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Reality Check: Shortstops the focus of debate

Senior Fantasy Writer
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I predict that one of the most debated topics heading into 2013 will be how to approach the shortstop position.

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It's still weak, but it's weak in a different way than it used to be. Before, you knew that if you missed out on the handful of elite players in the first couple rounds -- Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes, in recent years -- you might as well just wait until the last couple rounds to fill the position because nothing in between was especially appealing. Now, though, players like Ian Desmond, Starlin Castro and Asdrubal Cabrera have progressed enough to form a legitimate -- and deep, believe it or not -- second tier.

And enough has gone wrong for Tulowitzki, Ramirez and Reyes that they're practically second-tier players themselves.

So basically, shortstop went from having a small first tier and a nonexistent second tier to having a nonexistant first tier and an enormous second tier. Or, to put it another way, while most every other position looks like this ...

First tier: Check.
Second tier: Check.
Third tier: Check.

Shortstop went from looking like this ...

First tier: Check.
Second tier: (Tumbleweeds)
Third tier: Check.

To this ...

First tier: (Tumbleweeds)
Second tier: PAAAAARTAAAAAY!
Third tier: Check.

It's not quite that black and white, of course. With all the different sub tiers, I'm sure we'll find a way to differentiate between Reyes and Desmond. But as we continue the position-by-position look ahead to next year's rankings, the fact of the matter is the standouts at the position no longer stand out like they used to, and the fallback options no longer feel like last resorts.

Top 10 shortstops for 2013:
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
2. Jose Reyes, SS, Marlins
3. Hanley Ramirez, 3B/SS, Dodgers
4. Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays
5. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies
6. Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals
7. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
8. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians
9. Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers
10. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees

The question isn't whether Tulowitzki is still the top shortstop in Fantasy. The question is whether he still deserves to go in the first round. He's the only shortstop-eligible player worth considering at that point because he's the only one who puts up numbers on par with other first-rounders, averaging about as many Head-to-Head points per game as Prince Fielder this year.

But he's a definite injury risk. Anyone who made excuses for him before -- and I'm sheepishly raising my hand -- has to acknowledge it now. He played 47 games this year, for crying out loud, giving him fewer than 145 in four of the last five years.

It's not like Reyes and Ramirez are much safer in that regard. Reyes has averaged 113.8 games over the last four years, and Ramirez has averaged 130.3 over the last three. The difference between them and Tulowitzki is that they don't always deliver elite numbers when they're healthy, as Ramirez's 2012 showed. You have to rank them this high because of what they're capable of doing, but you can't expect them to meet their full potential anymore.

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Zobrist is the bridge from those three to what I'd officially label the second tier. A newcomer to the position after splitting his time between second base and the outfield in previous years, he shouldn't have much trouble matching the production of Reyes or Ramirez, at least in terms of Fantasy points, and judging by his track record, he's a bit safer as well. So why don't I rank him ahead of those two? Well, since he'll be turning 32 next year, I suspect he'll be earning that injury-risk label pretty soon himself. Plus, his best still isn't as good as Reyes' or Ramirez's best. You still have to account for that, as long as it's been since we've seen them at their best.

Of course, just because I'm accounting for it in the rankings doesn't mean I'm banking on it in my drafts. I could see myself drafting Tulowitzki (who I have ranked 10th overall, for the record) or Zobrist if they fall far enough, but in most of my leagues next year, I think I'll end up with whichever of Rollins, Desmond, Castro, Cabrera, Andrus and Jeter lasts the longest. I have a slight preference for the first three over the last three because I think their ceilings are higher at this stage of their careers, but it's not like they're without their faults. Rollins was about as good as Reyes this season, but at 34 next year, he could easily hit a wall. And though Desmond and Castro have the upside to pass him, their lack of plate discipline makes them vulnerable to prolonged slumps -- the kind that could potentially last an entire season.

I don't say that to scare you -- more likely than not, they'll be fine -- but the concerns are great enough that they definitely belong behind Tulowitzki, Reyes, Ramirez and Zobrist in the rankings. It's just a question of what you'll get vs. what you'll pay. Those top four will all go off the board in the first three rounds because they're big-name players, but once you dip into the second tier of shortstops, with all the options available there, someone like Cabrera could still be available in Round 10. Which is the better bang for the buck, honestly?

And even some in this next group aren't so far behind. The risk is higher, but the reward may be about the same.

Next 10 shortstops for 2013:
11. Josh Rutledge, SS, Rockies
12. Alcides Escobar, SS, Royals
13. Danny Espinosa, 2B/SS, Nationals
14. Erick Aybar, SS, Angels
15. J.J. Hardy, SS, Orioles
16. Everth Cabrera, SS, Padres
17. Marco Scutaro, 2B/SS, Giants
18. Alexei Ramirez, SS, White Sox
19. Jed Lowrie, SS, Astros
20. Zack Cozart, SS, Reds

Rutledge -- he's an interesting case, isn't he? The season ended before anyone could get a good read on him. Was his .181 (23 for 127) batting average over his final 31 games a case of the league exposing him as a pretender, or was it just the necessary regression to the mean after an impossibly hot start? Also, can anyone say for sure he's going to have a starting job next year? A move to second base with Tulowitzki returning seems like a foregone conclusion, but it's not guaranteed.

Rutledge's ranking here assumes his final numbers are about what he'd average over a full season. Considering he may still have the potential for more -- that those numbers he put up over his first six weeks in the majors may be closer to legitimate than anyone is ready to believe -- I think that's the fairest way to approach him. His minor-league numbers back up his early production, let's not forget. I'm sure some people will balk at me ranking him over Escobar, who those same people will argue belongs in the same class as Andrus and Jeter, but with no power or plate discipline, I'm not convinced he has the upside for more than he did this year. Steals and batting average can only carry a player so far.

Speaking of upside, yes, I'm accounting for some by ranking Espinosa 13th. Of all the 20 players ranked in this piece, only two -- Alexei Ramirez and Cozart -- averaged fewer Head-to-Head points per game than Espinosa this year. But considering the diversity of his skill set -- as in the fact he's already on the verge of a 20-20 season -- I don't know that assessing him on pure point production is entirely fair. Guys like Aybar, Hardy and, to a lesser extent, Scutaro ... you pretty much know what they're going to give you by now, and it's not terribly exciting. Wouldn't you rather gamble on the possibility, no matter how remote, of Espinosa making more consistent contact? In a worst-case scenario, you can always fall back on an Andrelton Simmons type to bail you out in batting average.

The players that have gone unmentioned to this point -- Everth Cabrera, Lowrie and Cozart -- are the requisite upside picks sprinkled in with the known quantities. OK, to be perfectly honest, I don't really consider Cozart an upside pick, but I knew someone would throw a hissy fit if I left him out of the top 20. "Oh, he just hit 15 home runs as a rookie." Yes, but he's already 27, which means he's probably a finished product, and he had nothing else to contribute in Fantasy -- no steals, no batting average, no plate discipline, nothing. Alex Gonzalez, here we come.

I do genuinely like Cabrera and Lowrie, though. With an NL-leading 44 steals despite spending the first six weeks in the minors, Cabrera clearly has something to contribute to your Fantasy team even if he ceases to develop as a hitter, and Lowrie showed over the first two months what he could do if he just stayed healthy. At No. 19 (still behind everyone's favorite perennial disappointment, Alexei Ramirez -- who, like Cozart, I ranked only out of obligation), the Astros shortstop is still a no-risk pick.

If upside is a priority for you, you might like to see prospects Jurickson Profar and Billy Hamilton somewhere on this list, and in all sincerity, I considered them. But then I realized Profar will be eligible only at second base to begin next season -- it's where he played most often during his stint in the majors -- and Hamilton is moving to the outfield. Hypothetically, I'd rank them about where I have Hardy, giving Profar the edge since he has a chance of opening next season in the majors if the Rangers find a taker for Andrus this offseason.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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