It’s easy to forget about him, but Zack Cozart was an All-Star in 2017. Oh, and he is a free agent.

The strangest thing of the offseason has already happened. No, it won’t be some trade that comes out of nowhere during the Winter Meetings. And it won’t be Jake Arrieta getting more money than he is worth. The strangest thing of the offseason happened just last week, when the Cincinnati Reds decided not to extend Zack Cozart the qualifying offer of one year and $17.4 million.

The decision may not have a huge impact on the offseason, but it’s just bizarre. Cozart made the National League All-Star team and has been worth close to that price tag every year he has been healthy. Did the Reds not watch their own shortstop play? The only reason not to extend a player the qualifying offer is if you aren’t comfortable paying him that much money for one season. If you are comfortable with it, then the worst that happens is you get draft picks when he leaves. There is no reason to believe that Cozart is not worth one year and $17.4 million. Now, he is free to go where he chooses, unattached to draft pick compensation, and the Cardinals should take advantage.

It’s About the Defense

Cozart may not be as well-known as Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor, but he is not far behind in terms of defensive ability. He certainly isn’t quite on their level, but he is in the next tier down. Since 2010, only two shortstops have more defensive runs saved and a higher UZR than Cozart: Simmons and Brandon Crawford. The former division rival may be 32 years old, but he isn’t showing it in the field.

Cozart had a “down year” on the defensive end, and he still recorded a UZR/150 above six runs in 2017. Only seven of baseball’s shortstops beat Cozart’s mark, and you should see that list. His name is still right up there with the names of perennial Gold Glove contenders. Even if he was just a replacement level hitter, Cozart would worth more than 1.5 wins above replacement on his fielding alone.

The Cardinals like Paul DeJong, but he can’t do what Cozart can in the field. Early returns were that DeJong was about an average infielder, and there is nothing wrong with that. Unless, of course, a much better option like, say Zack Cozart, exists. Take a look at the difference in range exhibited by Cozart and Cardinals shortstops in 2017 (from Baseball Savant):

         

The key point here is the difference in colored areas. Cozart is able to expand the region where he makes a high percentage of plays to about twice the area of what Cardinals shortstops did. His covered region also stretches up the middle more than that of the Cardinals shortstops. Given a pitching staff with such a high ground ball percentage (5th best in MLB), the Cardinals need to focus on their infield defense, and Cozart is the best available option.

Instead of filling in with guys who are average at best, the Cardinals can get a defensive stud in Cozart and fill in the rest. They would have a strong double play combination with Cozart and Wong. And having Jedd Gyorko at third isn’t nearly as bad when you have a shortstop who can cover so much of the 5.5 hole. Adding a player with Cozart’s defensive skills saves the Cardinals roughly ten runs on defense. That kind of improvement has to be investigated for a team looking to make the playoffs.

He might come cheap

Another strange thing about Cozart is that nobody seems to want him. The Reds have been trying to trade him for the better part of two years now, with no takers. Occasionally the Mariners seemed interested (Jerry DiPoto likes trades), but nothing ever came of it. Eventually, people started suggesting that the Reds just get an extension done with their shortstop. But even they passed, leaving Cozart a free agent this offseason.

Given the lack of suitors last year, I would be surprised if Cozart lands a huge deal. Don’t get me wrong, I think he will be worth every penny of what he signs, but he might be worth even more. The Reds have not been asking for too much in trade talks. After all, they’ve been selling some of their players at bargain rates, and they didn’t even like Cozart enough to extend him the qualifying offer. At 32 years old, a five-year deal is off the table. In a fair contract, Cozart probably gets four years, $65 million. But I think there is a chance he goes for less. How many teams would pass on a guy for two years just to sign him for four years when he is older?

Most general managers are in an odd situation justifying a Cozart signing. Either they admit they screwed up in not trading for him, or they pretend his value isn’t as high as what it is. More importantly, many of the teams without a shortstop are not looking to buy yet. Miami is selling, Pittsburgh should be selling, and Cozart won’t help a team with 75 wins or less. Perhaps Tampa Bay would consider Cozart, but they aren’t usually a team to spend big on outside free agents. If the Cardinals are interested, a lack of suitors may drive Cozart’s price tag down.

Cozart reinvented himself at the plate

With Cozart, you have to figure out what is real and what is not at the plate. He hit 24 home runs in 2017, which was 8 more than his previous best. He posted a .385 on-base percentage, which is 80 points higher than his career average. And his weighted runs created plus of 141 is almost guaranteed to come down.

However, all of that ignores that Cozart made a significant change at the plate last year. He swings a lot less than he used to, and that’s for the better. Cozart increased his walk rate by five percent in 2017 without striking out more. Oftentimes, a reduction in swing rate can also lead to more strikeouts. In this case, Cozart benefitted everywhere.

Cozart’s reduction in swing rate helped drop his chase rate by more than five percentage points. He went from average to the top quintile in just one season. He may not have improved his hit or power tools, but his discipline helped his breakout campaign tremendously. Even if Cozart had not posted a career-high .312 batting average on balls in play, he still would have recorded an on-base percentage above .340.

Only six other shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances recorded an OBP above .340. Of those six, only Corey Seager has a claim to being a better fielder than Cozart. The Cardinals have a rare opportunity to get a strong defensive shortstop with on-base skills at a bargain rate. Given the lack of a market for Cozart, there is no need to jump on him right away, but the Cardinals shouldn’t forget about him, either.

Trades!

The Cardinals have to get creative with their roster to make a run at the World Series. They aren’t far off from the playoffs, but they aren’t quite close to being World Series contenders yet. If they want to get there this year, they will need to trade some major league talent in an attempt to make upgrades at other positions. Signing a player like Zack Cozart would give them the flexibility to do that.

Jedd Gyorko will always be a player talked about in trades, since his performance is still somehow unconvincing. I would no longer be surprised to see another good season, but I could also see him regressing. Nevertheless, the Cardinals don’t have a better infield option as of today. If they are going to trade him, now is a good time. He recently turned 29 years-old and just put up his two best seasons. Gyorko’s value may never be higher than it is today.

Alternatively, the Cardinals could really make a run and trade Paul DeJong. The organization would probably like to avoid this situation, but it could make sense. After all, if the Cardinals trade DeJong for the big bat they are seeking, then I don’t think fans will complain. There are also reasons to believe that DeJong is not quite as good as his rookie season suggested. A .349 BABIP suggests regression, and the Cardinals could make that someone else’s problem.

Of course, none of that makes sense unless they have another shortstop. As of today, they do not have that shortstop. Adding Cozart gives the Cardinals a shortstop who can easily replace what they had been getting and gives them the flexibility to pursue more trades in the offseason. Cozart is sitting there, strangely unwanted. The Cardinals can get a steal in free agency if they just look towards their former division rival.

Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz – USA TODAY Sports

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