The teams in the mix for the star shortstops

November 19th, 2022

We know what’s readily available in the free-agent shopping market this winter, and that’s shortstops. There are four star-level ones out there this year, in whatever order you choose to rank them: Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner.

What’s not quite as clear, though, is how many teams might be in the market for one of those big-ticket shortstops. Five? Ten? Twenty? If so, which ones? It’s a big deal for these players, because it’s all a big game of musical chairs. If you’re, say, Brandon Nimmo, and you’re the only big-name center fielder available, you have your choice of options. If you’re a shortstop, you not only have to find the right home, but also to beat out the other three stars.

Assuming you aren’t going to convince any of these four to move off of shortstop, then there’s really two kinds of teams who might be interested.

  1. Teams who need a shortstop. Obviously.
  2. Teams who have a shortstop that could be moved elsewhere if you got one of these stars.

OK, so: Who are those teams?

The obvious answer is “the four teams who might lose one of the four stars,” and that’s certainly true. Last year, five star middle infielders made it to free agency in Trevor Story, Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Javier Báez, and each of them left their previous homes for new clubs. It’s possible that one of the four teams could swap out one star for another, but this is not simply going to be a four-way swap of these players and their former teams. More than one of them will end up in new places entirely.

So, setting aside the Red Sox, Twins, Braves and Dodgers … who are the teams most likely to be interested?

To level-set, we can start by looking at what they have in the middle infield, in terms of 2023 projected WAR.

If we exclude the teams who seem pretty well set up the middle already (we’ll call this group the Rays, Rangers, Padres, Mets, Guardians, Astros and Blue Jays), and the teams who for various competitive or financial reasons just don’t seem likely to be involved in this quartet (let’s say the Reds, Royals, Nationals, D-backs, A’s, Rockies, Pirates and Brewers) and the four quite obvious teams who might need to replace a departing superstar shortstop (Red Sox, Twins, Braves and Dodgers) we’re left with 11 additional possible interested suitors -- which, with our original four, comprises half the sport.

Let’s order them, from lowest 2023 projected middle-infield WAR to most.

1) Tigers (4.1 WAR)

Eleven months ago, the Tigers gave Báez a six-year, $140 million contract to be their shortstop, but he struggled on both sides of the ball, posting a mere 93 OPS+ with unimpressive defensive metrics. Meanwhile, Detroit lost 96 games and turned over their front office, hiring Scott Harris to be their GM. Báez isn’t going anywhere, obviously, but his ability to play second base does open the door for Harris to work on fixing one of the least impactful offenses in team history.

That said, as intriguing as it would be to see Correa reunited with his former Houston manager, A.J. Hinch, it doesn’t seem like a second consecutive big-ticket shortstop is in Detroit’s immediate plans.

2) Angels (4.2 WAR)

The Angels are in a weird spot, with the likely ownership change and the endless will-they/won’t-they with Shohei Ohtani, but they’ve already made a nice add to their rotation in Tyler Anderson, and the truth is that their lineup was a bigger issue than their pitching last year; only five teams scored fewer runs. Only the Tigers had weaker middle infield defense in 2022, and it seems hard to give David Fletcher another starting job after a .622 OPS the last two seasons.

For a team desperate to contend in what might be their last season with Ohtani and Mike Trout together, there is almost no better fit than one of the four star shortstops. Whether or not the ownership transition allows for such a contract is another question entirely.

3) White Sox (5 WAR)

We list them here because they’re a contender with a weak middle infield, but they also don’t seem like a terribly good fit. While Tim Anderson had yet another injury-shortened season – this time, it was groin and finger injuries, after various ankle and hamstring problems over the years – and he’s played 150 games just once, he’s not likely to shift to second, and neither are any of the Big Four. In addition, trades sound more likely than large free-agent contracts.

4) Phillies (5.3 WAR)

The defending National League champs had Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius as their Opening Day middle infield in 2022, but Segura’s option was declined and Gregorius was released in August. Maybe Bryson Stott mans one position or the other, but it’s clear that either their 2023 shortstop or second baseman – or both – is not currently in the organization. This is basically a similar baseball fit as the Angels have, except the Phillies have no such ownership or financial questions. Put it this way – if the Phillies don’t land one of the four, and the favorite right now seems to be Turner – it will be a surprising outcome.

5) Orioles (5.5 WAR)

After years in the wilderness, Baltimore finally turned the corner in 2022, and the future is now, and GM Mike Elias has made it clear the time has come to make some moves. The question, though, is where those moves should come. A team on the rise is perfectly situated to add a long-term superstar in the most important position on the field, and there’s plenty of Houston ties between Elias and Correa. On the other hand, the Orioles need starting pitching more than anything else, and Jorge Mateo’s great glove is a more than adequate placeholder for prospects Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg. There might not be a wrong answer here, but they might spend in other positions.

6) Mariners (5.8 WAR)

Seattle already made an impact hitting addition in the trade for Teoscar Hernández, and it’s clear they aren’t done; earlier this month, GM Jerry Dipoto indicated a middle-infield upgrade was a must. Now, at the same time, he also said that incumbent J.P. Crawford would be their shortstop, though we don’t fully believe that’s set in stone, since he’s been a league-average bat the last two seasons, and defensive metrics viewed him as a negative in 2022. If still a quality player, he hardly seems like a roadblock to improvement, especially when second base is wide open now that Adam Frazier’s Seattle tenure is over. It might be more likely that a veteran second baseman like Kolten Wong arrives, though.

7) Giants (5.9 WAR)

After a disappointing 81-81 season, the star-free Giants are at something of a turning point, and it’s quite clear they’ll be in on Aaron Judge as well as pretty much every other notable free agent. It’s true that Brandon Crawford is signed for one more year and has never played another position, but it’s also true that he’s turning 36 and had a .652 OPS last year, making it difficult to think they’d pass up on a long-term star for the sake of a 13th Crawford season. On the other hand, a big focus here has to be improving their dreadful 2022 defense, and Crawford’s glove was still a plus. If not the solution, he’s at least not the problem, and there’s no shortage of holes to fill here.

8) Marlins (6.5 WAR)

No, the Marlins usually don’t hand out contracts like this, and to be honest, we don’t really expect them to come away with any of these four. But for all the talk about their excellent young pitching, the time is sort of right now to support them with bats, and there’s a new front office structure as well as a new manager. While they’ll obviously let Jazz Chisholm Jr. grow as the second baseman, 33-year-old clubhouse favorite Miguel Rojas could easily back up all around the infield, rather than be the starting shortstop, should an improvement arrive. Again: This seems unlikely. But trading, say, Pablo López for a bat will not by itself fix this lineup problem.

9) Cubs (6.5 WAR)

If the Cubs want to make a splash to prove they’re moving back towards competitive baseball, one of these shortstops – Correa perhaps the best fit – would certainly do it. Incumbent shortstop Nico Hoerner did a fine job on both sides of the ball, but might fit best at second base, which would free up Christopher Morel to continue playing all over. It would displace Nick Madrigal, who will only be 26 years old next season. Talented though he might be, he’s been repeatedly injured during his short career, and he posted a mere .588 OPS in his first season as a Cub. You don’t give up on the No. 4 overall pick from the 2018 Draft, exactly, but you also don’t let him prevent you from adding a Correa or a Turner, either.

10) Cardinals (7.2 WAR)

St. Louis needs a catcher to replace Yadier Molina, though that might be more likely via trade. They need some pitchers, preferably starters, who can miss bats. They have larger needs, is the point, and they could just run it back with various combinations of Tommy Edman (who can play either middle-infield spot), Brendan Donovan, Paul DeJong and Nolan Gorman. But is that good enough? It wasn’t in 2022.

The flexibility of Edman and Donovan is key here, because they can be shifted around as needed to accommodate imports, and the team has the payroll room to do some things, especially if they cut loose DeJong, due $9 million. Given their other needs and current options, they probably won’t get one of the shortstops, but the case is clearly there.

11) Yankees (7.8 WAR)

It always does seem to come back to the Yankees, doesn’t it?

If they successfully retain Aaron Judge, they probably won’t also spend big on a middle infielder, though they can certainly afford to. But we know the other issue here too, which is that last year they resisted the urge to get a top shortstop, in part because prospects Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe were nearly ready, and now they’re both a year closer. That might be the argument, but it’s not, in our opinion, a reason to shy away from a star. With questions at both third base (Josh Donaldson is 36, coming off a disappointing year) and second base (Gleyber Torres has been fine-not-great, and is nearing free agency) there’s plenty of room for a free-agent stud and the kids to all fit in here.