ST. LOUIS — Think of the season as a snapshot. A moment captured forever in this exact pose. What happened before is irrelevant, and what comes tomorrow is unknown. All that we know for certain is what we see in front of us today.
And, in this particular picture, Jason Bartlett is the best shortstop in the American League.
Better than Derek Jeter. Better than Elvis Andrus. Better than almost anyone could have imagined.
This is opinion, for sure. But it is an opinion shared by many. Coaches, scouts, players, front office executives. Some insisted that Bartlett is the AL's best at this moment. Others were not certain, but allowed that it is a debate with merit.
Which is worth thinking about for a moment. Not too long ago, the American League was reveling in a golden age of shortstops. There was Jeter. There was Alex Rodriguez. There was Omar Vizquel and Miguel Tejada. To be the best shortstop in the AL meant you were likely heading to the Hall of Fame or, at the least, were in the running for an MVP award.
So how is it possible that a career .286 hitter with no Gold Gloves and no All-Star appearances before this month could be considered for such a claim in 2009? Well, A-Rod moved to third base, Tejada moved to the National League and Vizquel turned 42 not long ago. Some past phenoms have turned into disappointments, and the rest came up in the NL.
That leaves Jeter. And Bartlett.
Certainly, Jeter is one of the greatest players of his generation, and his career will make Bartlett's seem generic in comparison. But this is an argument about today, and it does not include the accomplishments of years past. In this narrow view, the focus is different.
So consider this synopsis of what others say of the comparison:
Jeter is more dependable on routine plays, but Bartlett has far more range. Neither has a great arm, but Bartlett's throwing has improved. Jeter is the more disciplined hitter, but Bartlett got stronger in the offseason and has shown more pop at the plate. Bartlett has also gotten better about not chasing breaking pitches out of the strike zone, which helps account for his .347 batting average.
"As of today, I would say he is the best shortstop in the American League," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's just the complete game. You talk about offense, defense, baserunning skills? It's all of the above.
"The one advantage, if you're talking about clutch hitting prowess, is Jeter is still one of the best. Period. I don't care if you're talking shortstop or any other position. He is one of the least favorite guys you want to face in a vital moment of the game, and he's been that guy for a while. So JB has some catching up to do there. But sheer physical ability playing the position? Right now, I think it's JB."
Still, it is reasonable to wonder if Bartlett's All-Star season has the whiff of fluke about it. After all, he has never been considered a premier talent. He is, in some ways, similar to Toronto's Marco Scutaro, who is having a career year at age 33.
But there are reasons to have faith in Bartlett's rise. First of all, he is 29 and entering the prime of his career. His defense was stellar last season when many in the organization cited him as the single biggest reason for Tampa Bay's turnaround.
And though his offense is likely to level off, there have been identifiable factors in his improvement. The Rays saw, by the end of last season, that his game had slipped. And it wasn't the first time in his career he wore down in September.
It was suggested he might want to add a little muscle in the offseason and, by the time spring training arrived, Bartlett had added 15 pounds. The bulk wasn't intended to make him a better power hitter, but it has been a nice byproduct. He has hit as many home runs in the first half (eight) as the three previous seasons combined.
"Anytime a middle infielder bulks up, you have some concerns about what it does rangewise," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Not only did he bulk up, but he did a good job of maintaining his lateral mobility. That's a difficult thing to do, and it speaks to his work ethic and desire to be the best. He worked hard, got bigger, got more physical, and now he's driving the gaps more frequently."
The improved offense is clearly the reason for Bartlett's higher profile. It is why fans voted him second behind Jeter in All-Star balloting, and it is why AL players elected him to the team. It is also the reason for this conversation, even if Bartlett thinks it's premature.
"As long as Jeter is here, he's going to be the guy. He's a great player and he deserves it," Bartlett said. "What he's done for this game is amazing. I can only hope to do half of what he's done. As long as he's here, that's going to be his spot.
"When he's gone, hopefully it will be me."