The Reds Have A Eugenio Suarez Problem

Reds GM Nick Krall kicked off the offseason by stating that “going into 2022, we must align our payroll to our resources and continue focusing on scouting and developing young talent from within our system.”  While subsequent reports have indicated that the Reds aren’t entirely tearing things down, the team has already parted ways with such veterans as Wade Miley and Tucker Barnhart, and combined with last winter’s trade of Raisel Iglesias to the Angels, that marks three notable players given away for virtually nothing in salary-dump fashion.

Much to the dismay of Cincinnati fans, the gradual increase in spending that followed six losing seasons from 2014-19 now appears to be over.  That rebuild resulted in winning records in both 2020 and 2021, but only a two-game appearance (without a run scored) in the expanded 2020 postseason to show for the Reds’ efforts.  It is safe to say that the pandemic is in large part to blame for ownership’s apparent decision to limit spending, and yet it also can’t be ignored that some of the higher-paid members of the Reds roster have underachieved — a critical setback for any mid-market team.

Case in point, Eugenio Suarez.

The third baseman’s seven-year, $66MM extension in March 2018 was one of the early signposts that the Reds were getting ready to open the pocketbook and start building the core of their next contender.  The extension covered Suarez’s three remaining arbitration years and up to five of his free agent years (Cincinnati has a $15MM club option on his services for 2025, with a $2MM buyout).

Suarez earned the extension after posting some solid offensive and defensive numbers over his first three seasons in the Queen City, and the Reds’ decision to lock him up looked even wiser considering how Suarez performed in 2018-19.  Over his age 26-27 seasons, Suarez kicked up his production to another level, hitting .277/.362/.550 with 83 home runs over 1268 plate appearances, good for a 132 wRC+ and a 133 OPS+.  Suarez received down-ballot MVP attention in both seasons, made the All-Star Game in 2018, and cracked 49 homers in 2019 to tie the second-highest single-season mark in Reds franchise history.

It certainly seemed as if Suarez was set to be one of the cornerstones of a now-loaded Reds lineup that added the likes of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas in the 2019-20 offseason.  However, Suarez simply hasn’t been the same since, and there are some unwelcome signs that 2018 and 2019 may represent his peak.

Some red flags even emerged during that 49-homer season.  Suarez’s .351 xwOBA was well below his .381 wOBA, and his strikeout rate ballooned to 28.5%, after Suarez struck out at only a 23.8% rate over his first five MLB seasons.  As per Statcast, 2019 also marked the lowest line drive (24%) and grounder (36%) rates of Suarez’s career, as he sustained the big increase in his fly-ball rate that began in 2018.  Statcast’s “Expected Home Runs” data only covers the last three seasons, so while Suarez’s 2018 numbers can’t be analyzed, the xHR metric indicates that Suarez “should” have hit only 39.1 homers in 2019.

The other glaring trend was Suarez’s evolution into being a dead pull hitter.  Since the start of the 2019 season, the right-handed hitting Suarez has hit the ball to left field 50.5% of the time, the fourth-highest pull rate of any qualified hitter in baseball.  While teams increased their shift usage against Suarez in 2019, it didn’t hamper his offense too much thanks to that sky-high 29.5% homer rate.  In fact, Suarez had a whopping .423 wOBA against the shift in 2019.

The shifts kept coming, however, with teams shifting against Suarez 69.6% of the time in 2020 and 55.2% of the time in 2021.  With Suarez’s fly balls leaving the yard at a more moderate rate and his grounders now getting gobbled by opposing defenses, Suarez had only a .221 BABIP in 2020-21, contributing to that big dip in his offensive numbers.

Suarez followed up his big 2019 with almost exactly average (100 OPS+, 101 wRC+) production in 2020, as he batted .202/.312/.470 with 15 homers in 231 PA.  After only a .504 OPS over his first 82 PA, Suarez had a .928 OPS in his last 149 trips to the plate, so the thinking was that Suarez might have just had a slow start.  The third baseman also underwent surgery to remove some loose cartilage from his right shoulder in January 2020, though Suarez was expected to have been ready to go by sometime in April if the season had started on time.

That shoulder surgery stands out as an obvious demarcation line between Suarez’s peak production and his decline over the last two years.  However, given the statistical question marks that began even in 2019, injuries can’t be considered the root cause for Suarez’s struggles.  As his rough 2021 season played out, all of the warning signs that stood out in 2019-20 snowballed, resulting in what was essentially a replacement-level season.  Baseball Reference gave Suarez a subpar -0.7 bWAR, while Fangraphs’ calculations were only a little more generous, calculating Suarez at 0.6 fWAR.

Suarez batted .198/.286/.428 over 574 plate appearances, hitting 31 home runs but contributing only an 80 OPS+/85 wRC+.  His 9.8% walk rate was his worst since the 2016 season, and he had only a .301 wOBA against the shift.  Really, considering Suarez had only a .313 wOBA when teams weren’t shifting on him, his pull hitting was less of an issue than the fact that he wasn’t making much hard contact at all.  While Suarez still had one of the league’s better barrel rates, his 39.8% hard-hit ball rate was below the league average.

The strikeouts also just kept coming.  There has always been a lot of swing-and-miss in Suarez’s game, yet among qualified batters, only Javier Baez and Wil Myers have a higher strikeout rate than Suarez’s 29.1% figure since the start of the 2019 season.

If these problems at the plate weren’t bad enough, Suarez’s defense is now also a question mark, though that could be more due to the Reds’ roster construction.  With the team unable to land a shortstop in the 2020-21 offseason, the Reds planned to move Suarez to shortstop last year, thus moving Moustakas into the third base role and breakout rookie Jonathan India getting a shot at the everyday second base job.  Suarez began his career as a shortstop and lost 15 pounds last winter in preparation to move back into his old position, and yet the defensive problems that triggered his move to third base in the first place continued.

Pretty much all of Suarez’s time at shortstop came in the season’s first six weeks, as he struggled enough that Cincinnati quickly pivoted away from the experiment.  With Moustakas spending a big chunk of the season on the injured list, Suarez was able to move back to third base, with India enjoying a Rookie Of The Year campaign at second base and Kyle Farmer turning in a respectable performance as the regular shortstop.

Heading into 2022, it’s hard to know what to expect from Suarez.  If the NL adopts the designated hitter as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, it will alleviate some of the infield logjam that stemmed from the Moustakas signing, but Suarez getting time at DH doesn’t help matters if he still can’t hit.  It could be that some mental pressure might be lifted for Suarez if he doesn’t have to worry about a position switch, and yet defensive metrics have illustrated that Suarez has been an average third baseman at best for the last four years.

For a Reds team now looking to trim payroll, Suarez’s $11MM salary in each of the next three seasons (and the $2MM guaranteed via his club option) stands out as an expenditure that the club would probably prefer to not have on the books.  Finding a suitor for Suarez in the wake of his 2021 down year won’t be easy, as teams may now see Suarez only as a one-dimensional power bat who doesn’t make much contact, and whose production can be kept in check by the shift.

It’s worth noting that Suarez drew some trade interest last offseason, with the Nationals in particular exploring a deal, though Washington wasn’t open to parting with its top pitching prospects.  In hindsight, last winter may have been the Reds’ best opportunity to score a solid trade package in return for Suarez, as he still carried enough long-term value that Cincinnati wouldn’t have moved him in a salary dump.

The equation may have changed now, as the Reds might need to attach a prospect as a sweetener for another club to eat a bigger chunk of Suarez’s salary, or Krall might have to arrange some kind of a trade for another team’s unwanted contract.  The Reds could also conceivably try to package Suarez along with one of their better veteran trade chips (i.e. Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Sonny Gray), but giving up one of those pitchers essentially just to get Suarez’s salary moved wouldn’t be an optimal way to maximize return on a top trade asset.

Needless to say, a return to form for Suarez would be an enormous boon for Cincinnati next year, as Suarez would then essentially be replacing Castellanos (who is still a free agent but unlikely to re-sign given his big asking price) as another big bat alongside India, Joey Votto, and Jesse Winker.  Since he doesn’t turn 31 until July, Suarez isn’t exactly over the hill, and players have rebounded from far worse declines by making changes to their swing or their approach at the plate.  That said, Suarez may need something drastic to counteract the underlying statistical trends of the last three seasons, or else an extension that once looked pretty team-friendly may now be something of an albatross for the Reds going forward.

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