about right at 5.2, but I'll go a tad more conservative and say 5.0 WAR.