Zack Cozart: The Cincinnati Reds’ Missed Opportunity

Despite a great season so far in 2016, complete with well-rounded play at the plate and in the field, and teasing rumors of a looming deal with the Seattle Mariners, the Cincinnati Reds weren’t able to trade Zack Cozart to a needy contender before the 2016 MLB trade deadline. What does the Cincinnati Reds’ missed opportunity mean for the club now that Cozart is 31 years old and has just one season remaining on his contract, especially with a diverse group of prospects waiting for their chance to man the infield?

Let’s dive into what it means for the Cincinnati Reds to be moving forward with Cozart.

Shaky Asking Price

What makes a potential Cozart trade a little ways down the road difficult is the same thing that made him so tough to trade this year: very few contenders are in need of an everyday shortstop, especially a 31-year old rental. If you look at all of the teams with the best shot at the playoffs; they have guys like Corey Seager, Brandon Crawford, Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, and Troy Tulowitzki in their middle infield.

Not only that, but many teams use millions of dollars to sign 15-18-year old Dominican and Cuban shortstops because of their athleticism and high ceiling, and teams prefer to draft college shortstops like Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson as their stars of the future because of their defensive versatility. The point is, it can be a tough deal to try to find a good team that’s desperately in need of an everyday starter at the position.

That being said, we know the Reds and Mariners were close to a deal. Seattle believes that with a couple of tweaks to the roster, they can make a deep postseason run very soon. The fact that they were about to buy Cozart shows that they thought it was possible within the next couple of years, and they weren’t confident that 22-year old Ketel Marte was the man for the job.

What Cozart Brings

In buying Cozart, a team is getting a lot in the best case scenario. Cozart was able to hit nine home runs and 20 XBH in just 194 at bats in 2015 before his season was ended by injury, and this season he has 15 home runs and 42 XBH in 414 at bats. The recently added power and prowess at the plate is actually just gravy for Cozart, because his real appeal is found in his defense. He has the best defensive range number among all qualified NL shortstops, and although between 2012-2014 Cozart had poor OPS that ranged from just .568 to .687, he still has an average WAR of 2.42 for the past five seasons due to his value with the glove.

There are some other appealing things about him. His contract is pretty cheap considering the value he provides. His line drive percentage has risen steadily every year since 2011 from 13% to 29% this season. Cozart’s XBH percentage through his first four seasons was 7.0%, but he has hit for extra bases at an improved clip of 9.3% for the last two years.

He has had consecutive career highs for batting average and OBP with .258-.263 and .310-.313. He struck out 16.7% of his plate appearances from 2011-2014 and has lowered that to 15.1% in 2015 and 2016. Lastly, even though his walk percentage for the last two seasons of 6.6% is still lower than the league average, it is a big improvement from the 4.6% he averaged in his first 1799 PA.

The Risk in Waiting

We get it by now. If there happens to be a team next year that needs a high quality middle infielder just for the rest of the season, and the Reds happen to have Cozart on another deal, the buyer would likely be happy with Cozart. Given his improved all around plate approach, solid power, and elite defense, the Reds could likely fetch a nice prospect bounty in return. However, that is assuming Cozart retains his current value and that the Reds are able to resign him. Remember his hot start in 2015? It was ended by injury.

Let’s hope the Reds didn’t play the waiting game too long because if Cozart sustains another serious injury anytime between now and the 2017 MLB trade deadline, it could mean a devastating long-term blow. Since Cozart could likely be 34-37 years old by the time the Reds are ready to go all in for a World Series, the only option in the heads of Reds front office officials should be trading him. Plus, given the next infield complication, there is no guarantee he would even be a starting shortstop in Cincinnati as early as next year.

Waiting in the Wings

The Reds recently signed 22-year old highly touted Cuban shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez for $7 million. By comparison to how big of a financial commitment that was, Cozart is currently on a one-year deal that pays $2.93 million. Rodriguez is currently the Reds fifth ranked prospect and was formerly ranked as the seventh best international prospect by MLBPipeline.com.

According to MLB.com, Cincinnati has four shortstops among their top 30 prospects: Rodriguez, Alex Blandino (#14), Blake Trahan (#18), and Calten Daal (#19). There are also four other prospects that play elsewhere in the infield like Nick Senzel, Taylor Sparks, Eric Jagielo, and Gavin LaValley. That’s not even to mention the two extremely talented 22-year old infielders Jose Peraza who was acquired from the Dodgers in the Todd Frazier deal, and Dilson Herrera who was shipped to Cincinnati from the New York Mets for Jay Bruce. Even 25-year old second basemen and reward from the Aroldis Chapman – New York Yankees trade Tony Renda has recently been called up to the majors.

Finding Room

Peraza has played almost evenly at 2B, SS, and the outfield. The Reds have done everything they can to find playing time for him and even had to consider benching fan favorite, Brandon Phillips, who was also a missed opportunity on the trade market. They try playing Peraza in the outfield, but it is currently pretty crowded. Billy Hamilton is finally showing the signs of development the Reds were waiting for, Adam Duvall has been a great defensive left fielder and one of baseball’s best power hitters in 2016, and other playing time has been shared with yet another prospect acquired via trade, Scott Schebler.

This is all while the Reds have been waiting all year to call Jesse Winker up. The Reds have plenty of outfield prospects at all levels and they have plenty of infield prospects at all levels, and every year that goes by they get another 40 rounds in the MLB Draft to select as many of those players as their heart desires.

Pressure to Make a Move

Something has got to give. Every passing day that the Reds don’t trade Cozart is a another opportunity wasted to get started on developing everyone who could have extremely high peaks. If it isn’t today that Cozart’s days as a Red are numbered, then it’s tomorrow. If it’s not tomorrow, it’s the next day; and the Reds simply must know that. If the Reds are going to win a World Series within a decade, the front office surely must be aware that it won’t be starting Cozart for that squad. If they thought that, then the decision to acquire so many highly talented infielders would be extremely confusing.

Is trading Cozart difficult? The evidence would say certainly. If it was easy then one would hope it would’ve happened earlier in the year. Making a deal and getting a return that you consider worthwhile is difficult. The goal is to make a transaction with other baseball savvy businessmen with a World Series in mind while they are making the move with the same goal in mind. It is absolutely difficult, but so is winning a championship in professional sports, but it has to be done.

Taking a Page from a Rival Playbook

If every single employee at Great American Ballpark has to be on the phone with every other MLB team for 18 hours a day, then so be it. You cannot say that you are rebuilding, move a good portion of your previously established core, and then get timid when the pickins get slim. While the organization has utilized the draft, trade market, and international market to obtain a quality prospect pipeline, that job is never done. The real goal should be to model what the Chicago Cubs did.

They evaluated their roster and determined who was in their future plans (Anthony Rizzo) and who wasn’t. Then, they traded everyone who didn’t fit to a needy team where they fit nicely. A couple years after their perennial basement finishes…young superstars like Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Hendricks are playing alongside the veterans the team acquired to go all in like Chapman, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist.

It isn’t just the Cubbies. Teams like the Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, Atlatnta Braves, and Oakland Athletics have continually showcased how to start the loser to winner process; while the Reds have lagged behind in aggression and dedication, and it really shows through in the teams struggle to find playing time for all of the 22-25-year old potential future All-Stars in the crowd with 31-year old Cozart and even 35-year old elder statesman Phillips.

Moving On and Moving Up

The team chose to let the big league club move forward as is, and now most games two players who aren’t realistically a part of the long term vision are taking 4-5 at bats and nine innings of defense worth of learning from the guys who need it the most. If the Reds lost every remaining game by 10+ runs a night by starting every young player that could make up a future pennant winning core, at least that had a light at the end of the tunnel.

Cozart is a tough trade to make but it should’ve been made anyway, because it has to be. His value was at it’s highest level of his career, his deal only runs through 2016, and there are too many players waiting to replace him that the Reds have put a lot of stock into. Like, Frazier and Bruce level stock.

In moving forward with Cozart, and also Phillips, the clock is ticking and there isn’t a lot of time. There could be a very short window open for when their value is high and a team also happens to need one of them at that moment. If the window is missed, then whatever returns will have to be taken with a grain of salt because it will be less than they should’ve gotten if they had acted correctly.

When building a contender you can never have too much depth in talent and, although the Reds organization gets notoriously sentimental with it’s players from the 2010 and 2012 NL Central Champion clubs, they seem to forget that underlying principle or just don’t yet know how to act on it.

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