Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Does Cozart Rhyme With Mozart?

After winning the National League Central in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds laid an egg in 2011. While stalwarts, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce provide some continuity to the 2010 team, much of the Reds' hopes in 2012 fall on new acquisitions like Matt Latos and Ryan Madson and youngsters like Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco has some cushion as Ryan Hanigan is a very reliable catcher. Zack Cozart, on the other hand, is counted on to seal the defense at short. It's a scary proposition. Will Cozart rhyme with Mozart this season, or will he be more Vanilla Ice?

Looking at Cozart's numbers is confusing. His stats in the minors before 2011 were pedestrian. Then suddenly he is putting balls in play all over the field and hit over .300 in Louisville and again in 38 exciting plate appearances for the big club before blowing out his non-throwing elbow in August. He had Tommy John surgery on that elbow that same month and is said to be good to go in the spring. Still, you have to wonder considering the Reds just obtained Wilson Valdez from the Phillies. Perhaps the Reds are a bit worried too.

With such a small major league sample size, can anything be said about Cozart's brief exposure to the majors? He was brilliant in the field. According to the stats, he converted every chance at shortstop into an out. That's impressive. But again, it doesn't really match his minor league history. Another concern was that in his eleven games, he never took a walk. He only walked a little over six percent of the time in the minors, so are we looking at another Yuniesky Betancourt? Time will tell.

A lot rides on Cozart's shoulders (and elbows, it seems). Shortstop is a premium position that remains without many real stars around the majors. When Clint Barmes is a good option for teams, there isn't a whole lot of talent out there. Defense is certainly the biggest key of the position and it appears that Cozart can be very good. But that's only half the battle. You also have to be able to at least hit somewhere near league average. Projections for Cozart are already all over the place for 2012. Bill James has him at, .256/.306/.404 while others have him hitting as high as .283 with an on-base percentage at .330. The latter will work. The former will be a drag.

Can we see anything else from Cozart's minuscule sample size? It's hard not to like his only four percent swinging strike percentage. Cozart makes contact. He hit ground balls twice more often than he hit the ball in the air. That's a bit troublesome combined with his only nine percent line drive rate. Again, this is all with so little samples to go by that they might all be moot points. Perhaps we just have to give the guy 500 plate appearances and see what happens.

Cozart had some power in the minors but that disappeared last year. If he hits the ball in the air, twenty percent of such contact results in a homer. That's impressive. But he doesn't hit the ball in the air often enough. The thing that is just hard to get over is that 2011 seems so much different than all of his previous performances. Is that the new Zack Cozart? Is this the player we have now? Or is the pre-2011 guy the real one? Again, we'll have to wait and see.

Fortunately, the Reds do have some fallback plans. The aforementioned Valdez is capable and if all else fails, there is always the solid glove of Paul Janish (who likely is the odd man out here). The Reds aren't much different than any team this time of year. A lot will have to go right for them to regain their 2010 mojo as a contender in 2012. If Zack Cozart can prove he is the Reds' shortstop answer for years to come in the 2012 season, that would be a huge aid to their cause.

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