The Angels have settled the prominent pieces of their 2018 roster in striking fashion. On Friday, they signed longtime shortstop Zack Cozart to a three-year contract worth $38 million. They plan to play him at third base, where his defensive acumen should supply the club with one of baseball’s best infields.
The strong-armed Ian Kinsler, acquired from Detroit on Wednesday, will man second base. Reigning American League Gold Glove winner Martin Maldonado will catch, and all-world shortstop Andrelton Simmons will anchor it all. After three year’s of offseason moves, It has become increasingly clear: Angels general manager Billy Eppler values defense more than his counterparts across the sport.
The Angels did not announce the terms of Cozart’s deal, per club policy, but a source confirmed the amount, which will be split evenly over the three seasons.
Cozart, 32, was a slick-fielding, poor-hitting shortstop for most of his career, and rival talent evaluators believe he should handle the switch with ease. His offense improved dramatically in 2015, and he surged to an All-Star campaign in 2017.
For his career, all spent with Cincinnati, he has hit .254 with a .716 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But, since 2015, with his swing changed and his approach altered, he has hit .271 with an .820 OPS. He was one of baseball’s best hitters in 2017 with a .933 OPS.
The Angels are convinced Cozart will continue on his recent course.
"There was some material changes and underlying data changes,” Eppler said, “and they gave us a ton of confidence that Zack’s the right player for us.”
The Angels’ run of moves that have impressed the industry started one week ago, with their surprise signing of Shohei Ohtani. In a weakened American League, they now appear to have an inside track on one of two wild-card slots. The World Series champion Houston Astros should still begin the season as the favorites to win the West.
As is often the case, the Angels’ fate remains dependent on the health of their starting rotation, and many of the men they are counting on have an injury-riddled track record. But if the likes of Ohtani, Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney can stay healthy, Eppler appears to have assembled a playoff-caliber club.
The Angels still must add bullpen talent. Eppler has said he expects to add at least one pitcher who can handle multiple innings. The rest of the roster is set, with the exception of a reserve center fielder.
Cozart fills the team’s backup-shortstop need. Some combination of C.J. Cron, Luis Valbuena, and Albert Pujols will split first base, while Pujols and Ohtani serve as designated hitters. The Angels also could seek to trade Valbuena, who is under contract for 2018 with an option for 2019.
The Angels’ 2018 payroll will soon exceed that of previous seasons, already at an estimated $165 million. With Ohtani in tow, their expected revenues may increase enough to allow them to surge past that figure.
Cozart gained national notice last summer, when longtime teammate Joey Votto promised to purchase him a donkey if he earned his first career All-Star nod. After a publicity campaign that included Votto dressing in a donkey suit on national television, Cozart finished 86,000 votes ahead of the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and started the game.
Once the season ended, he returned home and left the donkey in Cincinnati.
“Now that I can start looking for some land,” Cozart said, “I’ll officially be a donkey owner.”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura