When the Cincinnati Reds acquired shortstop prospect Eugenio Suarez as part of the Alfredo Simon trade this winter, Reds fans jumped to the conclusion that light-hitting SS Zack Cozart was finally going to have some competition in the hole. Manager Bryan Price was quick to insist that Cozart is still his starter, but, as Spring Training enters the home stretch, Suarez is using his bat to make it known that he won’t be dismissed easily. Price at least seems to be listening.
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Over the past seven games, Suarez has started at shortstop three times and split duties with Cozart once, while Cozart has just one lone appearance — Ivan DeJesus and Kristopher Negron had the other starts.
On the Spring, the tally now stands at eight games for Suarez and just six for Cozart, and the major reason for that disparity is that Suarez’s bat is making it difficult to pull him from the lineup. In 15 at-bats, Suarez is hitting .333 with a walk, a home run and a triple.
While Cozart is hitting .301 in 13 at-bats, he has drawn no walks and his only extra-base hit is a double. As a result, Suarez leads the incumbent Cozart in OPS on the Spring by tally of 1.092 to .692.
Cozart has a clear advantage in the field, as you might expect, as his .950 fielding percentage and 3.17 Range Factor outdistance Suarez’s .867 and 1.63 by a good margin.
The story of Spring Training so far for the battling shortstops — even if Price says they’re not battling — is likely to be the same one we see over and over until Suarez finally supplants Cozart up the middle. Suarez showed that he can be a plus hitter all throughout the minor leagues with the Detroit Tigers, and, in 85 games with the big club last season, he posted and OPS of .652.
Cozart, meanwhile, has a .646 OPS over four Major League seasons, and he seems to be getting worse at the plate (.568 in 2014). He is, though, one of the best two or three defensive shortstops in the Big Leagues.
While fielding is an in-your-face proposition on game day, it does not sparkle in stat lines like stellar hitting, so a player like Cozart will always suffer in terms of fan perception the morning after. Even so, Price and the Reds have been willing to eat his at-bats to get that glove on the field.
That works when the rest of the lineup is thumping, but SS was another gaping offensive hole in 2014, and, if the Reds can’t turn their run-scoring around early in 2015, the pressure could be on to find more production.
As Eugenio Suarez is showing in Spring Training, he may be just the man to provide that boost.