Ladies and gentlemen, the starting shortstop for your Cincinnati Reds: Eugenio Suarez!
Suarez has only been a big-league Red for five games since taking over for Zack Cozart in the Cincinnati infield, but the early returns are decidedly mixed. On one hand, Suarez is hitting just .158/.238/.316 in 21 plate appearances. On the other hand, the kid has had two clutch moments early in his Reds career. Last Friday, he drove in the winning run in an extra-innings victory over the Cubs. The next day, Suarez—the first hitter after a lengthy two hour, 48 minute rain delay—bombed a two-run homer that tied the game in the sixth inning.
So who is this Eugenio Suarez, and what can we expect from him? Here’s the short version: I’m excited to see this kid play every day. There’s a decent chance that he’ll be a starter in the middle infield on the next good Reds team (assuming the Reds ever have another good team, of course).
Suarez came over from Detroit (with Jonathon Crawford) in the off-season trade that sent Alfredo Simon packing, originally signed by the Tigers as a 17-year-old non-drafted free agent from Venezuela back in 2008. Suarez made his major league debut last year for the Motor City Kitties; in 85 games, he hit .242/.316/.336 with four home runs. Good, not great, but he was only 22. And even at age 22, that on-base percentage is higher than Cozart has ever posted.
Of utmost importance is the fact that a good shortstop must have a good glove, and we’ve been spoiled by Cozart’s elite defense at the position over the last few years. Defensively, Suarez may not be Cozart (few are), but he has all the tools to be above-average with the leather. The book on Suarez says he has “smooth actions, a solid arm, and plus instincts in the field.” Minor league guru John Sickels is somewhat bullish on Suarez’s defense:
[H]e shows good feet with a quick release, good hands, and an excellent arm despite sub-par range. He can lose focus and muff the easiest plays then turn around and make a play that will have you picking your jaw up off the floor. At this point that’s more from lack of maturity and experience than a fatal flaw in his profile.
So, while we shouldn’t expect Suarez to be as smooth as Cozart at shortstop, his glove will almost certainly be a plus feature on the big league level. In fact, he was almost precisely league average according to UZR in his first taste of MLB as a 22-year-old rookie. That’s not nothing, as they say.
Offensively, Suarez won’t be Barry Larkin, but he is likely to be a substantial upgrade over Cozart in the long run. I mentioned OBP earlier, and I get a little excited at the prospect of having a middle infielder who can actually get on base at a respectable clip. This season in AAA, he hit .256/.348/.438 with nine doubles and eight homers in 57 games; this despite being four years younger than the average player in the International League. Over parts of seven seasons in the minors, Suarez has put together a combined slash line of .276/.361/.417. He has continually improved his approach at the plate and has become more disciplined as he’s moved up the ladder.
As Sickels has also noted, Suarez has been an extreme fly-ball hitter over the course of his career, although he has “a swing geared for line drives with a compact, flat swing path and a good ability to put the barrel on the ball.” He doesn’t have a ton of power, but the fly ball tendencies should translate into some Great American Ball Park homers.
Here’s what Baseball Prospectus said about Suarez in this year’s annual:
Year after year Suarez’s offensive production has been all over the map, but he picked the right time to rake in Double-A and Triple-A. With Jose Iglesias on the mend and the Tigers employing a lazy Susan’s horde of Quad-A shortstops, Suarez earned a promotion, making him the team’s fourth starting shortstop of the year. He started great in June, peaked in his eighth career game, cooled off the rest of the year and didn’t make a postseason start. He might need to begin the year in Triple-A to polish his defense and reenergize his confidence at the plate, but in the end his makeup could allow him to carve out a nice little Felipe Lopez career. He could push Zack Cozart as soon as this year, which was presumably part of the point of the Reds acquiring him in the Alfredo Simon deal.
The Cozart injury has sped up the process of determining whether Suarez is the Reds’ shortstop of the near future, but he actually presents the Reds with a wider range of options. Suarez should be a fine big league SS, but he also profiles as a solidly above-average second baseman, should the Reds choose to move him over to the other side of the keystone. With Brandon Phillips hobbled again (and at an age when 2Bs are rarely able to maintain their performance), the Reds may decide the best bet is to make Suarez the next Dat Dude in town. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable decision; whatever the Reds choose to do with Suarez will be defensible, in my opinion.
Either way, the future is now. Which is fortunate, since the present looks so bleak.