[In the days leading up to Opening Day, we’ll be previewing The State Of The Reds at every single position on the field. Today, we begin with a look at perhaps the most important defensive position: shortstop]
Coming out of the 2017 season, and throughout most of this past offseason, the Shortstop position was seen as a weakness in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. Zack Cozart, donkey owner and everyday Reds shortstop since the 2012 season signed with the Los Angeles Angels early on, leaving only Jose Peraza as a legitimate everyday option at short. Peraza, although still very young for a Major League player, disappointed in 2017 and was dethroned from his starting role at second base by Cincinnati Legend (TM) Scooter Gennett.
And that was it for a while. No backups, no major league ready prospects, just Peraza and his 62 wRC+. The Reds, no doubt sensing that surely Peraza couldn’t be penciled in 162 times at shortstop over the summer, made a splash in the Free Agent pool by signing…Phil Gosselin. Oh! And Cliff Pennington.
You’re not the only one who thinks a stable of shortstops consisting of Jose Peraza, Phil Gosselin and Cliff Pennington might underwhelm Redleg Nation in 2018. Although Peraza still certainly has the talent and upside to be a potential starting-caliber player, he’s far from a sure thing. Pennington and Gosselin are fine backup players, but where’s the excitement? Where’s the enthusiasm? Where’s the prototypical stud shortstop, here to save the day and look awesome while doing it? Where’s the Carlos Correa, the Francisco Lindor, or the Manny Machado?
Enter: Nick Senzel.
The Reds fanbase was taken by storm early in spring training when it was announced that Senzel, Cincinnati’s consensus top prospect, had been working for months at learning the skills necessary to play shortstop, and would be focusing the bulk of his efforts on playing there throughout spring camp. To say that this announcement lit a spark in the fanbase is an understatement – and rightfully so! The thought that Senzel could plug into the everyday lineup next to Eugenio Suarez at third changed everything. It made the future infield look better. It made the rebuild look better. Hell, it made Senzel himself look better.
It’s unlikely Senzel will be breaking with the Major League team at the start of the season. His bat certainly profiles to be very good already, but for a guy who’s never played shortstop professionally, and has also never taken an at-bat at the Triple-A level, it probably makes sense to give him some marination in Louisville. Add to all of this the service time implications, and Nick Senzel, Louisville shortstop is probably a lock until June.
But who plays shortstop until the prodigal son is ready to stake his claim? Let’s dive in.
Opening Day starter: Jose Peraza
When the Reds traded for Jose Peraza, they were obviously in love with his upside. The skill with the bat has always been obvious, his penchant for not striking out is a plus, his speed is an asset, and his defense, while not outstanding, is solid.
Some of these skills made cameo appearances in Peraza’s 2017 season, most notably in the second half. But the young man just couldn’t seem to put it all together. Plaguing him most was a seeming inability to take a walk in the first half of the season, taking his base only 5 times(!!) in 336 plate appearances.
For those scoring at home, that’s not good. It was borderline infuriating at times, and remains so in the eyes of many. He tripled this number in the second half in only 182 plate appearances as he took more of a backup role to Gennett and Cozart. That’s a second half BB% of 8.2%, just above league average and very good for a player with the kind of speed and baserunning ability Peraza has.
Defensively Peraza ranked 11th of all second basemen in Fangraphs Defensive Runs Above Average metric, putting him squarely in the Good, Not Great club. If he continues to walk at an 8% clip and we continue to see improved offense all around, the Reds can absolutely live with this level of defense. It’s not, however, enough to carry a 62 wRC+ for an entire 162 game summer.
As I’ve mentioned before, Peraza is still young. Plenty of world class shortstops weren’t offensive juggernauts at 23 years old. Many of them weren’t even in the big leagues at that point in their careers. It’s unfortunate for him that the club is hoping he develops into his full potential while also playing every day against major league pitching, but in a rebuild, them’s the breaks. We’ll see if he’s a little more up to the challenge in 2018.
The Backups: Phil Gosselin and Cliff Pennington
Phil Gosselin has spent parts of five seasons in the Major Leagues, spending time with Atlanta, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Texas. He owns a career 84 wRC+, featuring a 136 wRC+ 2015 season in which he had 118 plate appearances split between the Braves and the Diamondbacks. He’s been a career backup, never surpassing 240 plate appearances in a single season. The defensive metrics are nearly split on Gosselin, with Fangraphs tagging him with a -0.3 career Defensive Runs Above Average.
Gosselin will likely be battling against Cliff Pennington for a single backup shortstop spot on the Opening Day roster. Pennington has spent parts of 10 seasons in the major leagues, playing for Oakland, Arizona (with Phil Gosselin!), Toronto, and the Los Angeles Angels. Pennington sports a career 79 wRC+, but looks to be much better than Gosselin defensively with 40.6 career Defensive Runs Above Average.
Both players have been hitting the ball well in Spring Training so far, with Gosselin looking particularly good. Neither player is on the team’s 40-man roster, but will need to be added obviously in order to make the big league club. If I had to guess, I’d think Gosselin makes the Opening Day roster.
The Once and Future Shortstop: Nick Senzel
Part of the reason moving Senzel to shortstop was such an impactful move for the Reds is the fact that there’s really no one ready to usurp the position. Outside of Blake Trahan, who isn’t ready for the big leagues just yet, there’s no one who could legitimately play shortstop every day at the AA or AAA levels. Alex Blandino, probably the only other guy you could force onto this list, really works best as a 3B or 2B in an every day role.
So, Senzel makes a whole lot of sense as a shortstop. He’s played shortstop before, most notably in college at the University of Tennessee while filling in for an injured teammate. By all accounts he handled the position well, but was ultimately moved back to third base, and was drafted as a third baseman.
We all know the rest of the story so far. Senzel has cruised past every level of the minors he’s visited, culminating in a .340/.413/.560 slash line over 57 AA games in 2017. He walks a lot, strikes out slightly less than the average hitter, hits the ball to all areas of the field, and is a deceptively sneaky runner, much like Todd Frazier was during his early years with the Reds. He has a fantastic feel for the game, which really shows on the base paths.
Defensively, at least at third base, the story stays the same. After pinpointing his defense as the worst (but still pretty good) part of his game, Senzel only went out and balled enough to be named MLB Pipeline’s top defensive third baseman in the minor leagues. He’s only taken a few live-game ground balls during Spring Training, most notably picking up an error which ended Amir Garrett’s streak of consecutive batters retired in a game last Friday. Shortstop is one of the hardest defensive positions to play in the game, so we shouldn’t expect this transition to be an easy one. But if I’ve got to pick one third baseman to make the transition, I’d be choosing Senzel.
The Reds rebuild could potentially hinge a lot on whether or not the ‘Nick Senzel: Shortstop’ experiment goes well. If he’s playing shortstop in two seasons, he’s most likely the best player on the team in 2020, and maybe one of the top players in the MLB. The offensive numbers will almost assuredly stay on the same trajectory his minor league numbers have been at for the past few years. With that bat at shortstop, you suddenly have the makings of a potential MVP caliber player.
If Senzel can’t play shortstop, things get a little more tricky. All of a sudden, you’re sacrificing two of Eugenio Suarez, Dilson Herrera, Shed Long, and Alex Blandino so that Senzel can play either Third or Second. You’re either banking on Jose Peraza to turn into an everyday shortstop, or you’re spending money to go out and get an everyday shortstop. You’re taking a bat, which will still be very good, and placing it at a position where the offense won’t be as valuable. It’s not exactly a doomsday scenario; after all, this was the scenario we were looking at only a few weeks ago! But I think we can all agree that the very best option for our favorite baseball team is that Nick Senzel is the starting shortstop for our Reds in 2020.