Potential Pittsburgh Pirates Free Agent Target: Zack Cozart

A division rival recently dropped one of MLB’s best shortstops in 2017. Could the Pirates swoop in and snag a big infield bat?

What if I told you that the Pittsburgh Pirates could acquire the best hitting shortstop in the National League in 2017? No, I’m not talking about Corey Seager.

After the Cincinnati Reds chose not to extend a qualifying offer, Zack Cozart became a free agent. Cozart, who slashed .297/.385/.548 in 2017, was snubbed of the National League Silver Slugger for shortstops despite having better stats than Seager.

Though he had some of the best numbers among all shortstops in baseball, Cozart is available. Not only that, he is a realistic option for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least according to Jim Duquette of MLB.com.

Yes, the Pirates do have a shortstop already in Jordy Mercer. He’s proven himself capable with the bat and glove, but not stellar at either. Rather, he’s been consistenly capable and never stellar. Cozart was stellar at both in 2017.

Profile and Performance

The 32-year-old flew under the radar this season by putting up numbers for a poor team and spending the entire season with that team. In addition to a career-best slash line, Cozart also set career-highs in home runs (24), ISO (.251), BABIP (.312), BB% (12.2), wOBA (.392), wRC+ (141) and WAR (5.0) in 2017.

Prior to 2017, Cozart’s best season was 2015, when he slashed .258/.310/.459. In each of the last three seasons, Cozart has bested his previous seasons’ home run total.

In his first three full seasons, Cozart was solid, but not spectacular. He never hit above .254 and declined in home runs totals each year from 2012-14 (15, 12, 4).

The stats say he’s a player that’s made adjustments and steadily improved each year. However, one wonders how much better Cozart can get or if he has hit his ceiling since he’s nearing the latter-stage of his career.

Career-to-date snapshot

table courtesy of Baseball Reference

The case for Cozart

  • The obvious surge in 2017 has been stated already, but here’s one more reminder…
  • Forget the bat, Cozart is a stellar defender. In six full season’s he’s never posted a season with a negative Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved. In 2017, Cozart had a 3.7 UZR and 2 DRS.
  • Power-wise, the Pirates need someone like Cozart. Pittsburgh ranked 29th in MLB with 151 home runs and only Andrew McCutchen and Josh Bell smacked more than 20 long balls. With Cozart, the Pirates get more lineup security. He could bat second, in front of McCutchen, or after him, perhaps sixth. Either way, he provides pop and can help turn the lineup over.
  • Was 2017 a fluke? Maybe, but Cozart’s outside the strike zone swing percentage was a career-best 24.4 percent. Additionally, his 30.8-percent contact on balls in play hit with hard speed was actually worse than in 2016 (31.2 percent). Perhaps he had bad luck in 2016 and was more patient with pitches in 2017.

The case against Cozart

  • If last season was a fluke and Cozart regresses to his previous career norm, he’s a very average hitter and not much of an upgrade over Mercer with the bat; Cozart’s career 90 wRC+ is two points better than Mercer’s.
  • Cozart’s big season could be buoyed by playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark. Major-league hitters averaged 3.01 home runs per game at Great American Ballpark in 2017, second only to Oriole Park at Camden Yards (3.23), according to ESPN’s home run tracker. Have a look at Cozart’s career splits, first at home:
    Now on the road:
    In 2017, it’s clear that Cozart’s numbers were better at home than on the road, but they were still strong on the road. Don’t let the .258 batting average away from Cincinnati distract from the 132 wRC+ on the road. It was second-best on the Reds and the 32nd-best in MLB.
  • As the eighth-highest paid shortstop this season, Cozart is due for a raise after a stellar season. If the Pirates can have him for less than $10 million a year, he’s well worth it. However, if Cozart asks to be paid above that, then Pirates management will not pursue him.

What it might take

Aggressiveness.

There will be a fair share of suitors for Cozart, so the Pittsburgh Pirates must establish their interest with a realistic contract offer. A two-year, $17 million offer is team-friendly, considering Cozart’s production and the $8.5 million hit in 2018 would make him the Pirates’ fourth-highest paid player (before arbitration contracts).

Based on the Pirates current contracts, they are unlikely to overpay for a player after a career year. That said, management did exactly that after Francisco Cervelli busted out in 2015. With Cozart’s success coming with another team, the Pirates wouldn’t gamble on him by making him the team’s highest-paid player.

Offering two years and $17-million is fair and not an uncomfortable amount for management to pay. Cozart may get offered more, but that offer from the Pirates should not anger fans. It wouldn’t be being “cheap,” it would be being cautiously optimistic about a player after a career-year.

Even if Duquette predicts the Pirates land him, it’s unlikely that they will if he generates interest from many other teams. Pittsburgh is not in a position nor will ever out-bid another team in free agency.

Conclusion

If Cozart or Mercer is willing to bounce around in the infield, it’d make a lot of sense to make this move. Cozart is a better hitter and a better defender at short, but Mercer would still be valuable as a fill-in at second or third base to spell David Freese or Josh Harrison.

Cozart has shown that he’s a slightly-above-average hitter and consistent plus defender. He’s the ideal shortstop if he can produce a similar season to 2017. The Pittsburgh Pirates should make a push, but only for the right price… a less than $10-million per year deal. A year after being one of the league’s finest bargain values, Cozart should accept similar treatment in 2018.

Photo via MLB.com

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.

  • Wilbert Matthews

    Only if he plays 2B. Otherwise it’s a waste of resources.

  • leadoff

    Only if they can get him to sign for a year, something I doubt that he will do.

  • redrage97

    a one or two year deal at less than 10M/year maybe, and only if he agrees that third/second base might be an option should prospects make a jump to the MLB

    Nunez still makes more sense even if Cozarts glove is that much better.

    The main reasons to be against Cozart signing is that he is a ‘part time player’ having missed a bunch of time since 2015. And that his bat is quite possibly a fluke. before 2017 his career slash of .246/.289/.385 is well below league average. but his glove is well above league average which still makes him desireable.

    He might bite on a 1/2 year deal simply because the market and hope for a better market for him next time,but might be a long shot.. he might be more willing to consider third or second base moves as well if it gets him a longer term deal. If thats the case a 3 year deal at ~24M + incentives for his bat in play makes sense. (for anyone in need of infield help not just the pirates)