The past ten months must be really strange for Eugenio Suarez. He went into the off season as the likely shortstop of the future, even after a rough year defensively in 2015. Then, the Reds started adding middle infielders by the bucket load, and now people are talking about Suarez as being the odd man out when the cavalry arrives.
As Steve Mancuso wrote recently on this very site, the Reds appear to have a logjam in the infield after the trades and signings of the last 24 months. Let’s quickly note all of the pieces.
- Jose Peraza (2B, SS, OF)
- Eugenio Suarez (3B, SS, 2B)
- Dilson Herrera (2B)
- Nick Senzel (3B)
- Alfredo Rodrigues (SS)
- Alex Blandino (3B, 2B, SS)
Yes, I know about Calten Daal and Blake Trahan, but they are pretty far down the list at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise or end up earning playing time, but for right now, these six look like the competitors for long-term infield spots.
When last year ended, Suarez looked like a key piece for the Reds moving forward. He slashed .280/.315/.446 with a 105 wRC+. That runs created score would have ranked third among all Major League shortstops if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, awfully good for a 24-year-old.
It wasn’t all rosy. His posted a poor walk rate (4.3%), had an elevated BABIP (.341), and played poor defense at shortstop in a short sample. But he had shown enough in the minors and was young enough that we could easily dream on his potential as an above-average, Major League shortstop.
Then, in 2016, Zack Cozart returned, and Suarez shifted to third base to cover the hole left by the Todd Frazier trade. The Reds went on the aforementioned infielder shopping spree, and no one seems to be able to find a place for Suarez in 2018.
Peraza and Rodriguez are now competing for shortstop of the future, Herrera seems like the answer at 2B, and Senzel will eventually knock Suarez off his current perch. Or so the theory goes.
Not so fast, my friends.
Suarez certainly has not earned a long-term starting position in the Reds infield, but there’s a lot to like about the guy. Enough to keep him in the conversation at least. Overall, Suarez’s numbers haven’t lived up to the expectations he set last year. He currently has a .239/.303/.416 slash line with 18 home runs. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Check out this table.
Which one of those months doesn’t belong? Besides May, which was a horrific month, 2016 Suarez has played very similarly to 2015 Suarez. His strikeout rate since June 1st is only 17.5%, better than the league average. This season, Suarez is also hitting the ball considerably harder than he did last year, meaning that if his strikeout continues to come down, we should expect his numbers to improve.
If he produces at non May levels for the rest of the season, he finishes as a league average offensive player and maybe higher. He’s only 25! That’s pretty good.
Suarez’s biggest problem in locking down a starting position is defense. We should have expected him to struggle at a position he hasn’t played extensively since 2009, and for a couple months, he did. Believe it or not though, Fangraphs’ advanced metrics have Suarez providing positive defensive value this season. He gets dinged for the 19 errors he has committed, but his arm and range both grade out well at third base. If you’ve watched him play over the last month and a half, he has improved greatly on defense.
However, that train is coming and by the looks of it, won’t be stopped. That train is Nick Senzel, and his potentially super human bat. Senzel has quite a few levels to conquer on his way to the Redlegs, but the guy has all the tools to move quickly. Poor Midwest League pitchers are facing his wrath on a nightly basis and not enjoying it.
So let’s assume Senzel avoids injuries and hits his way onto the Reds in late 2017 or early 2018, taking up third base. Where does that leave Suarez?
Basically, Suarez needs to be able to play shortstop or second base to give himself a chance. Are there serious question marks as to whether he can play a middle infield spot (especially shortstop)? Yes, definitely. However, the other two shortstop candidates have some serious question marks too, mostly on the offensive end.
Will Jose Peraza develop enough power and/or plate discipline to provide positive value at the big league level? While only 22, his .694 OPS in 500+ AAA plate appearances, poor walk rate, and lack of power create more questions than answers. Also, can he play shortstop defensively at the big league level?
Can Alfredo Rodriguez hit at all? His numbers in the Cuban league two years ago, when he last played full time, are extremely concerning (.265/.301/.284). He’s young too, but scouts fear his bat may never play well enough to reach the Major Leagues.
Both of them have potential and neither are a sure thing. Suarez’s offensive profile looks much, much better than either.
But Suarez’s defense could be a huge issue. He played poor defense at shortstop in 2015. No way around that. He was also average in a slightly smaller but similar sample the year before. It was just last year that scouts thought he could play an average shortstop in the big leagues. Are we sure he can’t play there?
The errors are concerning and yet, Barry Larkin had 29 errors back in 1988 and ended up being a pretty decent all-around player. I’m not suggesting Suarez has Larkin potential by any means, only that errors early in a career are not always indicative of the player’s defensive potential.
If I’m the Reds, Suarez is starting at shortstop once or twice a week the rest of the season just to see how he looks. In fact, I wish they’d done that all year. His bat plays at shortstop right now and will likely get better. Worst case, he can’t play defense there, competes with Herrera for the second base job, and at least becomes a utility player.
However, the best case scenario is an average defensive shortstop who hits for power and provides above average production at shortstop. With question marks all around, what do the Reds have to lose?