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The future of Zack Cozart and the Cincinnati Reds

A new home for the Reds shortstop, or a renovated one?

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past was a cagey vessel, one tasked initially with carting the heartless Ebeneezer Scrooge through his own time and space, highlighting his miserly ways and showing him how they had stunted many of the lives of those around him. But that message was deliberately two-fold, as the true intent was to show Scrooge how his patterns and preferences had turned him into a veritable Midas over time, a decades long evolution that was readily apparent. Eventually, the Ghost of Christmas Future got Scrooge to take notice, as - SPOILER ALERT - a life was lost that he could have easily helped to save had he merely taken any interest along the way.

This is an article about Zack Cozart’s future, as the title plainly suggests. And while his surgically repaired knee and sore achilles ended his 2016 season prematurely, I can pretty well confirm that he’s otherwise a fine, dandy, healthy human being. Tiny Tim his body is not, though the point of this piece isn’t about Cozart himself, it’s about his value while a member of the Cincinnati Reds.

Jose Peraza was more or less brought in to be a starting middle infielder for Cincinnati when the Reds shipped away Todd Frazier to acquire him, and since his emergence last season it’s become clear that finding at-bats for him immediately is a very important part of the team’s overall rebuild. The acquisition of Dilson Herrera from the Mets in the Jay Bruce trade only seemed to pigeon hole Peraza more into being the team’s next shortstop, but the continued presence of Cozart and Brandon Phillips has created a noticeable logjam up the middle.

The problem, though, is that both Phillips and Cozart are in their final years of team control, and while both theoretically carry value enough to be traded elsewhere, there simply aren’t many, if any, realistic landing spots open to them. Second basemen around the league had their best overall year in modern baseball history in 2016 - which has obviously squeezed Phillips’ market - but there’s similarly a glut of teams that both intend to contend in 2017 and have readymade shortstops already on their roster. Phillips, as we know, has 10/5 rights (and has already reportedly used them to nix trades in the past), but as for Cozart, it now seems that there are only two things that could prompt a team to seek him via trade: an injury to their existing shortstop, or the idea of bringing him in to serve in a bench/utility role.

It’s the latter of those scenarios that got me thinking. If the only way the Reds can get value out of Cozart and give Jose Peraza the bulk of starts at shortstop is to find a team that wants Cozart to be a bench/utility player, why not explore that option with Cozart themselves?

Miguel Cairo? Miguel Cairo.

Jack Hannahan? Jack Hannahan.

Skip Schumaker? Skip Schumaker! Skip freakin’ Schumaker!

That’s a trio of former Cincinnati Reds, a trio of theoretically versatile infielders who were signed to be both leaders in the team’s clubhouse and key bench cogs. Guys who could be inserted into the lineup on a regular basis if need be, but also ones who had reached the point of adulthood that suggested that they, and the team, would be best served with them being mixed and matched accordingly. (Mid 30’s knees get sore if used too often at the top of the defensive spectrum, y’know.)

Cozart will turn 32 years old during next season, and that paired with the existing shortstop glut may give him pause about realistically reaching free agency and finding a team out there willing to sign him to be their everyday starter. Factor in that he hasn’t cleared 600 PAs in a season since 2013 and has only played in 174 of the 324 possible games over the last two years, and that pause may as well be treated as fact. But the Reds, of all teams, have surely noticed that despite Cozart’s injuries in recent seasons, starting him sparsely and giving him needed rest has coincided with the best offensive output of his career. After hitting just .241/.280/.362 from 2012-2014 as the team’s everyday starter, he’s hit .254/.308/.435 in that limited action over the previous two years.

(Correlation does not imply causation, of course, but the idea of resting Cozart periodically to let him be right when actually on the field was something the Reds actually began doing last year, as The Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans noted back in August.)

Here’s the rub. Cozart knows that if he stays with the Reds through the 2017 season, odds are he’s going to be phased out as Peraza gets time on the diamond. If he gets traded, however, it’ll likely be into a similar situation, albeit one with foreign surroundings. As he prepares to enter his final season before free agency, neither situation really sets him up well for a long contract and big payday - especially at his age. But he’s currently with a franchise that is ramping up to be competitive again in a year or two, a franchise that has repeatedly placed importance on having veteran bench bats backing up their young starters.

I’d love to see the Reds begin to move Cozart around the diamond a bit. I’d love to see him get a start at second base here and there, with starts at third sprinkled in, too. Neither idea seems outlandish to ask of one of the best defensive shortstops the game has seen in recent years, yet all 609 big league starts Cozart has made have come at shortstop. In fact, he’s made just 11 starts in his professional career at second base - none since his 2009 appearance in the Arizona Fall League - and he’s never once played a professional inning at third. However, it’s often the case that you don’t see upper-echelon defenders move down the defensive spectrum until it’s absolutely necessary, and the hope would be he’d be able to prove capable.

The Reds made a significant investment in Cuban shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez, drafted infielder Alex Blandino with a 1st round pick two years ago, and obviously are high on 2016’s second overall draft pick Nick Senzel, which provides even more youthful depth on the infield to go along with Peraza and Herrera. And there’s still Eugenio Suarez around, too, who improved at third while having a career’s worth of experience at shortstop, too. Still, the next two years will feature those players falling into the “need to be playing everyday somewhere” category, a category that’s sometimes harder to fill than the “can still produce at the big league level despite not playing everyday” one, as recent putrid Cincinnati benches have proven. And, it’s the latter category that Cozart would be placed in.

There’s plenty that can happen to send these parameters haywire, to be sure. The 2017 season will twist and turn, as will knees and ankles, and the option to trade Cozart before the July 31st deadline will surely present currently unforeseen opportunities. Still, the idea of approaching Cozart with a modern-day version of the two-year bench bat pacts the team has used repeatedly in their roster construction in recent years is a concept I hope the team considers as the year goes on. It would be a testament to the team having learned from the largely failed attempts at such in their past, when focusing on guys four to five years older than Cozart was their preference.

The Reds could learn plenty from their past failures, their attempts to pinch pennies with the bench, and the awful net production they’ve watched pile up in the process. In doing so, they could also salvage value from Cozart going forward, something they’ve allowed to dwindle to near zero by holding onto him while his team control evaporates and they build up the team around him.

It would also keep a former Cardinal from again occupying that spot on the roster, something that would have Reds fans everywhere saying God bless us, every one!