After bungling the process of finding a competent shortstop this winter, the Cincinnati Reds have had to get creative in filling that position. The silver lining of that is that creativity usually leads to some genuinely fun experiments, but even that hasn’t been the case so far in Reds camp. Kyle Farmer, whose natural position is catcher, is getting reps there. Dee Strange-Gordon, whose time at shortstop has been extremely rare since 2013, has seen time in camp there as well. Those are fun in theory, until you remember that neither of those hitters have had a wRC+ better than 76 in the last three seasons. The end result of these experiments, then, still sets you up with a shortstop that is a serious liability both in the field and at the plate. And the players in camp who are natural defensive shortstops, such as Jose Garcia and Kyle Holder, project to be even worse at hitting major league pitching in 2021, since they’ve combined for just 24 games above Double-A in their respective careers.
This week, though, the Reds have finally introduced a name to the shortstop conversation that might be worth genuinely rooting for. Eugenio Suarez, the team’s everyday third baseman since 2016 who has amassed 14.7 WAR in that time, will be the team’s starting shortstop for its spring training game against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday.
Reds Manager David Bell said Eugenio Suárez will start at SS on Tuesday against the Rockies— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) March 15, 2021
This is no meaningless one-off, either — the Reds seem serious about giving him the chance to win the job. That wasn’t a position the team foresaw itself being in until the start of spring training, when Suarez showed up 15 pounds lighter than he was last year. The slimmer Suarez looked noticeably better moving around the infield, which led the team to work him out at shortstop outside of games. Monday’s announcement is an indication those workouts weren’t a total disaster.
Cincinnati fans may remember that Suarez was a shortstop when he was initially acquired from the Tigers before the 2016 season. He received good marks at that position too, not just from scouts when he was in the minors but also from advanced stats in his brief time with Detroit. He only moved off of that position with the Reds because Zack Cozart was already entrenched as the everyday player there, and fortunately for Cincinnati, his bat improved more than enough for him to stick at third base.
Suarez has played just 24.1 innings at shortstop since 2016, and none since 2018. But just because that’s all the time he’s spent with an “SS” next to his name in the box score doesn’t mean it’s the only time he’s functioned as a shortstop. Keep in mind, with the consistent increase in shifting from year to year, a third baseman can find himself positioned all the way over by the second base bag — and sometimes even on the other side of it. According to Statcast, Suarez has had only 11 fielding chances since 2016 while officially listed as a shortstop, but he’s gotten 237 chances while playing in the shortstop’s area of the field. That’s not an enormous data set, but it is substantial. In those 237 plays, Suarez has turned an estimated success rate of 65% into an actual success rate of 64%. By Baseball Savant’s metrics, that places him at -2 Outs Above Average. For comparison, Didi Gregorius got 162 chances in a shortstop’s area of the field in 2020, and was worth -6 OAA. Suarez is likely to be a below-average defender there, but his past performance suggests he might not even rate among the worst fielders in that spot, and that was before he slimmed down a bit this winter.
If Suarez were able to handle shortstop at even a mediocre level defensively, it’s hard to overstate the effect it could have on Cincinnati as a team. It would allow the Reds to play an above-average bat at shortstop in 2021, something that has previously felt like a lost cause. It would also open up third base, which would help the versatility of the roster tremendously. Mike Moustakas could slide back to his natural home at third and open up second base for 2018 first round pick Jonathan India, or even simply give Farmer, Strange-Gordon or Alex Blandino a position they can play more confidently. It could also help with the Reds’ outfield glut when Shogo Akiyama returns from injury, as the team could bring Nick Senzel back into the infield to play either second or third base, yielding center field to Akiyama while Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos man the corners.
None of this is set in stone yet, as Suarez could prove to be worse than expected at shortstop in the remaining spring training games and drop back out of the competition completely. But all reports state this is something he’s actively and excitedly working toward, and the information we have seems to imply he’s worthy of the task. There are still a number of ways the shortstop conversation could play out, but it feels good to finally have one possibility worth rooting for.