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2015 In Review: Zack Cozart?

2015 was shaping up to be quite the year for Zack Cozart, but a gruesome knee injury not only put the brakes on a promising season, but also calls 2016 into question.

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David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

We continue Red Reporter's player by player look at the 2015 Cincinnati Reds. We'll profile every player who got time for the Reds this year, and will imagine their tenure with the Reds going forward.

By The Numbers

214 PA, .258/.310/.459, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 107 OPS+

It was starting to look like a breakout year for Zack Cozart at the plate, and the Reds looked poised to keep their 23 year old heir apparent in AAA for as long as they could. And then, tragedy struck his right knee as he made one last, long lunge to beat out a throw from short. What began as a no doubt must start campaign for Cozart ended casting more than a little doubt on the short stop's future with the Reds.

How'd He Do?

Coming off a disastrous 2014 season at the dish, Cozart had a lot to prove but very, very little expectations when it came to production. Defensive wizardry kept him as an MLB regular, possessing a 2 WAR glove to make up for the below-replacement level bat.

He'd shown signs before of plate competency before. He was perfectly fine in his 2010 AAA campaign, and was down right mashing the same competition in 2011, clocking a wRC+ of 125 in 350 PAs at Louisville before getting his call up. Cozart then acclimated quickly to the Show, albeit for only a short time; Cozart had a 122 wRC+ in only 38 PAs before he injuring his elbow on a play at second base. His season was ended by Tommy John Surgery shortly thereafter. The 122 wRC+ wouldn't return after the injury, but with the All-World defense, an OPS+ in the 80s for a starting shortstop with above average power for the position can certainly be workable (although it has no business batting 2nd, Dusty).

Cozart bottomed out in 2014, however, ranking as one of the worst hitters in all of the league. In fact, of all qualified hitters, Cozart WAS the worst by wRC+. Incredibly, the defense being what it is, Cozart still managed a 1.1 fWAR on the season, but the bat was a complete black hole in the lineup.

And that's what makes 2015 shocking. At 30 years old, we could only really hope for Cozart to come back to something resembling the not-great seasons of 2012 and 2013. Zack smashed through that wall, however, and boasted an .818 OPS at the end of the inaugural month of the season, with 4 home runs and 10 RBI. The power dropped in May, but he still maintained a respectable, significantly improved .330 OBP for May, before turning the power back on for the first 37 PA of June (.528 SLG).

Were we watching the new Zack Cozart? We'd never get to find out, because he played his last game for the Reds on June 10th, his season ended by torn ligaments in his knee. It's probably fair to be skeptical that we were watching a new and vastly improved Cozart. As pointed out here by FanGraphs, it was the best 40 games we've experienced from Cozart. He changed his approach. Thus, he was seeing better pitches to hit.

But, anything better than the trainwreck from 2014 was warmly welcomed by Reds fans, and the fact was that, real or not, Cozart was shattering expectations. And you couldn't help but feel pretty good for him. Unfortunately, the future looks bleak at best.

2016 Outlook

As with Devin Mesoraco, the future is unknown for Zack Cozart. First, he's has to make sure that the knee injury has made him no worse for wear when it comes to fielding balls at shortstop, because regardless of what happens at the plate moving forward, defense has always been the meal ticket for Cozart. A 31 year-old coming off a severe knee injury is not an encouraging bet if the bet is "plus defense."

Complicating Zack's Reds future is the emergence of 24 year-old shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who proved himself more than capable at the plate over nearly double the PAs that Cozart saw this season. Suarez, though, was a bit of a butcher at short, though his profile doesn't seem to suggest that he will be forever. In fact, in his 2014 season with Detroit, Suarez was actually a net positive on defense and Cozartian at the plate. (But, more on that in the coming days).

I mused before the season that this could very well be Zack's last as a Red, and that was before a devastating knee injury. Then again, the management in this organization seems to be very loyal/sentiment, especially with its home grown players. Financially, it might make some sense to move away from Cozart, but they'd be doing so at possible the worst time in his career. Possibly smart for the Reds, but unspeakably bad for Zack, and because of this, I just can't see them doing it, so I figure that Zack will still be around when 2016 Opening Day arrives. At what capacity remains to be seen.

So, we're left with more questions than answers with Zack. If (and presumably, when) the Reds official retain his services, he's got to prove he can still hack in on D. Knee injuries aren't exactly the recipe for success at the plate, either (just ask Jay Bruce), so it's possible that the 2014 version of Cozart may be all there is to muster. Or, there's an alternative timeline, where Zack comes back fully healthy, hits at similar level that he did before the injury in 2015, and reaches a ceiling never imagined before.

In the optimistic case, Cozart could look very attractive on the trade market as the Reds continue to reboot. In the more probable scenario, he's no worse than the other part time bench players that this team has actually sought after in previous years. You could argue that the Suarez/Cozart situation will be the most interesting to watch going into 2016.

Chance of making the 2016 Reds roster: 60% (Something could definitely happen here, but I personally don't see it.)
Chances of STAYING on the 2016 Reds roster: 51+% (This could literally come down to whether or not he can still play at an everyday level. If he can, he may be shipped with Eugenio needing to play everyday.)