Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cozart plays important rookie role


By Scott Eddy
Staff Writer

When experts and fans discuss the chances of the Reds reclaiming the NL Central crown this season, names like Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Latos are often tossed around.

The man who just might hold the key to the Reds’ fate this season, though, is a rookie.

Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has done nothing but impress during his extremely brief major league career. Cozart gained a remarkable amount of respect from the Reds’ front office last year, taking the starting job with just 11 games under his belt before going down with injury after posting a .324/.324/.486 line with two home runs. He’s picked up where he left off this week, batting .462 with a homer and two RBI in the first four games of the year.

Cozart likely is the most anonymous man in the Reds lineup, but could be the most important. In recent years, Cincinnati has struggled to find natural fits at the top of the order. Brandon Phillips has seemingly found a home as the leadoff man, but the two hole remained problematic as the team has no true fit there.

Cozart has already flashed his power capability this season.
Insert Cozart. Though a regular member of the team’s top 10 prospects list, Cozart has never received quite the buzz of many of his mates on the farm. He’s not even the most hyped rookie on the team – not by a long shot. While many have long awaited the arrival of Devin Mesoraco, Cozart’s role will be much more important if not in the long term, certainly this season while Mesoraco waits behind Ryan Hanigan.

How important is Cozart to the Reds lineup? The lack of protection for Phillips holds back the Reds’ leadoff man, often leaving the table bare for Joey Votto. Of Votto’s 29 home runs last year, 19 of them were solo shots. Votto’s power is great, but its significance is significantly diminished without the guys ahead of him getting on.

Cozart producing out of the two spot makes the entire offense click – Phillips has protection as the leadoff man and suddenly opposing pitchers are on edge from the first pitch of the game. The trickle down effect allows the heart of the order to maximize its power capability, and maybe just as importantly, allows Drew Stubbs to settle into a role batting either sixth or seventh, taking advantage of his power while lessening the negative effect of his poor on-base percentage.

But what are the odds of Cozart continuing to mash at the plate? The past numbers tell us to temper our excitement a bit until more results are in, but the signs of future success are there.

The Reds’ second round pick in 2007 out of Mississippi, Cozart got off to a relatively slow start in his trip through the organization. He registered a slash line of .239/.288/.332 in 53 games at Single-A Dayton as a rookie and repeated with the Dragons in ’09 to the tune of a much improved .280/.330/.457.

From there Cozart rose steadily, but never flashed enough of a bat to become a top prospect – batting .262 with Double-A Carolina in 2009 and .255 at Triple-A Louisville two years ago. Along the way, Cozart has flashed promising power – 14 home runs in 2009, 10 in 2010 and finally 17 last year while finishing .255/.310/.416 with the Bats.

Batting between Phillips and Votto is a cushy spot, getting Cozart many good looks at pitches to hit and the power ability appears to be legit. His long home run against the Marlins on Saturday put it on full display for fans. At just 26, it’s very possible that Cozart could be coming into his own. The 30 stolen bases he put up two years ago in AAA are a number he’s unlikely to reach again in the majors, but prove that a 15-15 season could and perhaps should be expected and perhaps that 20-20 might be attainable at some point in the not so distant future.

If all goes right for Cozart, he will have gone from keeping the seat warm at SS while other prospects develop to finally giving the Reds a long-term solution. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance Cincinnati will be hosting playoff games again when October rolls around. 

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