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Bernie On The Scene: Zack Has a Knack

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.

An item in the local Cincinnati newspaper indicated that someone by the name of Zack Cozart was registered at the Reds hotel in Milwaukee. It stirred speculation that indeed, Cozart had been promoted to the big club from Triple-A Louisville. That was the beginning of an exciting day for Reds fans. Zach has a knack-natural aptitude.

Edgar Renteria and Paul Janish have been struggling at the plate all season, hitting in the neighborhood of .220. Fans have been clamoring for a change, especially when the pitching has been scuffling and the team has had to work so hard for wins. Suddenly, after indicating there weren't any real changes in the offing, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty decided it was Cozart's time. That type of reversal is not unusual. We've heard one thing and seen the opposite in baseball for decades.

Cozart became the regular shortstop for the Reds on July 7. Manager Dusty Baker announced that most of the starts going forward would belong to Cozart - of course, that could change. The slick fielding Paul Janish was optioned to Louisville.

Cozart is an athlete. He played baseball, basketball and football in Collierville, Tennessee. His high school was the same one that former New York Mets favorite Marvelous Marv Thornberry attended. In fact, when he played football, Cozart played quarterback and suffered a broken wrist. He has indicated that he has a special soft spot for basketball, but in reality, he loves them all. He was a quality shortstop in high school, with a strong enough arm to serve as the Dragons' closer.

Here's what his high school coach, Jeff Hopkins had to say about Cozart when I contacted him:

"Zack Cozart was an outstanding athlete who excelled in 3 sports in middle school. He was the quarterback on the 9th grade football team, a starting guard on the 9th grade basketball team, and the starting SS on the freshman baseball team He could have been an outstanding 3 sport athlete in high school, but chose to pursue baseball only. Obviously he made the correct choice! He was a three year starter at SS on our High School Baseball Team, an All Region and All State performer! He is the type of young man that you would love for your daughter to marry!"

Respectfully,

Jeff Hopkins
Collierville High School Baseball Coach

The right-handed hitting 6-foot-1 Cozart weighs 185 pounds. Retaining weight during the season could be an issue to watch. He knows how to stay in shape by following the guidelines of his coaches, but the hot/humid weather could spell difficulty as the summer progresses. In short, he isn't huge, but he's in excellent athletic condition.

Traveling All-Star teams are an important component in today's baseball world. Scouts have an opportunity to watch guys play in the hot weather of the summer. High school and college players get to learn from outstanding coaches. Cozart played for a club named Dulins Dodgers, an elite 18-year-old summer league team. The team was competitive and it provided an excellent showcase.

Torn between attending college at Clemson or Mississippi, Cozart chose Ole Miss because of its proximity to his home. The campus was only about an hour away and it provided an opportunity for him to stay close to his family and friends.

He began his outstanding journey to major league baseball at Ole Miss and quickly earned accolades. He became a Southeast Conference All-Star, and a Third Team All-American. He was known as a sure-handed shortstop with range and a strong arm. At the time, many observers have indicated that Cozart was the best college shortstop in the country. And he could hit.

Cozart's career at Ole Miss earned him a second-round selection (No. 79 overall) in the 2007 June first-year player draft by the Reds. He received a $407,250 signing bonus.

The Reds started Cozart at Low-A Dayton of the Midwest League. He had a rough beginning to his professional career with a slash line of .239/2/18 with three stolen bases over 184 at-bats in 53 games. The net result? Cozart knew he had to work harder. One of his greatest assets is a fabulous work ethic and attitude. His love for the game drove him to improve.

The following season in 2008, Cozart repeated Low-A Dayton and improved to .280/14/49 with three stolen bases over 418 at-bats covering 109 games. Now he was on the right track.

In 2009, Cozart was assigned to Double-A Carolina of the Southern League. His season stabilized Cozart as a prospect for play in the big leagues. He hit .262/10/59 with 10 stolen bases in 462 at-bats in 131 games. It was enough for the Reds to send Cozart to the Arizona Fall League. That's where I had my first real chance to watch him play. His offense was as impressive as his defense. He hit .340/2/10 with three stolen bases in the short season for the Peoria Saguaros. Scouts began to mention Cozart when the discussion came around to shortstops.

Following his breakout fall campaign, the Reds invited him to his first spring training. They began to really show their faith in his ability and fans started the buzz about wanting to see Cozart as a regular. It didn't happen, as he was sent to Louisville for 2010 where he hit .255 with 17 homers, drove in 67 runs and stole 30 bases.

At the time his phone rang with the call to Cincinnati, Cozart was hitting .310/7/32 in 77 games at Louisville. His time had come.

So what have I seen in the Arizona Fall League and in spring training?
To begin, he plays good, solid defense. I don't think his range will make anyone forget Omar Vizquel. I do think he has soft, sure hands and he has enough arm strength to make plays from the hole. He has a very quick first step, but there are times I felt he looked unsure of himself, as if the flow and movement didn't come naturally. That has likely improved since spring. Transfer of the ball from glove to hand was very smooth and quick. He'll be a solid defender to be counted upon. First and foremost, a shortstop must play good defense, but he will.

Offensively, I have a problem with extreme front-foot hitters. That's what I've seen from Cozart. Dustin Ackley was like that (even more pronounced) when he first came to professional baseball. Ackley has adjusted and I would guess Cozart is more balanced with his feet and lower body at this point. Cozart's feet are wide apart at the plate and he relies on his hands and arms to generate his swing. He denies himself a bit of lower body strength, but his swing is short with good finish. He had LASIK surgery in early 2009 and that made a difference for him at the plate ever since.

When I saw Cozart he was upright at the plate and he really liked to pull the ball, even when pitchers threw outside pitches. If he continues to work on his swing and becomes disciplined about seeing pitches and taking those pitches where they are thrown, he'll have a very solid offensive career.

I'm not sure he'll ever hit for more than his minor league .260ish average. I do think he'll be slotted at the bottom of the batting order, curtailing RBI chances. He should hit some home runs in his home park and in the cozy National League Central parks as well, but I'm not sure he will be known as a great big league hitter. He will be able to steal bases and he'll put some pressure on the pitcher and fielders with good speed to allow him to take an extra base whenever possible.

Cozart reminds me of Washington's Danny Espinosa. He has pop in his bat, he can steal bases and he won't be a major hitter for average.

By 2014 at the latest, the Reds should have Cozart at shortstop and Billy Hamilton at second base. For me, other than Aroldis Chapman, Hamilton is probably the brightest star in the fantastic Reds galaxy. That will be a fine middle-infield combination for years to come.

Zack Cozart is being given the opportunity of his young lifetime. So far, so good. The soon to be 26-year-old Cozart has started his career with the Reds by getting some nice base hits and he's scored two runs. In four games, he has a .313 batting average over 16 at-bats. Cozart has the natural aptitude to succeed. Without a doubt, he has the knack.

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