[In the days leading up to Opening Day, we’ll be previewing The State Of The Reds at every single position on the field. Today, we begin with a look at perhaps the most important defensive position: shortstop]

Coming out of the 2017 season, and throughout most of this past offseason, the Shortstop position was seen as a weakness in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. Zack Cozart, donkey owner and everyday Reds shortstop since the 2012 season signed with the Los Angeles Angels early on, leaving only Jose Peraza as a legitimate everyday option at short. Peraza, although still very young for a Major League player, disappointed in 2017 and was dethroned from his starting role at second base by Cincinnati Legend (TM) Scooter Gennett.

And that was it for a while. No backups, no major league ready prospects, just Peraza and his 62 wRC+. The Reds, no doubt sensing that surely Peraza couldn’t be penciled in 162 times at shortstop over the summer, made a splash in the Free Agent pool by signing…Phil Gosselin. Oh! And Cliff Pennington.

You’re not the only one who thinks a stable of shortstops consisting of Jose Peraza, Phil Gosselin and Cliff Pennington might underwhelm Redleg Nation in 2018. Although Peraza still certainly has the talent and upside to be a potential starting-caliber player, he’s far from a sure thing. Pennington and Gosselin are fine backup players, but where’s the excitement? Where’s the enthusiasm? Where’s the prototypical stud shortstop, here to save the day and look awesome while doing it? Where’s the Carlos Correa, the Francisco Lindor, or the Manny Machado?

Enter: Nick Senzel.

The Reds fanbase was taken by storm early in spring training when it was announced that Senzel, Cincinnati’s consensus top prospect, had been working for months at learning the skills necessary to play shortstop, and would be focusing the bulk of his efforts on playing there throughout spring camp. To say that this announcement lit a spark in the fanbase is an understatement – and rightfully so! The thought that Senzel could plug into the everyday lineup next to Eugenio Suarez at third changed everything. It made the future infield look better. It made the rebuild look better. Hell, it made Senzel himself look better.

It’s unlikely Senzel will be breaking with the Major League team at the start of the season. His bat certainly profiles to be very good already, but for a guy who’s never played shortstop professionally, and has also never taken an at-bat at the Triple-A level, it probably makes sense to give him some marination in Louisville. Add to all of this the service time implications, and Nick Senzel, Louisville shortstop is probably a lock until June.

But who plays shortstop until the prodigal son is ready to stake his claim? Let’s dive in.

Opening Day starter: Jose Peraza

When the Reds traded for Jose Peraza, they were obviously in love with his upside. The skill with the bat has always been obvious, his penchant for not striking out is a plus, his speed is an asset, and his defense, while not outstanding, is solid.

Some of these skills made cameo appearances in Peraza’s 2017 season, most notably in the second half. But the young man just couldn’t seem to put it all together. Plaguing him most was a seeming inability to take a walk in the first half of the season, taking his base only 5 times(!!) in 336 plate appearances.

For those scoring at home, that’s not good. It was borderline infuriating at times, and remains so in the eyes of many. He tripled this number in the second half in only 182 plate appearances as he took more of a backup role to Gennett and Cozart. That’s a second half BB% of 8.2%, just above league average and very good for a player with the kind of speed and baserunning ability Peraza has.

Defensively Peraza ranked 11th of all second basemen in Fangraphs Defensive Runs Above Average metric, putting him squarely in the Good, Not Great club. If he continues to walk at an 8% clip and we continue to see improved offense all around, the Reds can absolutely live with this level of defense. It’s not, however, enough to carry a 62 wRC+ for an entire 162 game summer.

As I’ve mentioned before, Peraza is still young. Plenty of world class shortstops weren’t offensive juggernauts at 23 years old. Many of them weren’t even in the big leagues at that point in their careers. It’s unfortunate for him that the club is hoping he develops into his full potential while also playing every day against major league pitching, but in a rebuild, them’s the breaks. We’ll see if he’s a little more up to the challenge in 2018.

The Backups: Phil Gosselin and Cliff Pennington

Phil Gosselin has spent parts of five seasons in the Major Leagues, spending time with Atlanta, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Texas. He owns a career 84 wRC+, featuring a 136 wRC+ 2015 season in which he had 118 plate appearances split between the Braves and the Diamondbacks. He’s been a career backup, never surpassing 240 plate appearances in a single season. The defensive metrics are nearly split on Gosselin, with Fangraphs tagging him with a -0.3 career Defensive Runs Above Average.

Gosselin will likely be battling against Cliff Pennington for a single backup shortstop spot on the Opening Day roster. Pennington has spent parts of 10 seasons in the major leagues, playing for Oakland, Arizona (with Phil Gosselin!), Toronto, and the Los Angeles Angels. Pennington sports a career 79 wRC+, but looks to be much better than Gosselin defensively with 40.6 career Defensive Runs Above Average.

Both players have been hitting the ball well in Spring Training so far, with Gosselin looking particularly good. Neither player is on the team’s 40-man roster, but will need to be added obviously in order to make the big league club. If I had to guess, I’d think Gosselin makes the Opening Day roster.

The Once and Future Shortstop: Nick Senzel

Part of the reason moving Senzel to shortstop was such an impactful move for the Reds is the fact that there’s really no one ready to usurp the position. Outside of Blake Trahan, who isn’t ready for the big leagues just yet, there’s no one who could legitimately play shortstop every day at the AA or AAA levels. Alex Blandino, probably the only other guy you could force onto this list, really works best as a 3B or 2B in an every day role.

So, Senzel makes a whole lot of sense as a shortstop. He’s played shortstop before, most notably in college at the University of Tennessee while filling in for an injured teammate. By all accounts he handled the position well, but was ultimately moved back to third base, and was drafted as a third baseman.

We all know the rest of the story so far. Senzel has cruised past every level of the minors he’s visited, culminating in a .340/.413/.560 slash line over 57 AA games in 2017. He walks a lot, strikes out slightly less than the average hitter, hits the ball to all areas of the field, and is a deceptively sneaky runner, much like Todd Frazier was during his early years with the Reds. He has a fantastic feel for the game, which really shows on the base paths.

Defensively, at least at third base, the story stays the same. After pinpointing his defense as the worst (but still pretty good) part of his game, Senzel only went out and balled enough to be named MLB Pipeline’s top defensive third baseman in the minor leagues. He’s only taken a few live-game ground balls during Spring Training, most notably picking up an error which ended Amir Garrett’s streak of consecutive batters retired in a game last Friday. Shortstop is one of the hardest defensive positions to play in the game, so we shouldn’t expect this transition to be an easy one. But if I’ve got to pick one third baseman to make the transition, I’d be choosing Senzel.

The Reds rebuild could potentially hinge a lot on whether or not the ‘Nick Senzel: Shortstop’ experiment goes well. If he’s playing shortstop in two seasons, he’s most likely the best player on the team in 2020, and maybe one of the top players in the MLB. The offensive numbers will almost assuredly stay on the same trajectory his minor league numbers have been at for the past few years. With that bat at shortstop, you suddenly have the makings of a potential MVP caliber player.

If Senzel can’t play shortstop, things get a little more tricky. All of a sudden, you’re sacrificing two of Eugenio Suarez, Dilson Herrera, Shed Long, and Alex Blandino so that Senzel can play either Third or Second. You’re either banking on Jose Peraza to turn into an everyday shortstop, or you’re spending money to go out and get an everyday shortstop. You’re taking a bat, which will still be very good, and placing it at a position where the offense won’t be as valuable. It’s not exactly a doomsday scenario; after all, this was the scenario we were looking at only a few weeks ago! But I think we can all agree that the very best option for our favorite baseball team is that Nick Senzel is the starting shortstop for our Reds in 2020.

19 Responses

  1. Sliotar

    Jordan,

    Nice write-up.

    I would disagree on Senzel in 2020 deciding the fate of the Reds’ rebuild and being one of the best players in MLB then.

    That is far too much weight on Senzel and the team. Mike Trout can’t get any playoff wins with the Angels, cranking out 7-10 WAR a season, not to mention Votto.

    As of last month, Senzel was projected at 8 WAR total over his first 6 MLB seasons.
    https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2018-top-100-katoh-prospects/

    This Spring, numerous comments on RLN are bringing up the need for offensive upgrades throughout the lineup. Hopefully, by 2020, Dick Williams has “sorted” that out, to help Senzel, WInker and an aging Votto.

  2. Tom Mitsoff

    I can’t agree that having Senzel as the shortstop in 2020 is the best option until we figure out if he can actually play shortstop adequately at the major league level. Nobody wants Senzel to be a star more than me, but never presume that switching positions at the major league level is an easy task.

    I am old enough to remember when Johnny Bench was moved from catcher to third base in 1982, with the idea of giving his knees a needed break later in his career. He was adequate defensively at third on a horrible team. On a good team, his defense and his diminishing bat would not have played well as a third baseman.

    Presuming he can hit in the bigs as well as everyone is predicting, I say put him at second if he is better there than at shortstop. Give him every chance to be the shining star this team needs.

    • Chad Dotson

      I don’t think anyone is presuming anything (I think that’s why Jordan said “if he’s playing shortstop in two years.”). But there’s no question that Senzel at SS in 2020 is the best case scenario. Because for that to happen, he has to hit in the big leagues and he has to be able to field the position.

      And if Senzel can handle the position — even as an average defensive shortstop — there’s no one in the system that can come even close to his potential. So yeah, it’s the best option, to me at least.

  3. David

    Just mentioning: Caalten Dahl was hurt for most of 2017, after a pretty decent year at AA in 2016. I don’t know where he will end up this year, or the future.

    I really don’t understand the reason why Pennington or Gosselin are being considered for roster spots. Why? Why do we want some +30 year old career bench player with the Reds during “rebuilding”. This practice by Jocketty is one significant reason why we are in this position: His regime as GM never did anything to develop minor league players at the ML level.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      You want bench guys like this because they aren’t likely to get many ABs behind Peraza. You want the young, developing guys to get as many ABs as possible, which is why they’re still in the minors.

  4. scottya

    Good article, Your thoughts on Peraza’a potential and his flaws are spot on.

    The FO deserves big time credit for being willing to slide Senzel over to SS and Senzel deserves big time credit for accepting the recommendations and for working at it.

    It is a rebuild changer if it works out and he is our SS for the second half of 2018 and on. Imagine a avg ss defense with a .900 ops (like his minor league #’s, 4+ war)

    • scottya

      Add Senzel to the 2018 zips projections at 4 war and you can see the potential:

      Senzel 4 war
      Suarez 4 war
      Votto 5 war
      Gennett 1 war
      Barnhart 3 war
      Winker/Duvall 2 war
      Hamilton 2 war
      Schebler 2 war

      That is a playoff worthy 8.

  5. Sandman

    This is going to sound strange but, I don’t know what I’m going to do if Peraza turns out to be good. I’ve spent so much time and energy on not liking him that I’m afraid he’s gonna make me eat those words one day. I won’t be eating very much though bcuz I still don’t like the no or little power aspect of his game. I would very much rather have Senzel and Gennett in the lineup everyday than Peraza. So, in a way, I’m kinda hoping Peraza fails and Senzel succeeds. And in a very messed up way that kinda makes me look like somewhat of a bad reds fan bcuz it’s like I’m rooting for one of my favorite team’s plyrs to fail (but at the same time I’m rooting for another reds player to succeed). I’m kinda caught between a rock and a hard place though. I don’t wanna seem like a bad reds fan (and I’m not bcuz I’ve been loyal to this team for the last 28 yrs of my life). But, if Peraza winds up succeeding offensively and defensively, I’ve got no choice but to stand my ground bcuz I’m not gonna give anyone the satisfaction of being able to tell me, “I told you so!”. Oh, there will be articles pointing out just how well Peraza’s doing (if indeed he does well). I know there will be. And those will be the, “I told you so’s”, without actually having to say it. So, this is probably going to make me look like a bad reds fan. But I’m not a bad reds fan. I just want the best players possible at each position and I believe there is someone better than Peraza (and his name is Senzel). Peraza projects to be just an average ML hitter. Senzel I believe can hit for power and average (at least more power than Peraza). So, I really hope Jose is just a placeholder for Nick until he arrives. Also, ppl keep talking about how Peraza made bit to the big leagues at such a young age and how other current superstars or even some HOF’rs didn’t even make it to the bigs when they were his age. Here’s my thoughts about this…I will always believe that the only reason Peraza made it to the big leagues as early as he did (with the reds) is bcuz Cincinnati was (1) Rebuilding and had traded away a lot of veterans therefore had no choice and also to see what they had and (2) Bcuz Cozart was often injured and the Reds realized that Peraza was the only capable backup at the positio. Not really saying that Peraza didn’t earn his way to the bigs but it was more out of necessity and wanting to see what they had. I will always believe this.

    • Sandman

      Steve, Didn’t think of that. I just figured if he was good enough to stay at SS then the Reds might wanna keep him there.

    • Sandman

      Indy RM, I think the difference may be that I don’t care for Peraza. But I hope he’s just good enough to be a backup.

    • Sandman

      Greenmtred, I’m not gonna eat crow but thanks for the suggestion. Peraza isn’t the last great hope for Cincinnati. Why’s everybody counting so much on Peraza. I hope Senzel takes the SS job and that Peraza is just good enough to be his backup.

  6. Chris Miller

    This whole 2nd half resurgence talk last year for Peraza is really deceiving, yet people keep acting like it’s true. Peraza had a nice August, PERIOD. His July, and his Sept/Oct were crap. Combined OPB in from July until the end of the season, MINUS August, was sub .300. Sub .300 for the softest hitter in the game, plus his terrible defense. If we are stuck with Peraza at SS, then this team will be horrible. Peraza could not get on base in the minors either, but people seem to gloss over that.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      Peraza only had a below-average OBP in one of his minor league seasons, in which it was around ~.315. That was the only season his OBP was under .333. He was routinely sitting at around .350 from while playing at each level well under the age median. I’d say he got on base well enough in the minors.

      • Chris Miller

        Jordan, you are right, Peraza’s OBP was decent. I was looking at the MLB totals. Having said that, light hitters are rarely going to improve at the MLB level. Compare these numbers for a moment:

        .280/BA .351/OBP .377/Slg .728/OPS
        .299/BA .341/OBP .386/Slg .726/OPS

        Billy Hamilton
        Jose Peraza

        Both numbers are for 6 years of Minor League Play. Consider that Hamilton did this while learning how to hit left handed, and learned how to play a new positions his final year. Hamilton is clearly the better athlete too, so I’m not convinced that you are going to see much out of Peraza in the form of an offensive player. At least BHam is a defensive whiz, and can change the game with his speed. This isn’t to suggest that Hamilton is anything spectacular. To the contrary, it’s to show that Peraza is a big bust, and people are hoping, rather than using actual numbers to show that chances are slim that Peraza will be anything above a utility player.

    • Chris Miller

      You can bash Price all you want, but NO MANAGER in the game would have sat Cozart or Gennett, so that Peraza could play. You really expected Price to sit the 3rd best SS in the game so that Peraza could play? Really? Scooter, unlike Peraza, EARNED his playing time. You act like Scooter is old. He’s 27 years old, and had an absolutely amazing season, yet you think Price should have sat him so that Peraza who LOST his job, and rightly so, should somehow get it back, because he’s younger? There are a lot of reasons to bash Price, but this is bordering on absolute ridiculousness. Let’s be clear, Cozart and Gennett were not the problem with this team last year; in fact, one could argue they were, along with Votto the only reason this team was offensively relevant. Peraza, equals SOFTEST HITTER in the game, coupled with sub par base running and defense.

    • Chris Miller

      You couldn’t be more wrong on this topic. You don’t sit two of your best players so you can give a kid who stunk in the 1st half, another chance. This isn’t single A. The idea that you expected Price to sit one of the best players in the entire game last season, in Cozart, is downright laughable. Yeah, good luck resigning Cozart, or any other decent free agent. It appears the Reds were ultimately close in resigning Cozart, but it unfortunately didn’t happen. But it was an option, that you would have clearly given away. As for Scooter. Gee, what did we find out about that kid? We found out that given the AB’s, he would have been a .300/30 guy. Yeah, that’s a guy to just kick to to the curb. You would have shut down any option of trading him this past off season by sitting him. It’s not Price’s fault Cozart wasn’t re-signed, or Scooter dealt. Price did his part, and he was absolutely spot on with how he handled Cozart and Scooter all season long. Price isn’t some great manager, and I’d be fine with him being replaced, but in this case your criticism is an absolute joke without any merit. Give me an example where two players with similar seasons of Cozart and Scooter were EVER sat down in September so a young scrub player could play instead. GEEZ!

  7. Phil

    It seems to me that Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts are the examples we want to look at for what we hope Senzel can be as a shortstop. Both have been average to below-average defensively at short (-4 and -4.5 UZR over 2016 and ’17 seasons), but still have been worth 4-5 WAR per season.

  8. Dave Roemerman

    Where’s the prototypical stud shortstop, here to save the day and look awesome while doing it? Where’s the Carlos Correa, the Francisco Lindor, or the Manny Machado?

    Almost nowhere, especially Cincinnati. Concepcion was stereo- (not proto-)typical, all-field no-hit SS until he picked up his contact rate in the middle of his career. Larkin was, well, he was special, as the first 30-30 club SS. He was arguably the actual prototype for future SSs. However, he’s in the HOF and rare for that reason.

    Senzel may work out there, especially given that middle infielders and outfielders are making fewer plays than in years past (a side effect of everyone whiffing constantly), shifting is more common, and defense is less necessary than in a high contact era. If he doesn’t work, though, Peraza is likely still a decent option based on his better eye and corresponding numbers the latter half of last year. Cozart will be missed, but I think we’ll be okay, especially long term. Another good read, thanks!