The Miami Marlins are trying to recover at the shortstop position after years of familiarity there. Since 2006, the Fish have had Hanley Ramirez run the show, all the way until 2011. The team then signed free agent Jose Reyes to be a fixture at shortstop for the next six years, only to trade him away after just one season. After so much consistency from the position in terms of the name, the club is looking for their next anointed shortstop to hold the position for a long period of time.
That job now lies in the hands of Adeiny Hechavarria, who is a prospect well-known for being the exact opposite of what Ramirez once was: a defensively gifted shortstop with his struggles at the plate. But the Fish have a decent history with players of that ilk, and that is part of the optimist's argument for Hechavarria becoming a key contributor to the Marlins in future seasons.
The Optimist's Case
The optimistic case for Hechavarria is based on his amazing, athletic defense. The Marlins have had years of players who have looked sub par or worse at the position, so watching a supposed wizard like Hechavarria will be a welcome change. After multiple seasons with the at times blundering Ramirez at shortstop, Fish fans were happy to see the strong-armed and athletic-looking Jose Reyes last year, only to find out that Reyes had lost a little in his step as well as compared to his days with the New York Mets. Still, Reyes appeared to be significantly better than Ramirez as well.
The switch from Ramirez to Reyes to Hechavarria should be a fantastic one. By all accounts, Hechavarria is a terrific defender who can stick at shortstop and may become one of the elite defenders in baseball. We have such little defensive data on him that making a projection of his value based on just that would be absurd, but given his stellar scouting reports, a guess of at least five runs above average at shortstop would probably be acceptable.
Out of the 16 qualified shortstops who have played enough in the past three seasons, only five of them have averaged more than five runs above average per season by UZR, and those names are pretty recognizable. Brendan Ryan, J.J. Hardy, Jhonny Peralta, Alexei Ramirez, and Jimmy Rollins were those five players, and only one of them did not appear in the top ten players rated by the Fans Scouting Report in 2012 (Peralta, who was considered among the worst). If Hechavarria could average even five runs above average, he would be among the better shortstops in baseball, and that would ask him to defend like someone like Jimmy Rollins. Given the scouting reports, that seems like a fair assumption to make.
Where Hechavarria could improve is obviously with his bat, but there is where the optimistic argument depends on projection. Hechavarria is not without his tools, as he is still seen as a player who can generate some power and at least drive balls into gaps. He also has decent speed, and while he seemed incapable of using it in terms of stolen bases in the minors (67.2 percent success rate in the minors), he should at least be able to take advantage of it while taking extra bases with the spacious outfield in Marlins Park. That combination of power potential and gap hitting could turn a lot of singles into doubles and triples in a large stadium like Miami's, making Hechavarria an excellent fit in the stadium.
Finally, there is his strong performance in Triple-A most recently that also helps to bolster his case. Hechavarria hit a combined .327/.376/.446 in over 600 plate appearances in Triple-A over the last two years. That translates to a line that was 14 percent better than the league average in the Pacific Coast League. Sure, the whole league is a hitter's haven, but Hechavarria not only kept up with the big numbers at that level, but he more than surpassed the league average, especially when you consider it is coming from the shortstop position.
A Marlins Historical Comparison
The obvious historical comparison for a player who is stellar defensively at shortstop but had a hard time figuring it out at the plate is former long-time Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who was a mainstay in the lineup from 1999 to 2005. Gonzalez was the team's lone All-Star Game representative in his rookie year in 1999, but ended the season batting a respectable .277/.308/.430. Of course, in the three years that followed, he hit a combined .228/.275/.348, making him one of the worst regulars in baseball. Conveniently, Hechavarria is projected to hit .246/.292/.352 this season, close to in line with that Gonzalez line.
Also convenient for this comparison, those were Gonzalez's age 23 to age 25 seasons. Hechavarria is entering the midway point of that stretch, as 2013 will be his age 24 campaign. How well did Gonzalez fare after age 25?
Mind you, this is by no means a good hitting line. By wRC+, Gonzalez was 18 percent worse than the league average in those three seasons combined, with his best year being the age-26 2003 season. But for a slick-fielding shortstop, this was by no means bad. Gonzalez totaled about 14 runs above average on defense for those three seasons, putting him on par with guys like Elvis Andrus in the past three seasons (about 16 runs in 100 fewer innings). For a player like Gonzalez with a strong glove, these hitting seasons were decidedly average, and Hechavarria may be even better than Gonzalez was back in those days.
Since 2003 began, Gonzalez has hit a respectable .250/.295/.411, and it is respectable primarily due to his glove. But he once started as an ugly hitter in his younger days, and he grew into a respectable shortstop with a long career.
The optimistic view sees the promise of a long career for Adeiny Hechavarria. In the Marlins' past, there is a player who matches almost perfectly for Hechavarria's struggles and tools heading into his first full-time big league season. The example of Alex Gonzalez shows that a player who can play strong defense and get by with the bat can still be an average shortstop in the bigs.
But as far as 2013 goes, that Gonzalez example also shows the struggles that the Marlins might expect to see. Hechavarria is not likely to hit all that much better than he is currently projected, and even at five runs above average on defense, that is likely to translate into a 1.5-win season most likely. The Marlins would be fairly happy with that, but do not expect much more than even that considering his significant hitting problems.