Jonathan India’s impressive play is forcing the Reds (and Eugenio Suarez) to pivot. The 24-year-old infielder is looking more-and-more likely to make the roster, per Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It wasn’t the plan to break camp with India at the keystone, but the former No. 5 overall pick of the 2018 draft has forced the issue by hitting .333/.474/.633 this spring. To make room, the Reds will need to pull off the unorthodox move of shifting their third baseman up the defensive spectrum – again.
Last year it was free agent signee Mike Moustakas continuing an experiment begun in Milwaukee and sliding to second base from the hot corner – which was occupied by Suarez. At the benefit of Moustakas’ 109 wRC+ bat, they weathered the storm of passable, if uninspired defense at second (-3 DRS, 0.0 UZR, 0 OAA). Now, Moustakas may return to the hot corner.
Meanwhile, Suarez, now 15 pounds lighter, will slide to shortstop where he began his Major League career with the Tigers back in 2014. He hasn’t played more than a dozen innings up the middle since 2015, however. Since the Reds began trying out Suarez at shortstop just a few days ago, the experiment has quickly become more strategy than gimmick. Defensive metrics frowned upon Suarez’s glovework last he tried to captain the infield (-12 DRS, -10.4 UZR in 96 games in 2016), but in fairness, his bat has the potential to justify the sacrifice. Even in a down year, Suarez was four percent better than average at the plate in 2020. Of course, to make this experiment worthwhile, he’ll need to be closer to the 134 wRC+ hitter he was in 2018-19.
Beyond India’s impressive spring, the Reds may also be attempting to cover for a relative dearth of proven shortstops on the roster. If not Suarez, the top contenders are Kyle Farmer, a 30-year-old former catcher with 10 career starts at short, and Dee Strange-Gordon, 33 in April, who owns an unimpressive 80 wRC+ over 2,131 plate appearances dating back through 2016 and hasn’t started more than seven games at shortstop since 2013. Even then, when he was still in his athletic prime, defensive metrics weren’t kind to his glovework. As of now, it’s not even clear if the non-roster invitee will be added to the 40-man roster. Jose Garcia, 22, might be the long-term solution, but the consensus is that he overreached in 2020 – evidenced by a .194/.206/.194 line in 68 PA – and needs more seasoning in the minors.
If India indeed gets the nod at second, as seems likely, it could be argued that the Reds will have third basemen at five positions around the diamond: both India and likely centerfielder Nick Senzel were drafted as third basemen, Suarez has spent five consecutive seasons at third, Moustakas will be positioned at third, and right fielder Nicholas Castellanos spent the first four years of his career as a third baseman with the Tigers. Essentially, if a player on the Reds throws right-handed, it’s safe to assume he was, at some point, a third baseman. Given their experience in this niche, whether or not you’re a believer, it’s hard to argue that the Reds don’t know what they’re doing.
Whether the offense has enough gravity to overcome their defensive shortcomings will be fascinating to track throughout a full 162-game season. If the Reds pull it off, they’ll have identified an unlikely market advantage during an era known for innovation: the ability to transition third basemen up the defensive spectrum.