You’ve probably heard the latest Reds rumor by now, and if you haven’t I would advise you to check out Steve’s comprehensive post. To summarize, though, as many as four teams are eyeing a pair of Cincinnati shortstops: big-leaguer Zack Cozart and prospect Didi Gregorius.
While Mr. Engbloom explored in detail what each potential trading partner — Arizona, Minnesota, Oakland, and Tampa Bay — could offer while avoiding an endorsement of either player, I’d like to take another course and state my defense for keeping Gregorius over Cozart. BRM’s Tyler Grote made the case for the latter earlier today and his argument is valid, but I believe there’s one major reason that sets Didi out from the pair.
The two players have very similar profiles, including their respective acquisitions in 2007. Both have proven gloves and impressive command of the diamond despite their relative youth. Both overcame obstacles in minor-league infields to become dependable players. Both have the ability to go deep but are better known for their singles and doubles, both of which add up to good total bases figures. From the perspective of the Reds brass, that’s a good thing either way. But again, one thing makes a seemingly equal playing field lean towards Gregorius.
I’ll start with what makes him good, but not necessarily better. His range is one example. Anecdotal evidence from a Double-A observer is one thing — I watched a score of his Blue Wahoos games and Didi was dynamite nearly every time — but video evidence is another. While I wish I could show you directly, these plays are certainly worth a watch: the first gem comes from a Pensacola game, the last is pulled from his debut with the Reds.
Bear in mind that Cozart’s defense isn’t too shabby either. Unfortunately, Fangraphs didn’t have any data for Didi, but I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is and guarantee that the minor-league figures would rival Zack’s.
Batting is also an intriguing topic. While current trends favor Cozart, Gregorius shares eerily similar averages with his teammate over five years. One important factor is that unlike the Cincinnati starter, Didi hasn’t been a full-time player for very long. Whereas Cozart took the reins in 2008 and kept them until his promotion three years later, Gregorius had a relatively permanent roster spot for only two seasons, including this year. This hasn’t stopped him from racking up total bases and extra-base hits at a similar rate; although Didi has played in roughly sixty fewer games in the minors, he trails Cozart by only fifty-three hits. He also stayed atop the Wahoos leaderboard for total bases all year long despite being promoted to Triple-A Louisville in July. You can double-check that claim and investigate on your own using this link for Gregorius and another one for Cozart.
One drawback was his plate discipline. As a young player, Gregorius has shown eagerness at the plate, albeit too much at times. More often than not, I groaned as another strikeout ended another inning and stranded some runners to boot. But when he finds his rhythm, he’s near unstoppable. As John Heitz mused in April, his first twenty-seven hits were all singles, a tremendous achievement that came on the heels of a ten-game hitting streak.
Gregorius has also found playing time in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, an honor which serves as a huge indication of what kind of big-league potential a team thinks one of its prospects has. Cozart played in Peoria after the 2009 season and found himself starting in Louisville when April 2010 rolled around. In sharp contrast to his “swing first, ask questions later” approach from the first half of the year, it took twelve games and forty at-bats before Didi finally struck out in Arizona.
Let’s change topics for a second. Mr. Grote addressed a plague of “what-ifs” that have haunted Cincinnati in spite of recent success. To quote the article:
Lots of guys in this city had potential. Jonny Gomes? Tons of potential. Juan Francisco? Huge potential guy. Austin Kearns may be the potential poster child. My point is, potential doesn’t always pan out. I’m sticking with proven talent. If one shortstop is being shopped, shop the guy riding the bus and keep the guy that has demonstrated himself capable of playing at this high of a level.
[...] Let the other team deal with the what-ifs.
But for all the times that potential doesn’t work, think of the miracles that happen when it does. Bryce Harper is an excellent example. I remember a few years ago seeing the now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover and doubting the veracity of the claim that he was the “most exciting prodigy since LeBron” or capable of greatness. Boy, has he lived up to the potential so far.
Enough with the statistical and emotional arguments, here’s the point that drives it home: if both players are relatively equal in their statistics and skill set as it is, take the guy with room to grow even more. Boil it down to age: Cozart is 27, Gregorius is 22. Much like two stocks that start at the same price, reach the same price, and give you close to the same bang for your buck, consider the possibility that one of those companies cleared the same bar in a year that the other did in five. What’s more, Cozart’s 2011 Tommy John surgery raises some questions for the long-term, even though the injury came to his non-throwing arm.
If the Reds could consider Cozart major-league ready with his stats in the minors, why wouldn’t the same apply to Gregorius? Change is hard, and it’s understood that if the Big Red Machine isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it by removing your starting shortstop. I’m just saying there’s a bigger cog available that’ll last a while longer and keep the team humming through October. It’s a gamble upon which the Reds can’t afford to fold.