In 1987, the Reds gave over 400 plate appearances to two young middle infielders competing to become the Reds next shortstop. Both players were high draft picks and had numerous supporters in and out of the organization. After the 1987 season, the Reds traded one of these talented youngsters to the Royals while crowning the other the shortstop of the future. The player the Reds traded was Kurt Stillwell who went on to play for five teams over nine seasons. The player the Reds chose to keep – Barry Larkin.
Almost 29 years later, the Reds are approaching another crossroads at the shortstop position; only this time, they have more options and arguably more questions that need answered.
When the 2015 season mercifully ended, the conventional wisdom was that Eugenio Suarez was the shortstop of the future. Sure, Zack Cozart would have a chance to reclaim his old job after rehabbing another leg injury but long term, Suarez seemed to be the guy. Then, the Reds traded Todd Frazier, and Walt Jocketty promptly stated that Suarez would play third base this coming season. In the trade, the Reds also added a middle infielder, Jose Peraza, who they expect to contribute soon.
Then, the Reds reportedly signed Cuban infielder Alfredo Rodriguez, an apparent defensive whiz at shortstop. While that deal hasn’t been confirmed, his potential signing adds more confusion to a crowded middle infield.
Now, the shortstop picture long term doesn’t look so clear. With Frazier gone, the Reds don’t have a clear third basemen of the future, and Suarez’s presence there this season would at least open up the possibility that he stays there. The other four potential candidates to fill the shortstop hole long term are Cozart, Peraza, Rodriguez, and top prospect Alex Blandino.
Between the five candidates, the Reds don’t have a surefire solution at short. Suarez, who played the position for half a season in 2015, struggled defensively at times, committing 19 errors and ending the year with a -12.9 UZR. He certainly showed the potential to play the position, but he has to cut down on his mistakes to stay there.
The book on Suarez when the Reds traded for him was that he could be an average defender at short. If he does that, his bat plays well enough to play shortstop. If Suarez had enough plate appearances last year, his 105 wRC+ (runs created) would have rated third among all shortstops in the Major Leagues. His average, OBP, slugging%, and ISO would have all rated in the top ten among shortstops.
While the bat plays well at shortstop, it doesn’t play nearly as well at third base, traditionally a power position. Suarez would have rated 15th in wRC+, 16th in OBP and 18th in slugging among third baseman last season.
Peraza has spent most of the last two seasons playing second base. But before that, he played a lot of shortstop in the minors. Baseball Prospectus suggests he could still be an “above average regular” at shortstop. They even say he has “a very good chance of becoming an everyday shortstop.”
That’s encouraging and yet, he hasn’t played the position much in a few years. While he could likely adjust back fairly quickly, a trade of Brandon Phillips would almost assuredly put Peraza at second base to start the season instead of reintroducing him to shortstop at AAA. The Phillips’ trade to the Nats died, but with Dick Williams suggesting the Reds are committed to a long-term rebuild, Phillips time as the Reds starting second baseman could be coming to a close rather soon.
Steve covered Peraza’s bat well, and it will only play at second base or shortstop. He has almost no power and much of his value will be tied to his defense and speed. If he is an above average shortstop or excellent second baseman, he could be extremely valuable. He has excellent contact skills, but his ability to get on base is almost completely tied to his batting average. This type of player fails frequently at the major league level.
Alex Blandino has played shortstop more than any other position in the minor leagues. Even so, many experts have major concerns about his ability to stay at short, including our own minor league guru, Doug Gray.
Blandino is probably the least suited to play shortstop long term. He doesn’t have the range the others do and spent most of his college years at third base. His bat could potentially play anywhere on the infield as Fangraphs projects his upside as a .280/.345/.460 with 18-22 homers guy. If the power doesn’t develop, Blandino is probably a second basemen.
Zack Cozart will turn 31 this August and is coming off of major knee surgery. He has always been an excellent defender and a rather poor offensive player. He was having his best offensive season in 2015 before the injury, batting .258/.310/.459 with a 104 wRC+. Even so, I find it hard to put too much faith in 214 plate appearances when we have years of data with which to evaluate Cozart. His career slash line (.245/.284/.375) in over 2000 plate appearances speaks volumes.
And yet Cozart doesn’t need to hit that well to provide value if he can return to playing elite defense. If he does, maybe the Reds see him as the guy for the next four to six years. The move of Suarez to third base means the Reds do not expect the two to compete for the shortstop job this spring. They seemingly want to give Cozart a chance to show that his brief success at the plate last season wasn’t a fluke. After a serious knee injury, the Reds need to find out whether Cozart will ever be the same.
Then there’s Rodriguez. Because of Cozart’s knee injury, Rodriguez might be the best defensive shortstop going forward on this list. While only 21 with the potential for improvement, he might also be the worst hitter of the bunch. Last year, he had four extra-base hits in 304 plate appearances in the Cuban league, an anemic number. He has less power than Billy Hamilton had at age 21.
The Reds must believe that Rodriguez’s offensive game will develop to give him $6 million (if reports are correct). His offense must improve substantially for Rodriguez to ever make any impact for the Reds.
The Reds of course need some of these players to play second or third base. With Frazier gone and Phillips’ time as the Reds second baseman ending relatively soon, the Reds have most of the infield to replace. These decisions have a profound impact on how quickly a rebuilding team returns to winning.
Almost thirty years ago, the Reds decided to keep a shortstop who had just batted .244 in 488 plate appearances. That young man became a Hall of Famer.
Two months ago, Eugenio Suarez was the shortstop of the future. Now, the Reds seemingly have five candidates to man shortstop long term, all with serious question marks. While none of these players are likely Hall of Famers, they all have some level of potential to give us hope. The Reds better get this one right.