Nick Senzel is a hammer-swinging pitch mauler, a savant in the batter’s box who swings selectively at offerings with the perfect mix of anger and grace. He’s a once in a generation talent who will single-handedly introduce many of you to the wonders of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference as a means to sear his gaudy statistics into your sports-loving brains. At least, that’s what we’re all hoping for - and hoping for soon - and what we’ll assume is at least partially true for the sake of the collective conscience of Reds fans everywhere.
Senzel, you see, is pretty well destined to be a third baseman, and anytime a player of his ilk seems on the cusp of sniffing the big leagues, it’s only natural to look closer at the player ahead of him on the depth chart. It’s what we’ve done for awhile now during this deep Cincinnati rebuild, frankly. As Jose Peraza continued to show he was deserving of a regular spot in the lineup, we began to look harder at the immediate future of Zack Cozart as the team’s shortstop. When Dilson Herrera was brought into the fold later, that only exacerbated the infield logjam, and the idea of trying to trade the otherwise immovable Brandon Phillips became a hot topic once again. With Senzel, there's a hope he'll continue to rise through the minors in 2017 as quickly as he did in half of 2016, which would perhaps see him smacking doubles in AAA Louisville by late summer of next year.
The difference between the those first two cases and that of Senzel, of course, is that the incumbent standing in front of Senzel isn’t anywhere close to being out of team control. Whereas Cozart and Phillips are set to become free agents at the end of 2017 and a void will be readily open for them, Eugenio Suarez hasn’t even reached arbitration eligibility, and inherent with that lack of experience is embedded yet another wrinkle: we’re not even sure he’s really a third baseman.
Prior to Opening Day last year - when Suarez started at third for the Reds - he’d made exactly zero starts as a third baseman at the big league level. In fact, it’d been since he was an 18 year old in the Venezuelan Summer League since he’d started a professional game at the hot corner, part of a 2010 VSL campaign that also saw him get starts in left field, center field, second base, and shortstop. The 2011 season saw his emergence as a near-everyday shortstop while in the Detroit Tigers system, and it was at shortstop he primarily stayed after coming to the Reds in the December 2014 trade that mercifully sent Alfredo Simon the hell out of Cincinnati.
Necessity became the mother of invention once Todd Frazier was traded at the end of 2015, however, and without a better natural option to turn to at third, the Reds opted to see if Suarez could hack it there when the pressure of winning games wasn’t peering over the shoulders of all involved.
If question one in this is whether Suarez is even a true third baseman at all, question two becomes whether he is good enough to masquerade there even if he’s a bit of a square peg in a round hole. A rudimentary glance shows that Suarez’s 1.7 fWAR ranked 27th among all MLB players who got at least 10 PA at third in 2016, which doesn’t exactly suggest his initial time there was world beating. That it was only his ‘initial’ time there, though, is probably worth emphasizing, since he’s still just 25 years old and won’t be making more than the league-minimum salary until the 2018 season. If there’s still room for improvement there (as well as the ability to continually grow more comfortable on defense), there’s not a large enough mountain of evidence to condemn his ability to stick there just yet.
If anything, the way his 2016 season unfolded just might be an endorsement of his ability to stick at third base long term. After a power-heavy start to his season, he slumped to a miserable .586 OPS in 105 May PAs, he rebounded with a combined June/July/August of .265/.340/.444 (in 309 PA) and hit a rather impressive .279/.352/.425 over his final 69 games of the season (270 PA). While that’s not exactly upper-echelon offense from a corner infield position, it’s plenty good enough if paired with a competent defender at the position, and that’s an aspect of his overall 2016 growth that may well be another endorsement, too. After committing 10 errors in his first 47 games of the season - including an embarrassing 5 in his first 9 games of the year - he rebounded to only commit 13 over his final 104 games.
(Usually I’m not convinced that errors are a very indicative way of evaluating defense since there’s so much more that goes into measuring a player’s impact and ability, but at third base in particular - where so much of the fielding is reactionary while be situated so close to the plate - it seems at least a partial proxy, especially given the sample size needed to more accurately evaluate a player there by UZR and DRS. Redleg Nation’s Steve Mancuso provided a more in depth view on the topic earlier this year, and paired with Mark Sheldon’s August look at Suarez’s improved defense there, it’s clear that Suarez at least was making positive progress and producing at an above-average rate there as the year went on, not just on the eye test.)
After some 800 words, I’ve yet to establish that Suarez is a true third baseman, and I’ve certainly not shown he’s one capable of producing at a level that warrants him sticking around at third even if he can still pick it at short. But we haven’t either come close to suggesting he’ll never be that kind of player, or that he wouldn’t still be good enough at another position to still have value. That’s somewhat the point of all of this, that the Reds and Suarez have one more year to truly figure out if the way he’s been cast is appropriate and, if not, if he’s capable of being re-cast elsewhere while still with the Reds.
If Suarez posts a full 2017 season with the offense and defense he provided down the stretch in 2016, that’s not just a valuable player barely entering his prime, that’s a valuable player entering his prime with three still relatively inexpensive years of team control in his future. While it’s easy to see why a 5/6/4 combination of Senzel/Peraza/Herrera is enough to make the Reds’ front office comfortable with the future of their infield next to Joey Votto, that kind of production and control of Suarez is still a damn quality asset to have at their disposal.
That’s question number three - if Suarez shows he’s good enough to be a regular at third base, is he more valuable to the Reds shuffling through his proven multitude of roles, or more valuable as a trade chip to help fill needs elsewhere? Can he be a Javy Baez, a Lonnie Chisenhall, a Matt Duffy, a versatile regular-without-regularity? Will he ever get a shot at shortstop again if, say, Peraza struggles to man the position? Or will Cincinnati need to ship him out to a team willing to give him a more defined role and bring back a piece they can use to help elsewhere?
I’ve certainly asked more questions than I’ve answered in this, and that’s a pretty decent indictment of where the Reds and Suarez currently stand. It’s clear there’s plenty of talent in the player, and 2017 will become the exact kind of proving ground they'll hope will yield those important answers.