Despite an offseason of whispers, rumors, and the like, Jhonny Peralta weathered the storm to enter the 2013 season as Detroit's full-time shortstop. I'll be honest, I didn't think we'd get to this point, and I was vocal in my opposition. But he's here, and I'm not planning to advocate for his replacement during the season (no guarantees). Either way, chances are strong that this is his final tour of duty. He'll be a free agent, and as a 31 year old with declining skills, the Tigers aren't going to move Heaven and Earth to keep him around (although, as Valverde showed us, you can never say never). So, with an eye towards 2014, here's a look at 3 shortstops in the system (in no particular order), their progress, and some comparisons for reference.
We'll start with Hernan Perez because he's the guy with MLB experience. It was nice that he got his first major league hit from the experience, but it's probably going to be a long time before he gets a chance for hit #2.
Perez is your classic grinder-type prospect. None of his tools have any sort of wow factor, or even proclaim major league regular. On the flip side, he can do a little bit of everything, and his game doesn't present many deficiencies. Although he's more of a second-baseman, and he'll be playing there for most of 2013, he can handle the shortstop position, and his speed and defense are positive qualities overall. The problem is that grinder types need to hit to be on the radar for a starting gig, and hitting is something Perez hasn't done much. In 3 seasons of full season ball, his high OPS is .677. At age 22, he needs to show positive contributions with the bat really soon, or he'll fall off the radar for a potential starting gig.
Perez's MIF counterpart in Erie this year will be Dixon Machado, a tiny 21 year old Venezuelan who is getting the aggressive promotion treatment despite a .534 (!!!) OPS last season. But what the Tigers see in Machado is elite defensive talent coupled with an advanced approach that led to 46 walks in 2011 and 51 in 2012. With plus baserunning as well, Machado has 3 tools befitting a top ten prospect. Of course, the hitting is the thing, and hitting just isn't something Machado does. It's really not his fault; Machado checked in this year at a generous 6'1", 170, which makes him sound bigger than he really is. With such a minuscule frame, he has serious trouble doing anything with the baseball when he actually connects with it.
But since Machado has literally every other part of the package, the Tigers are hoping that while they challenge his other skills, he'll finally add enough muscle to turn good contact into actual line drives. So long as his defense, baserunning, and walk % holds, it's nothing more than a waiting game. But it's a nerve-wracking one for prospect watchers, and there's a chance he just stays little his whole career. That might be good enough for defensive work, but if FSL pitching knocks the bat out of his hands, he won't do anything at the MLB level.
There is one shortstop in the system that's actually hitting the ball, however. Eugenio Suarez turned in a solid .288/.380/.409 last season in West Michigan, a season that put him on everyone's radar as a potential big leaguer. His tools profile looks similar to Perez, but the one thing that Suarez does to set him apart is actually produce offense in games. It's no secret that a prospect's bat controls their destiny, and as long as Suarez produces in games, he'll be a priority.
Suarez has two problems when it comes to his big league track. The first is that he's a level behind his competitors. Suarez might be more able to handle Double A than Machado offensively, but as long as Machado remains a priority as well, they will each advance a level at a time, keeping Machado in front. Suarez' other problem is just a sheer lack of upside, which is not coincidentally why Machado is still ahead of him, despite being nearly the same age (Machado is actually younger). Without an elite defensive or offensive profile, Suarez has to grind his way to the top, and guys like that rarely skip levels.
For a brief comparison, I wanted to look at some other starting SS around the league and compare their paths to the show. Everth Cabrera probably had the longest jump to the show: Cabrera was a Rule V pick who started in the big leagues immediately after a season in A ball. JJ Hardy debuted as a 22 year old, but he had already spent a full season in Double A two years prior. Jose Iglesias was in the majors at age 21, but not for full time duty. Asdrubal Cabrera was in Triple A at age 20, and playing in Cleveland the next season. Elvis Andrus was at Double A full time at 19, MLB full time at 20. Starlin Castro started his age 20 season in Double A, played a month, and spent the rest of the time in a Cubs uniform.
A young shortstop shooting through the system is a very common phenomenon. However, most of those guys have tools profiles that simply blow the Tigers' guys away. The takeaway here is that it's unlikely any of the three would be anywhere close to ready to take a job in 2014. Machado would get the rush treatment if he showed an ability to slap the ball with a modicum of authority, but that's a big if. Suarez and Perez have skills to be solid prospects, but they aren't the kinds of players that are pressed into early big league service on a regular basis. Without a big time breakout from one of these three, the Tigers will have to get creative with how they fill the middle infield for 2014. More on that, later.