Is Cozart the Answer at Shortstop?

With Opening Day closing in, we’re doing a few short posts on the major storylines that will likely dominate your conversations about the Reds this season. You can read the first installment, about the Ryan Madson injury, here.

Zack Cozart may be a rookie, but he will be under immense pressure to perform this season.

For one thing, the 26-year-old is going to be the team’s everyday shortstop, a defensive position second to only catcher in difficulty and importance. For another, he’s going to batting in the two-hole in the lineup, after Brandon Phillips and before Joey Votto.

But more than either of those things, Cozart will be under pressure because he is the newest (and perhaps greatest) hope at a position that has been a major problem for the Reds. You have to go all the way back to Felipe Lopez in 2005 to find the last Reds shortstop to make an All-Star team.

And while Reds shortstops have struggled for the past few years, last season they were abysmal. The team went into Opening Day hoping that light-hitting Paul Janish could play enough defense and smack just enough hits to be playable. (For Reds history buffs, this scenario was not unlike the initial decision to play John Vukovich at third base in the magical 1975 season.) Unfortunately, Janish was horrible both at the plate and in the field. He hit .214 with a comically bad .521 OPS and committed a dozen errors. (It’s worth mentioning that some of those crimes were committed while Janish was playing second and third, a fact that in no way mitigates the damage.) When Janish didn’t pan out, the team turned to the aging Edgar Renteria. He was slightly better at the plate (producing a still awful .654 OPS) and even worse in the field (committing a whopping 13 errors). The Reds made 91 errors in 2011, and the combination of Janish and Renteria accounted for more than a quarter of them.

So yes, the Reds are desperate for a competent shortstop. Will Cozart answer the call? Well, that’s the thing about rookies; it’s hard to tell how they’ll do. Here is what we know about Cozart:

He grew up in Memphis, played his college ball at Ole Miss (where he was a third-team All-American), and was a second round pick by the Reds in the 2007 draft. His offensive numbers from his five seasons in the minors (.270/.332/.421) are promising, and he’s been ranked among the top prospects in the Reds organization for the past couple of years. His only big league experience came last July, when he played 11 games before injuring his left elbow and missing the remainder of the year to have Tommy John surgery (a procedure generally performed on pitchers). In that limited audition, he was impressive, hitting .324 with two home runs in 38 plate appearances. (On the other hand, he didn’t draw a single walk.) This spring, Cozart appears to be fully recovered from his injury, and he’s tearing the cover off the ball, hitting .452.

Those numbers look good, but they might not mean much. Hitting in a real big league game against real big league pitchers is (obviously) much different than hitting in spring training or the minors. An 11-game sample size is (obviously) far too small to be statistically significant. But if Cozart can duplicate those numbers over a full season (while mixing in a walk or two to boost his OBP), it would be a huge boost to the team’s chances of returning to the postseason. (Obviously.)

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