The game's future looks bright at shortstop
Some of baseball's top five-tool prospects under 21 star at the position
How did he do that? I've heard that question over and over.
Soft and sure hands, great range, quick feet, a strong and accurate throwing arm, amazing balance, rhythm, eye-hand coordination, agility, instincts -- it calculates to exceptional, uncompromised athletic ability. Not to mention an ability to hit for average and for power.
Those are the components the very best shortstops have in common.
We are living in an era of world-class shortstop play. The past has been prologue to the present. We have always had amazing shortstops capable of magical moments on the field and at the plate.
The plays made by and the hitting prowess of post-1950 All-Star shortstops like Luke Appling, Luis Aparicio, Ernie Banks, Lou Boudreau, Barry Larkin, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Cal Ripken, Jr., Ozzie Smith and Robin Yount changed the outcomes of games.
Players like Omar Vizquel, Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins, just to name a few, may join those fabulous athletes in the Hall of Fame. There are countless other acrobatic or outstanding offensive shortstops who have graced the game with their eye-popping abilities. They are too numerous to name.
As great as shortstops of the past have been, the future may be even more exciting. For example, we are seeing magical plays being made by the Braves' Andrelton Simmons, the D-backs' Didi Gregorius and the Marlins' Adeiny Hechavarria. Brewers All-Star shortstop Jean Segura is a force on both offense and defense. Jose Iglesias will help the Tigers' pitchers tremendously at a time of need with his skillful defense. Troy Tulowitzki beats the opposition with his bat and his glove. And there are more. Many more.
The next wave is on the horizon. They are in the Pipeline.
There is a group of shortstops under the age of 21 that may be equal to or better than any collective group of shortstops in history.
Francisco Lindor, 19, Cleveland Indians
Ranked as the No. 1 shortstop and No. 5 overall prospect in MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, Lindor graduated from Montverde High School in Florida after his family moved from Puerto Rico. A first-round selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, he has skyrocketed through the Indians' farm system. In his third Minor League season, Lindor is already playing at Double-A Akron at age 19.
Lindor is the Indians' shortstop of the future -- and the future may be sooner than expected for a player his age. He is hitting .289 with a home run and seven RBIs in his 21 games played for the Eastern League team. Lindor has struck out only seven times in 76 at-bats. He has already stolen five bases while being caught stealing twice at Akron.
Lindor has more growth to anticipate from his current 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, and his power continues to emerge. He will become a special player with both offensive and defensive talent that results in five very special tools.
Xander Bogaerts, 20, Boston Red Sox
Ranked as the No. 2 shortstop and No. 6 overall prospect, Bogaerts was signed as an international free agent from Oranjestad, Aruba. He is a major physical presence at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, and he can pound the ball and has very good defensive ability.
While most of Bogaerts' professional experience has been at shortstop, it is not outside the realm of possibility that his future will be at third base. He has played eight games at third base this season, and he's such a good athlete that he can offer his team the flexibility to play him at third, or even in the outfield.
Bogaerts is currently playing at Triple-A Pawtucket. However, he may not be there long. Bogaerts is hitting a very solid .298 with nine homers and 32 RBIs. His bat is extremely well suited for the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
Carlos Correa, 18, Houston Astros
Ranked as the No. 3 shortstop and No. 8 overall prospect, Correa is a very large physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. When I saw him at the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field, I marveled at his size, quick feet, strong body and overall ability to hit the ball with exceptional power. Correa had a thunderous batting practice that really caught my attention.
The first overall selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, I think Correa will ultimately be too big to play shortstop. He projects more as a third baseman in my opinion.
Correa is hitting .327 with eight home runs and 70 RBIs for Class A Quad Cities in the Midwest League. And that has come over 446 plate appearances -- a very good sample size.
Correa has a combination of power and speed that may tip his future as an offense-first player. Actually, there is no telling how good he will become, as he's just scratched the surface of his ability.
Javier Baez, 20, Cubs
Ranked as the No. 4 shortstop and No. 10 overall prospect, Baez has amazing power. He hit some of the longest home runs I have witnessed in the Arizona Fall League.
A first-round selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Baez started this year at Class A Advanced Daytona and was promoted to Double-A Tennessee in the Southern League. He has a combined total of 504 plate appearances this season, 167 of those coming at Tennessee. Baez has hit .288 with 13 home runs in 38 games at Double-A. Combined, he has hit 30 long balls with 90 RBIs already this season.
Baez is a true power hitter. He has struck out 126 times and walked on 35 occasions.
At 6 feet, 195 pounds, it is conceivable that Baez could still add even more muscle to his frame, and he may eventually outgrow shortstop. For now, however, that's his position in the Cubs' development program.
Addison Russell, 19, A's
Ranked as the No. 5 shortstop and No. 20 overall prospect, there is little doubt Russell is the shortstop of the future in Oakland. As the 11th overall selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Russell came to professional baseball directly from Pace High School in Pensacola, Fla.
Russell has played the entire season at Class A Advanced Stockton, a high classification for someone so young. He flew through his first pro season while playing at the three lowest Athletics classifications, hitting a combined .369 in 244 plate appearances.
This season, Russell already has 15 homers and 55 RBIs at Stockton. He has lightning-quick hands and wrists, along with strong forearms. While a bit aggressive at the plate, the ball makes that special sound off the barrel of Russell's bat, and he's a premier power-hitting prospect.
Alen Hanson, 20, Pirates
Ranked as the No. 6 shortstop and No. 43 prospect overall, Hanson signed with Pittsburgh as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic. His first professional season was 2010, when he hit .324 and stole 20 bases in the Dominican Summer League.
Hanson is currently playing for his second team this season in the Pirates organization. He began the year at Class A Advanced Bradenton and was promoted to Double-A Altoona in the Eastern League. Hanson has a combined batting average of .270 this season in 108 games.
A good contact hitter, Hanson has a combination of speed and power. At 5-foot-11 and only 152 pounds, he will only get better as he fills out with more strength coming from muscle development.
And there are even more. Adalberto Mondesi (Royals, No. 8), Corey Seager (Dodgers, No. 9) and Luis Sardinas (Rangers, No. 10) are all under 20 and ranked in the Top 10 among shortstop prospects.
The game of baseball is changing quickly. Middle infielders are expected to hit as well as play outstanding defense. Everyone on the roster is needed to manufacture runs and save runs from being scored.
The game is shifting in emphasis from power and run production to pitching, doing what is necessary to score runs and playing solid defense. Limiting a team to three outs is more crucial now than ever.
The class of shortstop prospects under 21 years old has the ability to join recent prospect graduates like Simmons, Gregorius, Segura, Hechavarria, Iglesias and the Rangers' Jurickson Profar as great defensive wizards with emerging bats to help their clubs win games with outstanding tools at the premium position of shortstop.
Each has the amazing array of tools and skills that make their teammates, fans, scouts and everyone watching baseball sit up in their seat and wonder, "How did he do that?"
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.