All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart is coming off the best year of his career, but a number of factors could work against him as he tries to strike it rich as a free agent.
For the first six years of his career, we thought we had shortstop Zack Cozart all figured out — solid glove, modest power, all-around good presence in the clubhouse. Entering the 2017 season, Cozart was a career .246/.289/.385 hitter with 58 home runs and 217 RBI. His best season had been an injury-shortened campaign in 2015 where he posted an OPS of .769 but played in only 53 games.
Cozart completely flipped the script on his career last season by unleashing a newfound discipline at the plate. He hit .316/.394/.547 in the first half with nine home runs and 35 RBI, making the All-Star Game and earning himself a donkey in the process. Injuries affected Cozart in the second half, but he was able to show his power surge was no fluke. He hit 15 home runs in the second half — one every 14.9 plate appearances — and struck out only 30 times in 56 games with 29 walks.
As Cozart prepares to enter free agency at the age of 32, all 30 front offices around the league are doing their best to determine if this new level of production is sustainable or merely just a blip on the radar.
If Cozart’s bat stays at this level, combined with his strong defense, he is an incredibly valuable player at shortstop. Still, there are many things working against him finding a big payday on the open market. For starters, very few teams actually need a shortstop. Not since the days of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciappara, has MLB enjoyed such a cluster of young studs at the position. Cozart’s age will also come into play, as will his injury history. He has not played more than 140 games since the 2014 season.
Coming off a season in which he hit .297/.385/.548 with 24 doubles, 24 home runs and 63 RBI in only 122 games, Zack Cozart might have been able to seek a deal north of $15 million per year. Circumstances outside of his control will likely push that number down (or force him to take a shorter deal). There are still worse problems to have than being forced to take a four-year deal for $50 million, and these five teams should be making a serious push to sign the All-Star.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
After waiting five years for former number-one pick Tim Beckham to develop and establish himself as the answer at the shortstop position, the Tampa Bay Rays finally decided they had seen enough and sent him out of town. In Beckham’s place, the Rays attempted to make it work with Miami Marlins cast-off Adeiny Hechavarria. In 77 games after being acquired, Hechavarria hit just .257/.289/.411 with seven home runs and 24 RBI. He is a slick fielder, but is below average with the bat.
The Rays elected to tender a contract to Hechavarria even though he is set to get a raise from the $4.35 million he made last season. That seems like a lot to pay for a player who may be more suited to a roving infielder role. The Rays are also hoping Brad Miller can bounce back after posting an OPS of .664 with nine home runs in 110 games. Despite their shoestring budget, the Rays aren’t afraid to dip into free agency for veterans if the price drops. If demand is low for Cozart, the Rays could form a platoon out of Hechavarria and Miller and add a brand-new starting shortstop.