With a trade of Brandon Phillips appearing unlikely after a pair of offseason misfires to the Diamondbacks and Nationals, Jay Bruce and Zack Cozart are the two remaining Reds regulars who can elicit a few decent assets from another club. The cases of Bruce and Cozart are similar for three reasons:
- Control Both players are under team control through 2017 before hitting the open market. Bruce has a team option of $13 million ($1 million buyout) for 2017, while Cozart’s last year of arbitration is in 2017. Last month, the Reds and Cozart avoided an arbitration hearing by reportedly coming to terms on a one-year, $2.925 million contract.
- Personal incentive In 2016, the 28-year-old Bruce must prove that his poor showing from 2014-15 is not the new normal, but instead was a two-year abnormality shrouding an impressive stretch from 2010-13. And for Cozart, he needs to prove that A) his pre-injury offensive performance in 2015 was a sign of things to come and that B) he remains an impressive defensive shortstop in spite of his age (30) and his recovery from tearing a tendon and multiple ligaments in his right knee last June.
- The writing’s on the wall Due to the youth-based direction of the club, Bruce and Cozart are extremely unlikely to receive contract extension offers from the Reds. It makes too much sense for Bruce and Cozart to move on and for the Reds to obtain whatever value they can for two regulars.
Now, on to breakdowns of both players…
Let’s begin with a table to show how things have changed for the Reds’ right-fielder:
Over the past two seasons, Bruce’s walk rate, isolated power, on-base percentage, and total offensive value (when adjusted for league average and park effects) have regressed appreciably from his elite 2010-13 form and from his career marks. The 2014 and 2015 campaigns are concerning trends for a player who hasn’t yet reached 30. In fairness to Bruce, 2014 can be filed away as a lost season due to the former first-round pick playing through a knee injury. Last year, Bruce at least exhibited improvement across the board.
There are both positive and negative developments when it comes to reviewing Bruce’s batted ball numbers and other statistics. On the bright side, Bruce trended back to his career norms in virtually every category listed above last summer: he stopped hitting the ball on the ground as much (GB%) and instead put the ball back in the air (FB%), and he hit the ball with more authority (Hard%).
However, Bruce’s home run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB) sunk for the fourth consecutive season in 2015, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) receded for the third year in a row. Bruce continued to offer at more pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%) than he did during his peak years and for his career, a distressing shift for a player with a long swing, especially when combined with the fact that Bruce has struggled over the past two years against fastballs.
Back in November, FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris dove into the BABIP conundrum that is Jay Bruce. Sarris deduced that infield shifts were not the overriding factor in Bruce’s BABIP woes, but Sarris did determine that Bruce began driving the ball into the ground over the second half of last season, noting that Bruce’s line drives were turning into ground balls. A closer look at Bruce’s first half/second half splits from 2015 highlights that concerning development:
|2015 1st half||34.7||12.2||.214||.341||37.3||115|
|2015 2nd half||39.4||5.2||.203||.242||33.3||65|
Post All-Star Break, as Bruce pounded the ball into the ground, his walk, power, on-base, hard-hit, and overall offensive value numbers nosedived. For whatever reason — age-related decline, his knee acting up, disappointment at either being on the trade block or not being moved to a better club, bad luck, etc. — Bruce labored in the final months of the 2015 season.
Bruce — who can block a trade to the Athletics, Diamondbacks, Indians, Marlins, Rays, Red Sox, Twins, and Yankees — could have (and in retrospect, probably should have) been shipped out at the trade deadline last July, as both his trade value and personal performance suffered through the end of the season. This offseason, concern over Bruce’s struggles from 2014-15, his overall inconsistency, and a slow-developing outfield market depressed his trade value.
It was wise of the Reds to hold onto Bruce this winter. After all, his value can’t really sink any further, and though the outfield market will sort itself out by spring training, if Bruce enjoys one of his patented hot streaks sometime in June or July, he can be traded while smoldering and when injuries and other things (teams rising and falling) happen to create openings.
Protected by a near-peak Joey Votto and a healthy Devin Mesoraco — and to a lesser extent, Phillips and Eugenio Suarez — Bruce should have enough lineup protection for a potential rebound season. In order to do that, Bruce will need to regain his walking eye, keep the ball off the ground, and hope that more of his hard-hit balls turn into extra-base hits and that more of his fly balls become home runs.
Cozart is a much more simpler case at the dish than Bruce. Unfortunately, that’s not much of a compliment to his abilities as a hitter. Up until his freak knee injury last June, Cozart was enjoying his best offensive stretch since joining the Reds in 2011.
Again, pre-injury, Cozart had experienced improvement across the board. But is that improvement sustainable?
After a miserable 2014, we can see that Cozart adjusted and strived to both lift the ball in the air and to pull the ball. This strategy orchestrated a power surge; after registering just 27 extra-base hits in 543 plate appearances in 2014, Cozart tallied 20 extra-base knocks in 214 plate appearances last season. While Cozart’s home run-to-fly ball rate is not sustainable — he isn’t Miguel Cabrera, after all — we should not expect too much of a drop-off: the University of Mississippi product’s plate discipline statistics over the past two seasons display little variance from his career averages, and Cozart seems to have found a simple strategy that works for him: be more selective at the plate, attack fastballs, and take advantage of his pull power.
Perhaps more importantly, Cozart needs to show the Reds (and potential suitors) that he can still play shortstop at a high level. In spite of his career-long offensive issues, Cozart’s defense has prevented him from being a below-replacement level player; among qualified shortstops from 2012-15, Cozart is tied for second in Defensive Runs Saved and is third in Ultimate Zone Rating.
If Cozart proves that he can still stick at shortstop while minimizing his regression at the plate, he will be on track for his second 2+ fWAR season, a level he was slated to reach in 2015 prior to his injury. Though the Reds had no other option but to hold onto Cozart this winter while he rehabbed, if Cozart is productive (and healthy) once trade season comes around, the Reds should not hesitate to move him while the iron is hot.