Zack Cozart is the proud owner of a donkey these days, the byproduct of his trip to the All Star Game during his breakout campaign in 2017. Cozart, of course, inked a 3 year deal with the Los Angeles Angels this winter that’ll pay him nearly $40 million, which has left a Zack Cozart-sized hole for the Cincinnati Reds at shortstop.
A quick jump over to FanGraphs shows that Cozart was the third most valuable shortstop in all of baseball in 2017, his 5.0 fWAR sitting alongside the likes of Francisco Lindor (5.9), Corey Seager (5.7), and Andrelton Simmons (4.9). Good company, those folks. If you toggle over to the 2B leaderboard and set the minimum PA from 2017 to 350, though, you’ll need to head over to the second page of players to find Jose Peraza’s overall rank in terms of fWAR, as his -0.2 mark checked in as the 35th best of the 39 MLB players who fit such criteria.
The idea of simply replacing Cozart with Peraza and motoring on in year four of this rebuild as if it were a seamless transition has always felt a bit off. Admittedly, Peraza is still certainly young enough and carries enough prospect pedigree to suggest that the production he put forward in 2017 isn’t all he has to offer, but the lack of a clear contingency plan aside him has also seemed equally as odd, 33 year old Cliff Pennington especially included. It’s precisely for that reason that there’s been ample clamoring for Eugenio Suarez to get reps at his old position at short, the one where he spent the bulk of his minor league career playing and where he played exclusively in each of his first 166 starts in the big leagues.
Unless it’s merely gimmick week in Goodyear, it appears there may be a more obvious answer to the shortstop shuffle that we’ve overlooked on mere technicalities all winter. Nick Senzel, the Reds top prospect, is a great athlete, incredible hitter, and versatile infielder, and it now appears that the idea of simply letting him play shortstop is just that - a simple and obvious one. It’s what he’s doing in camp this very moment, as MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon relayed, under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and with the utmost support of manager Bryan Price.
“My focus is on shortstop,” Senzel said on Tuesday. “I’ll take some reps at other spots, but I think third base is a little bit to the side right now.”
If your best prospect can fill the biggest void on the big league roster, roll with it. Obvious, right?
The one equally as obvious issue with this all is, y’know, that Nick Senzel has made it all the way through his so-far-stellar minor league career having never once played shortstop, and the idea that he can just make the climb up the defensive spectrum is far from as straightforward as typing it. It’s a complicated paradox we keep seeing the Reds and their front office run into, though, and one that I’m still having a bit of trouble wrapping my head around.
The front office said previously this winter that moving Eugenio Suarez off 3B was no longer a good idea since he’s become so excellent there, which makes some sense in a vacuum. It’s as if a player’s versatility is a must-try, vital aspect of his overall player profile up until the point where they find a position they’re particularly good at, at which point they’re no longer allowed to capitalize on their versatility...except in Senzel’s case, at the moment, which appears to be operating a bit in reverse of that concept. Adam Duvall, too, can be described as following the Suarez-pattern, since the former 3B/1B has now apparently taken to LF so well that the idea of moving him around to facilitate the outfield logjam is no longer going to happen, as Sheldon also reported from Price.
“To take [Duvall] off of that position for the convenience of putting someone else over there that doesn’t play it as well, doesn’t make a great deal of sense,” Price said.
Assuming there’s some semblance of continuity in thought between getting Jesse Winker into the outfield for playing time in that logjam and getting Nick Senzel into the infield for playing time in the other logjam, two things in particular stand out. One, Duvall is the LF and Suarez is the 3B, and that’s the end of those stories. Second, though, is that both Winker and Senzel are clearly slated to get big league time early and often this season, and they’re going to get opportunities at positions where Price both thinks they’re capable of playing and where there are players who may not be as good as they are. And, if I’ve read those tea leaves correctly, it means Price is on-board with the rest of us in thinking that Senzel is going to be a better player than Peraza, and at the moment we’re finding out if Senzel is capable of playing short.
Senzel as a capable shortstop would cause a ripple effect we’ve not really touched on here this winter, since up until this week we operated on the premise that he’d enter camp getting reps at 2B, 3B, and in the corner OF positions, as the Reds had intimated publicly before. Senzel as the everyday shortstop come, say, May, would then mean we’d get to see Peraza, instead, in that role, as the player he’s so far been since coming over to the Reds - i.e. occastionally at short, 2B, LF, and even spelling Billy Hamilton in CF at times.
It would also mean that there would be a likely offensive force manning short for the Reds on a day to day basis, which is precisely what they just had from Cozart throughout the 2017 season, and it makes you wonder how long the idea that Senzel could play some shortstop has been a concrete idea in the Reds front office. To me, it sure seems more likely that they thought about this for much of 2017 and that made the decision to let Cozart walk in free agency an easy one, and isn’t a concept they just stumbled upon once realizing Cozart was gone. And, if that’s the case, this sounds to me like much less of an ‘experiment’ and much more ‘the plan all along,’ and that’s enough to begin to get really, really excited about the Cincinnati lineup’s potential once Senzel gets called up for good.
Now, just cross your fingers on the pitching.