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Posted: Tuesday December 2, 2008 12:09PM; Updated: Tuesday December 2, 2008 12:09PM
Tom Verducci Tom Verducci >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Shortage of star shortstops a sign of revolution that wasn't

Story Highlights

Lots of teams need shortstops, and plenty are available but none are very good

Orlando Cabrera, David Eckstein and Omar Vizquel are among the so-so options

A look inside the numbers shows why Mike Mussina is Hall of Fame-worthy

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Edgar Renteria
Once a member of baseball's new breed of slugging shortstops, Edgar Renteria is now an unspectacular free agent.
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The big-hitting, big-bodied shortstop "revolution" that Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Edgar Renteria and Miguel Tejada were said to launch in the late '90s and early '00s never amounted to much, the same way the 6-foot-9 point guard "revolution" sprung by Magic Johnson didn't amount to much. Look around baseball right now. It's hard to remember a time when more teams needed a shortstop and more are available, though almost none of them are very good.

The used-shortstop lot includes free agents Orlando Cabrera, David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Rafael Furcal, Cesar Izturis, Edgar Renteria and Omar Vizquel and trade options Khalil Greene, Jack Wilson, Bobby Crosby and Julio Lugo. Outside of Furcal, it's buyer beware. The Orioles, Tigers, Cardinals, Dodgers and Blue Jays need somebody to play the position and six other teams already have made changes.

What happened to baseball's glamour position? Outside of the NL East, where Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins work, the position has declined in star power as A-Rod moved to third, Garciaparra broke down and Jeter, Renteria and Tejada aged. Major league shortstops hit 321 home runs last year, the fewest since baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998, and 102 fewer from the glory days of 2002. Their OPS was .718, matching the lowest such number since 1998. (Insert your one-size-fits-all steroid testing disclaimer here.) Say what you will about Jeter, but he still posted the second-highest OPS+ among AL shortstops last year (105), behind only Jhonny Peralta of Cleveland (108).

The shortage at shortstop, however, may not be as dire as it seems. The surge of A-Rod and company was the anomaly, and that's why today's shortstop market may seem so lacking. Shortstop typically rates with catcher as the two worst hitting spots in the lineup, primarily because there is such a premium on defense at the position. It's an easy spot, for instance, to break in a young player because the manager can say, "Whatever he gives us with the bat is a bonus." That is particularly true again as run prevention has gained importance while run production has declined.

And yes, despite the hype associated with the position, you can win without a star at shortstop. It's nothing like quarterback in the NFL. Check out this list of starting shortstops on the past eight world championship teams:

OPS+ of World Series-champion SS
Team Shortstop OPS+
2008 Phillies Jimmy Rollins 103
2007 Red Sox Julio Lugo 65
2006 Cardinals David Eckstein 81
2005 White Sox Jose Uribe 85
2004 Red Sox Orlando Cabrera 97
2003 Marlins Alex Gonzalez 96
2002 Angels David Eckstein 101
2001 Diamondbacks Tony Womack 64

That's not a very impressive list. What you don't see on that list are older shortstops. None of the past 56 playoff teams and only two of the 112 playoff teams in the wild card era used someone 34 or older as their regular shortstop (Omar Vizquel of the 2001 Indians and Cal Ripken Jr. of the 1996 Orioles). Only one team since 1956 has won a pennant with a 34-or-older shortstop (the 1980 Phillies, with Larry Bowa). Keep that in mind if your team employs Tejada or Jeter, both of whom turn 35 next season, or is interested in Cabrera, 34, Eckstein, who turns 34 in January, Renteria, who turns 34 in August or Vizquel, who turns 42 in April.

Will Moose lodge in Cooperstown?

Some things to keep in mind when weighing the Hall of Fame chances of Mike Mussina:

• He pitched his entire prime in one of the toughest environments ever for pitching: in the American League in the steroid era. He did more than just survive the onslaught of the greatest extended era of slugging. He thrived. From 1994 through 2003, among all pitchers, not just AL pitchers, Mussina won more games and threw more innings than everyone except Greg Maddux.

• He pitched in the same division as the World Series champion eight times. He was 3-8 in 16 games against those eventual champions.

• Mussina finished in the top five in ERA eight times -- more than such greats as Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford and Bob Feller. Of the 34 pitchers to win 270 games, only seven pitchers had more top five ERA finishes than Mussina.

• His "failure" to win 20 games prior to this season needs explanation. He won 16 games in 1994 but lost nine starts to the strike. He won 19 games in 1995 but lost at least one start to the strike. He won 19 games in 1996 but watched Armando Benitez blow his 20th win in his final start by giving up a tying home run with one out in the ninth to Toronto third baseman Ed Sprague -- the same Ed Sprague who hit a career-high 36 home runs that year and later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in his career.

• He finished among the top three winners in his league five times - more than Ford, Gibson, Ryan, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton and just as many as Marichal, Jim Palmer and Tom Glavine.

When you judge Mussina against his peers, he never had the peak of Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. But his durability and elite consistency in a hostile environment makes him worthy of Cooperstown.

 
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