Poor Zack Cozart.
In the year of Barry Larkin, it falls to Cozart to do the near-impossible — replace him.
Cozart, a broad-shoulder product from Ole Miss who has been developed with a patience rarely shown early-round college prospects, is the latest candidate to stop the revolving door at shortstop for the Reds. He does so as Larkin, who played 2,085 games in that spot, heads toward his July enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Cozart's play will go a long way toward determining if the Reds can reclaim the National League Central title they swiped in 2010.
Mat Latos, the scatter-brained stud acquired from the Padres in an expensive 4-for-1 proposition, and the move of Aroldis Chapman into the rotation could go the furthest toward offsetting the 12-victory decline from 2010 to '11. But it's the rookie regulars, Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco, who will add energy and set the tone for Dusty Baker's team.
Since Larkin retired after the 2004 season, the Reds have had five primary shortstops, with only Felipe Lopez and default candidate Paul Janish carrying that responsibility in two seasons. They have tried 23 shortstops, getting veterans Rich Aurilia, Juan Castro, Royce Clayton, Alex Gonzalez, Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Cairo and Edgar Renteria on their way down and kids such as Lopez, Janish, William Bergolla, Ray Olmedo and Jeff Keppinger when they were colts.
Cabrera was an underrated piece of the playoff team two years ago, just as he had been largely overlooked in the White Sox winning the American League Central in 2008. Cabrera made the plays in the field (16 errors with '08 White Sox, 11 with '10 Reds) and wasn't an automatic out at the plate — and there's something to be said for a shortstop who does that. He doesn't connect well with his teammates, however.
Cabrera was with the A's in 2009, when the White Sox's victory total dropped from 89 to 79, and with the Indians and Giants last year, when the Reds' victory total dipped from 91 to 79. But as much an average shortstop can have value, the reality is Cabrera was what all of the Reds' shortstops have been since Larkin — a stop-gap.
General manager Walt Jocketty hopes Cozart will have the long run suggested by his play in 2011. He hit .310 in Triple A to earn a promotion and thrilled Baker with his play in a brief look before hurting his left elbow making a tag on July 23. He has had reconstructive surgery on the elbow but the Reds expect him to be healthy enough to win the job from Janish, a .221 career hitter, as it was his nonthrowing elbow.
Cozart isn't likely to be an All-Star, at least not unless he develops into a 20-homer guy. But Jocketty believes the 26-year-old is reliable enough to be a first-division shortstop. He has good hands and a quick first step, helping him cover ground in the field, and lines the ball around the park with the ability to hit home runs down the left-field line.
Cozart will have to play well to keep the organization from rushing 21-year-old switch-hitter Billy Hamilton, who stole 103 bases in the low-A Midwest League last year (the first minor leaguer in a decade to reach triple figures in steals). He's a lot more exciting prospect than Cozart and could be a perfect leadoff guy in front of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce one day.
But shortstop isn't a position for high-risk propositions. It's a place where you need a sure thing, sort of like Larkin.
•With Votto two years away from free agency — and maybe one from a trade to the Blue Jays — Jocketty is gambling the Reds can reach the World Series for the first time since 1990. He traded Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brad Boxberger, alongside Edinson Volquez, in the Latos trade. He also dealt lefty Travis Wood, second baseman Ronald Torreyes and outfielder Dave Sappelt to get setup man Sean Marshall from the Cubs.
•Alonso, Grandal, Boxberger, Torreyes and Sappelt were rated as the team's No. 3, 4, 10, 13 and 16 prospects, respectively, by Baseball America.
•The Cubs are especially intrigued by Torreyes, 19, who is listed as 5-9, 140 pounds but has hit .364 in 158 career games as a pro.
•Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, is a great hitter, not a creation of Great American Ball Park. He has a better career home-run rate in home games but has hit better overall on the road, compiling a .984 OPS, 60 points higher than his OPS in home games.
•Chapman could be the breakout player of the season in the majors. He has come out of the bullpen in 69 big-league appearances over two seasons but started in Cuba and has No. 1 starter potential if he learns how to get ahead in counts. Hitters have exploited his lack of control, negating a rate of 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
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