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The Reds appear willing to lose their single best skill: defense

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The evolution of their up-the-middle defense is trending in an iffy direction.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When Zack Cozart officially signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California of the United States of America of Earth on Friday, it wrapped one story with an ending we sadly found rather predictable. In moving on from the Cincinnati Reds for good, the then-free-agent cashed in on a lucrative 3 year, $38 million deal that will set Zack, his family, and his burgeoning donkey prowess up for life.

It was well deserved. From the Reds’ perspective, though, it was still a bit of a kick in the teeth, especially when this selectively parsed quote began to make the social rounds after he signed.

During Cozart’s six full seasons with the Reds, there certainly wasn’t a big pile of winning to be had. The club won 97 games in his rookie campaign, but as the Cincinnati house quickly crumbled and was ultimately bulldozed for a rebuild, he exited having won an average of just 67 games a year over his final three seasons. To put his quote in some context, it was that immediate past that Cozart was referencing paired with his now 32 year old legs, not about the willingness of the team and front office to actively win the games in which they’re scheduled to play. He simply wanted a better chance to win before his personal gas tank ran empty.

For the Reds, it was probably the right decision to let him go, even if it wasn’t the most sentimental. Mid 30’s middle infielders with track records of bad legs aren’t the most likely players to age gracefully, and despite Cozart’s breakout 2017 season, it’s likely the prudent bet that he won’t be a 5 WAR player every year going forward. Heck, there’s a good chance that even the defense-first Cozart that was a fixture before the breakout will break down during his current deal. However, there’s something perhaps symbolic about cutting ties with Cozart when paired with the other rumors connected to the Reds.

If you date back to the start of the 2012 season - Zack’s first full year with the Reds - and look at the best defensive players by FanGraphs’ runs saved, you’ll find Cozart ranked as the seventh best defender among the 3,971 MLB players who logged at least 10 total innings in those six years. With a shortstop that defensively talented, it should come as zero surprise to then find the Reds’ team defense as the fifth best in all MLB in that time by DRS, second only to the Chicago Cubs among National League teams during that six year span. So yes, while the Reds have been horrendous at winning games for much of the last four years, imagine how much worse things would have been had they been even an average defensive club.

It’s not been just Cozart excelling on defense during that stint, of course. Prior to his departure from the Reds after the 2016 season, Brandon Phillips had been a standout at 2B for years, his 35.6 runs saved from 2012-2016 ranking fourth among the 323 MLB players who’d manned 2B during that time. Then, of course, there’s the nearly unparalleled defense of Billy Hamilton in CF - in his four full seasons, he’s ranked as the single best outfielder in all of baseball by runs saved and the third best defender at any position, trailing only shortstops Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford.

DRS is just one of many flawed defensive metrics charted today, but it’s certainly one that holds consistent with the eye-test in these cases. With that said, you don’t have to walk too far out on a limb to claim that for the last handful of years, the Reds have had perhaps the single best up-the-middle defense in all of baseball.

Defense at short, second, and centerfield is important for any franchise, really, but for a club constructed as Cincinnati is at the moment, it might well be vital. With barely any healthy pitching experience on the roster at all at the moment, the ability to turn the highest percentage of balls in play into outs is the best way for a youthful staff to establish rhythm and confidence - not to mention that it’s the best way to have a chance to win some damn games.

And, if a team is committed to going with a rotation in that fashion, you’d think they’d be backing it up with requisite defense, to boot. The Reds, though, appear to be willing to punt on that idea right now, and that’s a bit troubling.

For starters, Jose Peraza appears set to man shortstop on a near everyday basis in Cozart’s wake, and since he’ll only be turning 24 years old in April, there’s certainly the argument that he’s got a lot of maturation and improvement yet to be seen. However, in the 672.1 innings he’s logged at short in his brief big league career, UZR/150 - another of the oft-wonky defensive stats - have graded him out as a below average (-0.9 defender) at the position. Over at second, Scooter Gennett appears set to log serious innings in 2018 after his offensive outburst, but his defense has been just as questionable over a more thorough, large sample; his career -11.3 DRS mark while playing most of his career at second is at least corroborated by the -5.2 UZR/150 grade he has there after 4104.0 innings at the position. To complete the triumverate of potential defensive steps-back, Hamilton is the lone Red to really be mentioned in an otherwise dead Hot Stove season, as he’s reportedly being sought by both the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers to beef up their own respective outfield defense shortcomings.

Up the middle defense is obviously not the end-all, be-all for winning baseball, as the Reds have repeatedly had their butts handed to them in the standings while playing some damn fine defense. However, it sure helps in many ways, especially when mirrored on the roster by a staff of completely unproven pitchers. Cincinnati has obviously been efforting to improve their franchise in all aspects to get back to their winning ways, but there appears to be a willingness at the moment to gamble that defense isn’t exactly the top focus in order to climb that proverbial mountain.

For some final perspective, roll back with me to that overall team defense leaderboard for all MLB clubs since 2012. You know, the one where the Reds ranked fifth overall. While emphasizing defense might not be what the Reds are prioritizing at this very moment, perhaps its worth noting the four specific teams that ranked ahead of Cincinnati in that span. Atop the list is the Kansas City Royals, who won a World Series and made it to another. Then come the Chicago Cubs, who also won a World Series in that time. Behind them? The Boston Red Sox, who - you guessed it - claimed a World Series title of their own in that span. That the fourth team just so happens to be those Angels, the ones who signed Cozart to pair with Simmons (among a litany of other well regarded moves this winter) just might also be so telling.