Let’s Watch Some Shortstop Prospects Play Defense

Lauren Roberts/Salisbury Daily Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

With Instructional League underway in Arizona (casts look of disappointment toward Florida) and Fall League rosters likely about two weeks out, the time has come to line the coffers with data and re-worked scouting reports in preparation for another round of farm system audits. Especially at the up-the-middle positions, defense is both very important and also a bit of a black box for readers, as there aren’t many publicly available minor league defensive stats and so much of evaluating defense is visual. I’ve recently been working on a video deep dive on the position players currently graded as 50 FV prospects or better, specifically to evaluate their defense in detail. Here I’ve taken a pass at the shortstops, providing video supplements for the prospects who I’ve evaluated in the 55 FV tier and above. I’ve made changes to their defense and arm tool grades over on The Board as a result of this exercise, and highlight the instances where this has caused a change to the player’s overall FV grade in the analysis below.

I’ve cut the videos in such a way that you can see each shortstop making similar plays one right after another. The videos feature plays to their left where I want to see them flip their hips and throw, plays that show the extreme end of their range, backhand plays in the hole to their right, plays coming in on the grass, and double play attempts. The fewest balls in play I watched for an individual player was 36 (Colson Montgomery and Dyan Jorge) and the most was closer to 70 (Jackson Holliday, Carson Williams and Marcelo Mayer).

Jackson Holliday, Baltimore Orioles
Holliday isn’t currently a big league-quality shortstop defender, but he’s talented enough to project as a suitable one within the next couple of years. He’s most comfortable throwing on the move from right to left, and he often goes out of his way to do so even when it isn’t called for. His ability to make accurate throws from odd platforms is impressive, as are Holliday’s poise and internal clock. But his hands are not always sound, and Holliday lets a lot of choppers take an unnecessarily high hop, with the direction of that hop sometimes surprising him. He needs to do a better job of staying low and attacking this type of groundball closer to the ground, especially when he’s moving toward the hole to his right. He also tends to take an extra step or two to gather himself before throwing, which the speed of major league play might not allow for. Again, I think Holliday will eventually be fine, but right now his bat is pretty comfortably ahead of his defense.

Jackson Merrill, San Diego Padres
The key detail here is that Merrill has begun to play positions besides shortstop over the last few weeks. He’s played a game or two each at first and second base, and a couple in left field after having only played shortstop for his entire career. While his performance at short can provide a reasonable facsimile for what Merrill should be able to do at second base, it’s not yet possible to evaluate him as an outfielder (he has only had one remotely catchable fly ball hit to him so far) and it’s still too early to have a coherent opinion about his defense at first base (though his footwork there so far has been predictably rough).

In a vacuum, Merrill will likely be a shortstop fit despite below-average hands because of his feel and instincts for the position, as well as his max-effort arm strength. His feeds to second base when starting double plays and his exchange around the bag when he’s the pivot man need to be faster. Xander Bogaerts and Ha-Seong Kim are both better defenders than Merrill, which is probably why you’re starting to see him move around the diamond. If the Padres think he can outhit Jake Cronenworth, he may just usurp him in a similar role.

Marcelo Mayer, Boston Red Sox
Mayer has been out since August 2 with soreness in his non-throwing shoulder. Portland manager Chad Epperson told The Athletic two weeks ago that Mayer was seven to 10 days from a return, but that has proven to be optimistic. The tape he put down prior to the injury is encouraging, though. I had Mayer evaluated as less likely to stick at shortstop than many of the others analyzed here, but while he still has some issues, his actions should enable him to do so. His hands are fantastically quick and skillful, and this is most evident on double play attempts when he’s either starting things or acting as the pivot man. Mayer is also a much more natural low-to-the-ground athlete than either Holliday or Merrill, and he looks much more comfortable backhanding balls in the hole, though he doesn’t always have the arm to finish that play and his range is a shade below average.

Brooks Lee, Minnesota Twins
Lee makes a lot of spectacular plays because of his savant-like feel and acrobatic flair, much more than via raw physical ability. He is, however, the best bender of the shortstops analyzed so far, getting deep into his legs on that key, telling backhand play that the others struggle with. Lee is so good at making this play in part because of his ability to bend (look at the angle of his hamstring relative to the ground compared to the others) and in part because his transfer occurs while he exits this position. During the last month he has been uncharacteristically mistake-prone on some gimme grounders, but I don’t expect that will be a long-term issue. Given his thicker build and injury history, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lee’s ability to play shortstop peters out during his initial years of team control, earlier than the younger guys also analyzed in this article. But among the all-around impact players near the top of this list, Lee and Jordan Lawlar are clearly the most major league-ready defenders at this time.

Jordan Lawlar, Arizona Diamondbacks
Lawlar’s range is only fair, but now that his throwing stroke has been smoothed out, he’s otherwise a complete and excellent shortstop defender with plus-plus actions. He sometimes goes into a pop-up slide rather than bend like most other shortstops would to field certain grounders to either side of him, but his ability to exit that slide in position to make a strong, accurate throw is incredible and highly entertaining. Lots of shortstops tend to charge slow rollers in on the grass and scoop the ball on the run, but Lawlar has never looked comfortable making this play and he seems to have made an adjustment, as it’s hard to find him doing it on tape. Instead, he tends to wait on the baseball, and rely on the quickness of his actions and his arm strength. It’s working so far. He and incumbent Diamondbacks shortstop Geraldo Perdomo are both very good defenders, but Perdomo has lots of experience at other positions, making him a more natural fit to move around in a superutility capacity when Arizona thinks Lawlar is ready. I’ve elevated Lawlar’s defensive evaluation. That, combined with the way his strikeout rates have stabilized, caused me to move him into the 60 FV tier ahead of some inferior middle infield defenders.

Carson Williams, Tampa Bay Rays
Williams is the most sensational and talented defender here, consistently making big league-caliber plays while sprinkling in an absurd number of web gems for a guy who is barely 20 and has only been focusing on being a position player for a couple of years. Aside from the occasional short-hop throw to first base (which is more about Williams’ feel for release than it is a lack of arm strength), Carson is a complete defender who checks every scouting box emphatically. He moves the baseball around the infield with pace and precision while making most aspects of defense look absurdly easy. He has premium athletic ability, a plus-plus exchange, and the arm to be an upper-echelon defender at the position. Again, Williams turned 20 at the end of June. I’m still worried about his hit tool, but the impact of his shortstop defense is going to enable him to play a key role. He could produce similar to the way Willy Adames has, and I’ve juiced his FV into the 55 FV tier as a result of this exercise.

Other Shortstops Analyzed
White Sox prospect Colson Montgomery is a pretty firm and clear “no” at shortstop, though I suppose you could argue he looks the way he does because he spent most of 2023 on the shelf with oblique and back issues, which may still be impacting his mobility. Most of what Montgomery is doing on defense happens too slowly, and runners end up safe on otherwise routine plays. His hands and range are both comfortably below average, and 21-year-olds this size rarely stick at short. He’s obviously a great prospect because of his bat, but the notion that Montgomery is the second coming of Corey Seager in all respects is false.

Guardians rookie Brayan Rocchio now looks fine at short after experiencing the yips in Venezuela over the winter. His high-stress throws on do-or-die attempts in on the grass often require a little bit of help from the first baseman, which, with Kole Calhoun being asked to learn the position on the fly at the big league level, made for some ugly baseball when Rocchio was up in August. His lightning-quick exchange and ability to make spinning throws on balls hit back up the middle are the highlights of an otherwise average collection of skills at the position. He should stabilize the shortstop position next year once Cleveland is soundly convinced Gabriel Arias can’t hit.

You no doubt know about Masyn Winn’s all-world arm strength. That 80-grade tool makes up for what can sometimes be a slow approach to groundballs, which would otherwise cause the baseball to arrive late. Winn’s frequent need to rush his throws has often caused first basemen to have to come off the bag, but this shouldn’t be a long-term issue. His range and athleticism are both plus, while his hands and actions are closer to average. He probably isn’t a future Gold Glover, but Winn is pretty comfortably the best shortstop defender in the Cardinals org and I consider it more likely that Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan rotate around mostly non-shortstop positions next year now that Masyn is in place.

The Blue Jays Addison Barger returned from elbow inflammation in June and began to see more and more time in right field in mid-July. Since the beginning of August, he’s been playing mostly right field while getting a start somewhere on the infield about once a week. He was evaluated as a 40-grade shortstop defender during the offseason and that still holds, as Barger’s feet and hands are lacking but his arm is a fit basically anywhere on the infield. He’s capable of playing shortstop but isn’t very good, and with Bo Bichette entrenched as the team’s everyday option, it’s much more likely that Barger plays a left-handed role that complements Santiago Espinal and an aging George Springer for the next several years. Barger might already be better than Cavan Biggio is in that role right now and could merit down-the-stretch consideration, but the Jays promoting Mason McCoy and Ernie Clement rather than Barger (or Orelvis Martinez) in light of recent injuries to Bichette and Matt Chapman kind of signals what Toronto thinks of those guys on defense. Because he’s essentially slipping down the defensive spectrum, I’ve slid Barger into the 45 FV tier as more of an integral role player rather than a true everyday guy.

I’ve dialed down the grades on Orioles infield prospect Joey Ortiz’s defense and arm by a full standard deviation. His diminutive size makes him especially agile, but he lacks any other exceptional defensive attributes. I haven’t altered Ortiz’s FV grade, however, because he is still making a ton of contact and hitting the ball hard, with a 46% hard-hit rate at Norfolk. Here is how some of Ortiz’s more granular offensive attributes stack up against the average of the top 30 big league second baseman from 2022 (i.e. about how he’d have to perform to be a 50-grade player at second). It feels okay to 50 him even though second base is now in the picture more than before.

Joey Ortiz Offense vs. Major League Second Basemen
Player Z-Contact% Chase% Hard Hit%
Joey Ortiz 89% 33% 46%
AVG of Top 30 MLB 2B 88% 32% 35%

At best, high-ceiling Rockies prospect Dyan Jorge is currently a work-in-progress at shortstop, where he remains prone to misplays. His hands are comfortably below average and his throwing stroke is a bit non-traditional. I had him speculatively projected to center field as an amateur and am back on that train after a brief departure based on my extended spring training looks. Marlins prospect, and fellow Cuban, Yiddi Cappe is in a similar spot. Cappe has seen more time at shortstop since Kahlil Watson was traded away but is still mostly playing second base, where his arm is a cleaner fit. He’s slow to corral balls at shortstop and ends up writing slow-developing checks that his arm can’t cash. Both of these guys deserve a little more time to air out developmentally because they both waited an extra year to sign, but they’re both still much more about long-term athletic projection than present defensive skill.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 months ago

The Padres doing what they do best: Moving shortstops down the defensive spectrum.

8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They have to trade him right? Playing Merrill at 1B seems insane and LF is blocked for a couple of years.

8 months ago
Reply to  whaiii

The other day on the “will the Mets trade Alonso” article, I said the Padres were the most likely team to make this move because they’re most likely to team to make any move. But even then, and even if you think that the reports on Merrill’s hit tool have been exaggerated (like I do), it’s hard to imagine them trading Merrill for Alonso. They’re much more likely to offer Dillon Head, Jairo Iriarte, and Samuel Zavala than their blue chip prospects (and it could take all three, or more).

Of course the real Padres move would be for them to trade for Willy Adames and shift him to first base instead. Because, why not.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
8 months ago
Reply to  whaiii

I mean…CF is pretty ripe for the taking.

I know folks like to pretend otherwise, but Grisham isn’t good and never has been good.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
8 months ago
Reply to  whaiii

He’s a 4th OF on a contender.

8 months ago

I agree CF is open. But if the Padres thought he could handle it, he’d already be getting reps out there in the minors. It’s telling that they jumped him straight to 1B.