For a position that has long been dominated by franchise cornerstones such as Davey Concepcion and Barry Larkin, young shortstop Zack Cozart has finally gotten his proverbial training wheels removed, and been given the keys to the Lexus.
The Ole Miss product was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and debuted with the club in 2011 for the stretch run of the season before having it cut short by a gruesome elbow injury. Many wondered if Cozart could recover to his fullest ability and whether it would affect his approach at the plate.
During his tenure in the Minor Leagues, he came up alongside the Dutch defensive wizard, Didi Gregorius. In his own right, Cozart is the consummate rock-solid defensive shortstop, although he is susceptible to the occasional throw in the dirt or the wild chuck into the stands. Still, if it were not for the masterful play of Andrelton Simmons down in Atlanta, Cozart may have a chance at the league’s Gold Glove award.
In an age of obsession with on-base percentage and WAR, it is easy to overlook the fact that Cozart had 13 sacrifice hits and led the league with 10 sacrifice flies. The “old school” ballplayers would admire Cozart’s willingness to give himself up for the betterment of the team. Never will Cozart be mistaken for a hitter in the contention of a batting title, or dominate the game offensively, but he is a steady and necessary cog in the new Big Red Machine.
Multiple signings have been made in the last few weeks in order to bolster the Spring Training roster. With Chris Nelson and Ramon Santiago being brought in on Minor League deals with invites to Goodyear, the Reds once again attempt to fill the back-up shortstop need through a veteran journeyman. In recent history, Edgar Renteria, Wilson Valdez, and Cesar Izturis have filled those very same holes. Internally, the team is still searching for a position that suits the young Venezuelan infielder, Henry Rodriguez. With big money locking up the right side of the infield for the foreseeable future, and Todd Frazier having a lock-tight grip on the third base position, shortstop appears to be the only place for Rodriguez. At the end of the day, it’s a numbers game. With spots all but guaranteed on the bench for Jack Hannahan and Skip Schumaker around the infield, there may not be room for a true back-up shortstop.
Additionally, the lineup has finally stabilized around him. Throughout his entire Major League career, Cozart has been shuffled back and forth in different parts of the order, having batted first, second, seventh and eighth. While he may have the skills to handle the bat well enough to get down a bunt and move runners over with groundballs on the right side of the infield, it is safe to say that Cozart is not a top part of the order hitter. Much more pressure is alleviated from his demanding position when he is batting at the bottom of the lineup and whatever he can contribute with the stick is regarded as icing on top of the cake.
In expansion era baseball, it is very rare that every position can feature a thunderous thumper that will cause opposing pitchers distress. While the position has certainly transformed drastically in the past few decades, the shortstop spot remains a historically defensively inclined job. For the 1975-76 Reds, Davey Concepcion filled the position of bottom of the order hitter who had some speed, could handle the bat and fielded his section of the diamond exceptionally well.
In the end, Zack Cozart serves an instrumental purpose to the success of the 2014 ballclub. Getting the chance to be the shortstop for 150+ games this year will show the Reds what they have in the young southerner; and if he can produce his most successful season yet, the Reds as a team may just follow his lead.