The St. Louis Cardinals selected Paul DeJong in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. DeJong was taken more for his bat than his defense. According to his alma mater Illinois State, for example, DeJong spent time at “second base, third base, catcher, right field, and as the team’s designated hitter” during his third and final season with the Redbirds. While suggestive of positional flexibility, that’s not the usual path of a defensive wizard. During that same campaign, however, DeJong also slashed .333/.427/.605 in 246 plate appearances. That kind of offensive performance can play at multiple positions.
The Cardinals used DeJong mostly third base after drafting him. He played 62 games at the hot corner in his first pro season and followed that up with 112 more starts at third in 2016 — but also 11 starts at shortstop. After some more work at short in the Arizona Fall League and a couple months in Triple-A, DeJong became the starting shortstop for the actual Cardinals, a contending major-league club. He finished second in balloting for the National League Rookie of the Year.
Minor-league third basemen don’t generally develop into major-league shortstops. If playing first base is incredibly hard, playing an adequate shortstop is nearly impossible. Even so, MLB is a copycat league. If an experiment works once, others will try it. Which brings us to the Cincinnati Reds and top prospect Nick Senzel.
The Reds selected Senzel second overall out the University of Tennessee just 19 months ago. Unlike DeJong, Senzel did play some shortstop in college. In fact, Baseball America discussed his defense in its draft report:
This spring, Senzel has shown significantly improved defense in the infield, shifting to shortstop later in the season from third base. He reacts quickly and shows solid first-step quickness. Senzel has average arm strength and projects to stay in the left side of the infield.
Six months later, Eric Longenhagen hinted at a shift to the middle of the field, though not to shortstop:
Though Senzel doesn’t have the lofty ceiling typically associated with a draft’s No. 2 pick, he’s very likely to hit for high average, yank out 18-plus homers annually and even provide some value on the bases, as he runs well enough that some amateur scouts were intrigued by the idea of trying him at second base.
Senzel ranked 30th among all prospects last year and, after a .321/.391/.514 season with a 164 wRC+ between High-A and Double-A, moved up to seventh on this year’s list. This year’s write-up reads, in part:
He’s an opportunistic power hitter who has shown dramatic improvement at third base over the last two years (he was not good at 3B as a sophomore at Tennessee) and is working to expand his defensive resume to accelerate his timetable to Cincinnati with Eugenio Suarez currently occupying third.
With Suarez’s breakout last season earning him a spot at third, Senzel’s most natural position appears to be blocked. Suarez could probably move to second base, but Jose Peraza might fit better at second than at short, and he will need to hit some to stay in the majors anyway. Leaving Suarez at third and preparing Senzel for shortstop — or, if that fails, second base — potentially creates the most value for the Reds in the present and near future.
I am not the first to draw a comparison between DeJong and Senzel. J.J. Cooper made the same link at Baseball America recently, as well. In his piece, Cooper reminded readers of the rarity of the DeJong swap.
[I]t’s important to note that DeJong appears to be more of an exception to the rule that players don’t typically assume more difficult positions as they age. Still, if any prospect third baseman were to successfully make the switch to shortstop, Senzel is as good a candidate as anybody.
DeJong certainly is an exception. As Carson Cistulli noted a few years ago, most good MLB shortstops don’t even go to college. Consider: of the 22 qualified shortstops from 2017, only six — Tim Anderson, Zack Cozart, Brandon Crawford, Jordy Mercer, Andrelton Simmons and Dansby Swanson — went to college. Of those six, only Cozart went to a four-year school and finished among the top half of shortstops by WAR. (Trea Turner and DeJong each had solid seasons and played college ball, but both had fewer than 500 plate appearances.)
Moves like the one DeJong made and Senzel is attempting to make don’t often occur simply because players who can play shortstop usually start there and then move down the defensive spectrum as their physical skills decline. DeJong’s case is unusual. A promising basketball player at one point, DeJong’s athleticism wasn’t in question, but he lacked a regular defensive role in college to exhibit it. Senzel’s case is also somewhat rare for the degree of improvement he seems to have exhibited at third while at Tennessee.
Unusual or not, it might be worth considering whether a crop of unlikely shortstops is on the way, of third basemen sliding over towards the middle of the field. To be clear, I’m not talking about a Manny Machado-type situation. The Orioles star came up as a shortstop and only moved off the position because J.J. Hardy was a Gold Glover. Alex Bregman’s place in Houston behind Carlos Correa represents a similar case.
No, what DeJong and Senzel’s moves could portend is a legitimate move up the defensive spectrum for certain players. As clubs become more sophisticated with their positioning and as batters attempt to more frequently hit the ball in the air, teams might be willing to use defenders once thought too unskilled to handle shortstop. It might compel clubs to reconsider the virtues of certain players who, for one reason or another, have settled in at a less demanding position.
To get a sense of which other players might be candidates for such a switch, I perused last year’s draft for third basemen who might benefit from a try at shortstop. Not wanting to drift too far from the DeJong/Senzel mode, I looked for college third basemen selected within the first 10 rounds. As shortstops tend to be of a certain height and weight — a point explored in some depth by Eric Longenhagen last September — I looked for players near the six-foot mark and close to 200 pounds. I found four players worth mentioning (and passed their names by Kiley McDaniel and Longenhagen).
- Rylan Bannon — A second baseman in high school and a third baseman at Xavier before the Dodgers selected him in the eighth round, Bannon hit well at the Rookie level last year with 10 homers and a 10% walk rate in 175 plate appearances. He’s a plus defender at third base, and a move to short might help him retain value if his bat regresses against tougher competition.
- Andrew Bechtold –The Twins drafted Bechtold in the fifth round out of Chipola Junior College after two seasons with Maryland. Keith Law called him the steal of the Twins draft, and he might get some work at second base and shortstop after a great start in the Appalachian League. His debut was marked by a 15% walk rate that could carry him up the ladder.
- Jordan Rodgers — A senior sign by the Braves, Rodgers’ sixth-round status might overstate his abilities. He’s not a great prospect by any stretch, but he’s already played second base, shortstop, and third base in his first pro season. Playing an adequate shortstop is likely a necessary skill for Rodgers’ advancement.
- Joe Dunand — The Marlins’ second-round draftee is admittedly a stretch, and our experts didn’t provide a glowing review. Longenhagen doesn’t project him at short but wonders if batted-ball data would let a team get away with a lesser defender at the position. McDaniel said he was long and would require lowered expectations. Dunand did play shortstop in college and probably won’t last there in the pros, but it might be worth a shot.
One other name I’d consider who doesn’t meet any of the criteria above is Ke’Bryan Hayes. The Pirates farmhand, drafted out of high school in 2015, is one of the better prospects in baseball. Longenhagen wrote this in the Pirates prospect list:
He is a plus runner who stole 27 bases in 32 attempts last year and probably the fastest third-base prospect in baseball. He has great lateral range to his left and right, often making plays deep in foul territory behind the bag and in front of waiting shortstops. His plus arm allows him to hose runners from all kinds of odd platforms. He projects as a plus defender at third, and one source with whom I spoke has a future 70 on his glove.
The Pirates intend to try Colin Moran out at third base, and if he sticks, that could block Hayes in Pittsburgh. Given Hayes’ abilities, a go at shortstop could be better for Hayes and the Pirates long-term.
We don’t yet know if Nick Senzel will be successful, let alone any of the other players mentioned above. Even Paul DeJong has been a major-league shortstop for just a few months, and we can’t say for sure that he is going to last at the position, either. Every team is looking for an edge in player development, and turning a third baseman into a shortstop has the potential to provide that edge. This isn’t going to be the next big thing, but it might be the next small one.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.