Are the Cincinnati Reds better off at shortstop than the Tampa Bay Rays? That is certainly debatable. The good news for them is that Zack Cozart is a terrific defender and Eugenio Suarez got off to a great start to his career with the Detroit Tigers. On the other hand, Cozart didn’t hit at all in 2014 while Suarez faded significantly beginning in his second MLB month.
What the Reds can be sure about, though, is that they have at least one actual shortstop and maybe two. The Rays can’t say the same. Even though he started at the position for years, Asdrubal Cabrera looks to be better suited for second base at this point in his career. Second base is also Nick Franklin‘s position as well–ideally neither him nor Cabrera should be playing shortstop for the team.
If Franklin can be just a serviceable defender at shortstop, then his bat could be enough for him to be an above-average starter. He moved off the position more due to the presence of other prospects in the Seattle Mariners organization than any particular fault of his, and there is reason to believe that he can be fine. It is important to clarify that even if Franklin fits best at the keystone, that doesn’t mean that he is a lost cause at shortstop.
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However, Franklin’s ability to hit left-handers is in serious question, and that may be even more important. If Franklin comes up to the major leagues right now, Cabrera would likely need to slide to short against lefties and Franklin will only get limited opportunities to prove that he can be more than a platoon player. With that in mind, the Rays’ best move may be to find a true shortstop and start Franklin in the minors to give him a chance to fix his issues against left-handers.
Could Cozart or Suarez solve the problem? Cozart would give the Rays a spectacular defender, but he would also immediately become the team’s worst hitter. He isn’t quite Reid Brignac at the plate–at least he is solid against left-handed pitching and has hit as many as 15 home runs in a year–but he has never managed an OBP of even .300 for a full season.
Cozart is such an incredible fielder that he has been considered an above-average starting shortstop two of the last three seasons. But if the Rays want an all-field, no-hit shortstop, Hak-Ju Lee is probably their guy. In addition, since Franklin actually has the ability to be an above-average hitter and solid defender, he has a chance to be better than Cozart. It is hard to believe that the Rays would put Franklin at Triple-A in favor of a player who they know won’t hit.
Suarez seems like a better fit because he has also been considered a strong defender at shortstop and has more upside at the plate. His rookie season, though, finished with more questions about his bat than answers. Nick Franklin ended up in the minors in 2014 after a 2013 season that saw him manage a .225/.303/.382 line (96 OPS+) with 12 homers and 6 stolen bases. Suarez managed just a .242/.316/.336 (82 OPS+), striking out nearly as much but showing no power at all and less speed.
Especially given the presence of Cozart, Suarez is set to start 2014 at Triple-A. With the Rays, it is hard to believe that he would begin the season in the majors even without a pure shortstop ahead of him. With Lee and Daniel Robertson at the upper levels of their system, the Rays don’t need a player like Suarez very much.
At best, the Tampa Bay Rays would have lukewarm interest in Zack Cozart and even less than that in Eugenio Suarez. Maybe the Rays would offer Lee and a low-minors pitching prospect for Cozart, but the Reds would say no and the Rays would need to move on.