Barring an unforeseen - and probably unfortunate - move, the Reds will enter the 2012 season with Zack Cozart and Scott Rolen at the top of the depth chart for SS and 3B, respectively. Both players, though at opposite ends of the career spectrum, suffered major injuries to their moving parts last season (requiring surgery). While you consider the most depraved way to misinterpret that vague description, let's turn an eye to the younger half of that triple play combo; which should be called: "the Old Man and The C."
Let's look at the young master Cozart. After a very nice, contact-driven showing in Louisville, Cozart sustained his AAA success over 38 plate appearances in Cincinnati (though with nary a walk). His defense has often been described as only a small step down from Paul Janish and his error-free performance in the bigs did nothing to gainsay that. Though of course it's hard to get a read on him if you haven't seen him up-close in the Reds' system.
On July 23, Cozart left a game against the Braves after injuring his elbow applying a tag. Initial x-rays were negative, but further investigation and abortive attempts to hit in the cage led to a decision to have reconstructive Tommy John Surgery on his non-throwing elbow in mid-August. He was projected to be ready to go for Spring Training 2012, but there's no way to know for sure - even if you are Zack Cozart. On top of that, team-given timetables are notoriously lowball.
The non-throwing elbow requires less range of motion, but still needs maneuverability to make backhand picks, tags and guide the extension of the swing. Those motions require less rehabilitation time and indeed non-throwing athletes can often avoid surgery for a similar elbow ligament tear. Cozart was cleared for baseball activities in early December, less than four months after surgery, which gives him another four months to be in game shape for Opening Day. Zack Attack(-ack-ack) himself seemed highly optimistic at Redsfest (via John Fay):
"I can start swinging, throwing, taking groundballs," he said. "I'm pumped. I told my wife I was so excited. People still want their offseason, but I'm ready to play in like a month."
"I've never been through this," he said. "But from after the surgery to now - being able to straightened it out forcefully - it feels 100 percent. I won't know until I swing."
Justin Maxwell sustained a similar injury on his non-throwing arm near the end of the 2010 season which required Tommy John. Surgery soon after the close of the season still projected him to be ready for 2011 and he was able to start the season playing in the Yankees organization. Of course, he did tear his labrum later last season, but I'm going to assume that's unrelated.
Without off-the-record access to trainers or privileged medical information, the Reds lack of urgency acquiring another shortstop may be the most telling signal. Both Jocketty and Baker - Dusty especially - evince confidence in his ability to retain the job he laid a tentative claim to last summer. It could be an overcorrection from the muted confidence the Reds' brass showed in his late call-up during the 2011 season, but the proof will be in the warmed-over offseason pudding.
If the Reds stay with Janish, Negron, D.D. and Co. for depth, it's a little green light for Cozart. There will be others as he checks his progress through Spring training into April. One pitfall could be his youthful exuberance, leading him to push the recovery timetable and overexert himself. But it's that same youth on which Reds are staking their hopes for the shortstop now and for the immediate future.