Could the Pirates use Zack Cozart?
In the purest sense of the word ‘use’, yes. Anyone who can come in and help kickstart the offense for the Pirates would be useful.
But Cozart is a shortstop and the Pirates already have one in place in the form of Jordy Mercer. Mercer is a slightly-below average overall shortstop — his defense is good both on the eye test and by defensive metrics, but his bat routinely grades out around 10% less than average (his wRC+ for both 2017 and his career is 88). It would be perfectly acceptable to want to upgrade on Mercer, but would that be the best use of the Pirates’ limited amount of financial resources this offseason?
MLB Trade Rumors is projecting that Zack Cozart will get a 3 year/$42M deal this offseason. The 32-year old Cozart is entering free agency on the heels of a career season in 2017. Cozart’s defense has always been at an elite level, in the tier right below the otherworldly Andrelton Simmons. But in 2017, he coupled that with a dynamic bat he’s never displayed before. His .297/.385/.548 line contained 24 homers and resulted in a 141 wRC+, which is far above his career wRC+ of 90 — right in line with Jordy Mercer’s, as you can see.
Cozart’s previous team, the Reds, have been in the midst of a deep rebuild for a few years now. They’ve been trying to deal Cozart for a while and even came within 30 seconds of a deal with the Seattle Mariners in 2016, in the words of Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto. (The deal would have returned pitcher Luiz Gohara to the Reds, which would have been a fabulous return.) With no deal happening in 2016 and no deal happening during his outstanding 2017, it tells me that the market for shortstops is fairly non-existent.
None of the major contenders need a shortstop — Dodgers have Seager, Cubs have Russell, Nationals have Turner, Red Sox have Bogaerts, Yankees have Grigorius, Astros have Correa, Indians have Lindor. There are a lot of rebuilding teams that could use a shortstop, like the Padres for instance, but it’s hard to see them making a move for a 32-year old at this stage of their rebuild. For Cozart’s part, he really likes money, but he’d also probably like to have the hint of a possibility of winning, too, so he’s trying to find the sweet spot of a team to pay him that could also make the playoffs.
I’m not saying that the Pirates meet both (or either) of those criteria, but once you start using the process of elimination, you can start to squint and see where a match could happen. If a match were to happen, though, it wouldn’t be at the 3 year/$42M mark. The Pirates would need to let Cozart marinate on the open market, which doesn’t seem hard to do with the glacial pace of the free agent and trade markets this offseason so far, and have him drop his price down in both years and dollars.
I’ve been projecting that the Pirates should have a $115M Opening Day payroll for 2018, which leaves them with $15M of wiggle room once you factor in existing commitments, arb-eligible projected salaries, and minimum-scale players. Cozart at $14M would absorb virtually all of their dollars. But remember that if the Pirates think of pivoting to Cozart, that means they’ve given up on Kang getting a visa and will keep his $3M on the restricted list, giving them $18M of flexibility. If Cozart’s market is deflated enough that in January the Pirates could get him for 2 years/$22M, I’d jump on that.
At that point, the Pirates could have Cozart at SS, move Mercer to 2B, and shift Josh Harrison over to 3B. The Pirates would have no need for both David Freese and Sean Rodriguez, so trading one could help free up some additional payroll room. I think Freese and his $4.25M would be easier to move than Rodriguez and his $5.75M. You still get to keep Rodriguez’s multi-positional flexibility and his cult hero status with the fans and the locker room.
So using $11M on Cozart, coupled with moving Freese’s $4.25M, still allows $11.25M on other improvements like the bullpen and bench. I’m not saying that the Pirates should hold off on improving the bullpen (or anything else) to wait around for Cozart; rather, I’m saying that they should stay flexible enough to do the scenario above should the market allow them to.
Cozart would allow the Pirates to create a bridge to whichever shortstop in the system establishes themselves as the next starter, whether that’s Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker. Cozart on a 2-year deal gives the Pirates an extra year of a starting shortstop after Mercer’s team control is up after the 2018 season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Tucker force himself to AAA midseason this year and move past Newman on the SS depth chart.
Even if Zack Cozart doesn’t replicate his offensive output from 2017, his elite defense isn’t going to crater. That would allow the Pirates to have an excellent defensive combo up the middle that could help prevent runs, another way to improve the overall quality of the team. Let’s say he runs a wRC+ in the 115-120 range. With his defensive input that’s a player with a WAR in the mid 3’s, giving the Pirates another impact player. The more impact players you accrue, the more likely you are to make the playoffs.