We’ve seen it the past two weeks. Kyle Farmer couldn’t get to quite enough balls, Kyle Holder didn’t do quite enough with the bat, and Dee Strange-Gordon, well … hasn’t done much of anything. Those shortcomings have played a role in the statement tonight by Reds manager David Bell that starting tomorrow the club would look at its third baseman Eugenio Suarez at shortstop.
Bell’s announcement signals the Reds may well turn to an unexpected in-house fix to the colossal failure by the ownership and front office to secure an everyday shortstop.
But if you interpret this as a “break glass in case of emergency” move, you’re off by one letter.
How we got here
Eugenio Suarez signed with the Detroit Tigers at the age of 17 and came through the organization as a shortstop. Suarez got his big league break mid-way through the 2014 season subbing in for Jose Iglesias, the Tigers slick-fielding starter who became sidelined with stress fractures in both shins. The 22-year-old Suarez didn’t do much at the plate, hitting .242/.316/.336 in 277 appearances.
With the impending return of Iglesias, himself just 25 years old, Suarez was destined to be sent back to AAA or sit the Tigers bench in 2015. That’s what made the young Venezuelan expendable in the eyes of Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski. Dombrowski needed to fill the hole left by the departure of starters Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello and the 426 innings they had combined to throw for the Tigers in 2014. He coveted Alfredo Simon, who had made 32 starts and thrown 196 innings while becoming an All-Star for the Reds in 2014.
Reds GM Walt Jocketty and Dombrowski were long-time pals and happened to be staying across the hall from each other at the 2014 MLB winter meetings in San Diego. It gave Dombrowski easy access to Jocketty and the two worked out a hallway deal for the Reds to send Simon to Detroit for two young players. Jocketty described the trade as “clearing payroll” from the Reds viewpoint. No one imagined that Suarez, five years later, would hit 49 home runs and sign a 6-year, $66 million contract extension.
After all, the club had Zack Cozart, one of the best fielding shortstops in baseball. Cozart had manned the position for the Reds full-time since 2012. Suarez broke training camp in 2015 assigned to AAA-Louisville. He remained in the minor leagues until June 11, when he was called up to replace Cozart who had suffered season-ending knee damage hustling out a ground ball. Cozart was hitting .258/.310/.459 at the time, with nine home runs. That’s a 106 (wRC+) rate of run creation, six percent above league average.
Eugenio Suarez became the Reds everyday shortstop for the second half of 2015. In 398 plate appearances, Suarez matched Cozart’s 106 wRC+ run production, batting .280/.315/.446. But that stint at shortstop proved temporary. Cozart returned next spring and played short for the Reds until he left as a free agent after the 2017 season.
Suarez meanwhile had moved to third base, playing 150+ games there both in 2016 and 2017. He had replaced the popular Todd Frazier who had been traded from the club during the 2015 offseason. Suarez had become proficient at third, so the club didn’t move him back to short when Cozart left.
Since then instead, the Reds have relied on a tattered patchwork of one-year solutions at short. Jose Peraza, who came to the Reds in the Frazier trade, Jose Iglesias and Freddie Galvis all took feature turns. Appearances by Cliff Pennington, Phil Gosselin, Blake Trahan, Kyle Famer and über-prospect Jose Garcia were cameos.
At the end of the 2020 season, the club identified finding a shortstop to bridge the gap between now and when Jose Garcia is ready, as its highest offseason priority. But boy did they whiff. To use an expression from the legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, Reds ownership and its new front office stood there like a house by the side of the road.
That shortstop swing-and-miss bequeathed a bunch of shaky options for David Bell. The Reds started spring training with these choices: (1) platoon Kyle Farmer and Kyle Holder, (2) play an unready Jose Garcia, (3) play Dee Strange-Gordon, whose career stats pointed to a main qualification of being Barry Larkin’s neighbor and workout buddy, and (4) play Alex Blandino.
The Reds coaching staff has now witnessed two weeks of games and have seen enough.
- Farmer has impressed at the plate as one of the Reds best hitters this spring. And while his glove is sure, it’s clear he just hasn’t gotten to enough balls to play everyday at short.
- Holder, who hasn’t played above the AA level, has displayed a dazzling glove, but hasn’t hit — at all.
- Garcia has impeccable credentials in the field but hasn’t moved the needle at the plate.
- Blandino seems well-fit for a utility role, but not playing every day at short.
- Strange-Gordon has been iffy in the field and barely threatens to hit the ball out of the infield.
After today’s game, here’s how Bell framed it:
“We have to see what it looks like. We’re not making any decisions now, we have a lot of options. We have guys willing to do what’s best for our team and have bought in to whatever it takes,” Bell said Monday. “That’s making this look at Geno at shortstop possible.” (Mark Sheldon)
Reds fans who tune in can expect to hear Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop tomorrow.
Where this is headed
Bell’s new plan at shortstop has been enabled by Eugenio Suarez showing up to camp as a new, slimmer, more athletic version of himself. The Reds manager said as much:
“I do think it did have something to do with how he came into camp just lighter and in really good shape. That’s when it was first considered. Over the course of the last three weeks, he’s gradually started working a little bit more on the backfields and I’ve seen him a few times. I’ve had conversations with him, feeling out the situation and he was open to it.” (Mark Sheldon)
Also facilitating the switch is that the Reds have a capable and experienced replacement for Suarez at third.
Mike Moustakas was an everyday third baseman in the Kansas City Royals organization from 2011-2018. For the Brewers in 2019, Moustakas played second base until Keston Hiura arrived mid-May, then Moustakas moved back to his familiar third base. But the Reds had different plans as he signed a 4-year free-agent deal with the team last winter. During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the 31-year-old started two games at third, eight at first base and the rest at second.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure that Suarez playing short means Moustakas will move back to his natural position. A bunch of defensive metrics indicate Moustakas was an above-average third baseman for much of his career. It’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t end up joining Suarez on the left side.
So there you have most of the factors behind Bell’s announcement tonight. The inadequacy of the other shortstop solutions. The weight loss by Suarez. The versatility of Moustakas. But while those are all necessary conditions for Bell’s high stakes tryout of Suarez, they aren’t what precipitated it.
That would be the emergence of Jonathan India.
The 24-year-old is now fully healthy. He spent a year in splendid exile at Prasco Park dedicated to improving his game and by all accounts succeeded. He’s showing it in Phoenix.
Jonathan India has made contact, taken walks, hit for power, run the bases and fielded his position like you hope the number five pick of the draft would. Every day the evidence of India’s arrival continues to mount, punctuated by an attention-grabbing opposite field home run out of Goodyear Ballpark. On top of all that is the young Floridian’s toughness and drive. Reds broadcaster and former big leaguer Chris Welsh speaks of those qualities every chance he gets. Remember that Welsh talks to the guys inside the organization and clubhouse.
No, David Bell hasn’t announced India is the Reds second baseman. Yes, the public line will be there’s an “open competition” for the second base job. Kyle Farmer, Dee Strange-Gordon and Alex Blandino will get a look and consideration. They may even make the Opening Day roster ticketed for a bit of playing time at 2B.
But make no mistake. The Suarez move is about Jonathan India becoming the Reds second baseman.
What to make of it
Eugenio Suarez wasn’t a great shortstop in 2015 with the Reds. In fact, out of the pool of full-time shortstops, defensive metrics indicate he was the worst in the major leagues. If back-of-the-baseball-card stats are your thing, Suarez committed 19 errors in a little more than half a season. And that was after he had been working on the position non-stop for years.
On the other hand, you have to think that Suarez will do his best to make this trial succeed.
The trend toward defensive shifts might mitigate concerns about infield fielding. For right-handed batters, teams are more often playing three infielders to left side of the 2B bag, reducing the ground each has to cover. In 2018, the Reds hardly ever shifted against RH hitters. Last year, they did it almost a quarter of the time.
The Reds shifted against left-handed hitters a third of the time in 2020. You have to think they will play it the same way they did last year, with Suarez the sole infielder on the left side, Moustakas in the classic second-base slot and Jonathan India (or whomever the scorecard second baseman is that game) will play the short right field position where athleticism is at a premium.
Reds shortstops hit 33 percent below league average last year. Unless Jonathan India’s prowess at the plate proves to be a cruel two-week hoax, the Reds lineup should be much bolstered by the new infield configuration.
Even if Suarez’s defense at SS proves to be sub-par — and Reds fans should acknowledge the likelihood of that right now — the move still has the potential to make the Reds a much better team overall.
With this step, manager David Bell is proving he’ll adapt to circumstances. He’s seen on the field that Plan A hasn’t worked and he’s not too stubborn or over-cautious to put Plan B in motion. But more than that, Bell is letting a young player knock the door down and force a rethinking across the infield. That’s why we should look at Bell’s new plan as a moment of emergence, not emergency.