Monday, February 14, 2011

The thinness of the shortstop market

It has been postulated here that, if the Twins do indeed trade Francisco Liriano in the next few weeks, they need to realize an immediate return, not merely a long-term one.

There are two obvious areas of uncertainty as the Twins head this week to spring training: the bullpen and the middle infield.

It makes little sense to focus on the relief corps in a Liriano trade. As has been stated here repeatedly, relief pitchers are failed starters; it makes far more sense for the Twins to restock their bullpen in the manner being employed. Nor is it logical to trade Liriano for an known relief arm; if it were, it would be just as logical to shift Liriano himself to the bullpen, and he has clearly established a greater value as a starter.

Nor are the Twins currently in need of outfielders, catchers, DHs or corner infielders, at least not to the extent that moving Liriano to address one of those spots is sensible.

No, the logical centerpiece of a Liriano trade must be a shortstop -- a longer term fix, not a J.J. Hardy one-and-done patch. (A shortstop rather than a second baseman because the odds are that Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be a second baseman in the States.)

So I spent some time this weekend browsing the new prospect books looking for major league-ready shortstops with higher ceilings and less risk than Alexi Casilla and Trevor Plouffe. And I found ... nothing.

Well, maybe not the baseball equivalent of 0 degrees Kelvin (absolute zero), but close.

John Sickles lists 11 shortstops (or shortstop-second basemen) in his top 50 position prospects. Only one of them, Dee Gordon of the Dodgers, played above A ball in 2010, and Gordon (a) led his Double A league in errors last season and (b) plays for an organization with five established starters in its major league rotation. Gordon isn't really ready yet, and the Dodgers don't really need Liriano.

The consensus best shortstop prospect in the minors is Manny Machado of the Orioles; he's 19, has all of nine minor league games on his resume, and as a 2010 draftee isn't even eligible to be traded yet.

That, while extreme, is pretty typical of the best shortstop candidates right now. They're young guys in rookie ball or A ball. Many of them will become fine major leaguers. Some will undoubtedly become stars (I think the odds are that Machado will be a better shortstop than Liriano is a starter), some will wash out completely. None of them are prepared to step directly into the major leagues, much less do so for a contender.

I just don't see any obvious trade targets worth giving up Liriano.

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