2018 Reds

Knees, Surgery, Aging and Extending Zack Cozart

[This post was written by Warren Leeman who comments under the name Shchi Cossack. Thanks, Warren!]

During the second half of 2012, Joey Votto had surgery to repair a torn knee meniscus. Later that season, Votto had a second surgery to remove floating debris from the same knee. When Votto came back for 2013, his knee was not fully healed and his left leg, his foundation and power leg, was not fully strengthened.

But Votto had a good season; just marginally good by his standards. When Votto came back for 2014, he suffered a severe quad injury from aggressive rehabilitation and lost virtually the entire 2014 season.

The former NL MVP came back from two knee surgeries and a severe quad injury for his age 31 season to produce monster 2015, 2016 and 2017 season.

But this post is not about Joey Votto. It’s about knees surgeries, quad injuries, aging curves and contract extensions.

During the 2015 season, Zack Cozart had a catastrophic knee injury requiring extensive reconstructive surgery. The injury was much more severe than Votto’s and sidelined Cozart for the remainder of 2015. When Cozart came back for the 2016 season, the knee was not fully healed and his right leg, his foundation and power leg, was not fully strengthened. But he started strong, playing virtually every game with a heavy knee brace, finished poorly as his knee suffered from lack of full recovery and overuse.

Zack Cozart came back in 2017 with an additional year for a full knee recovery, but his legs were not at full strength. He again started strong, played in virtually every game, until he strained his quads. After a DL stint, Cozart returned to the lineup playing on gimpy quads and still produced strong results. 2018 will be two full seasons from Cozart’s knee injury and he will have a full off-season to heal and rehabilitate his quads.

The injury recovery timelines for Cozart and Votto are remarkably similar. Cozart had a more severe knee injury and Votto had a more severe quad injury. Votto came back in 2015 for his age-31 season. Cozart will return in 2018 for his age-32 season.

Zack Cozart has had a breakout season in 2017. But he’s shown a trend of offensive improvement since 2015. Prior to his knee injury, Cozart performed well above his career norms in 2015 and 2016, only to fall off later in each season.

In 2017, Cozart’s offensive performance was not as impacted by the knee injury. He continued to hit. Cozart’s defensive capability did suffer from the quad injuries. His range and mobility have been restricted.

Quad injuries heal with true rest, recovery and rehabilitation. Cozart plays regularly but with days off. He has to protect the injured quads by limiting actions that might stress the damaged muscle. There is every reason to believe that a full off-season of recovery and rehabilitation will bring quads back to full strength. Look no further than Joey Votto for an example of what a full recovery looks like.

Zack Cozart will produce a 5 WAR season in 2017. Savor that for a moment … 5 WAR! He accomplished that with gimpy quads. If Cozart had full defensive capability, he would have blown past 5 WAR. If you don’t like WAR, how about a 146 wRC+ or a .398 wOBA? If you want more traditional stats, how about a .949 OPS, a .391 OBP or a .302 AVG? Cozart easily ranks in the top 20 of MLB in offense.

Is Cozart’s higher offensive production sustainable?

Well, his .314 BABIP is the highest of his career, but based on the adjustments Cozart made over the past 3 seasons, especially this season, a .314 BABIP is right in line with expectations. Cozart has become a disciplined hitter with a 12.4% BB rate (23rd in MLB). He’s cut his strikeout rate to 14.6% (33rd in MLB). He’s been more selective at the plate with a 23.7% O-Swing% (17th in MLB).

The apparent answer is yes, Cozart has made a sustainable change to his offensive approach at the plate.

The aging curve for a middle infielder is staring Zack Cozart squarely down the baseline. Decline can be steep for a middle infielder due to the physical demand of the position and the negative impact on those skills. Cozart will play in his age-32 season in 2018. The aging factor worsens nagging injuries, lengthens recovery time and increases the risk of a severe injury.

Any long-term contract could turn ugly quickly so Cozart is entering a buyer-beware free agency negotiation. In a worst case scenario, a 20% decline from a 5-WAR season will produce 4.0 WAR, 3.2 WAR and 2.5 WAR over the next three years. Those are conservative numbers since Cozart was not 100% healthy in 2017 and his skill set will almost certainly not drop off so fast.

We’ve heard it over and over: Zack Cozart can’t remain healthy and is a huge injury risk. But is that true?

Cozart has had two severe freak injuries during his MLB career, Tommy John surgery from a second base collision while attempting to turn a double play in 2011 and major reconstructive knee surgery from running out an infield grounder and landing on first base awkwardly. Both injuries were from playing hard and aggressive.

His only other injuries were an isolated strained abdominal oblique in 2012 (3 weeks) and strained quads in 2017 (ongoing). The TJ surgery almost never occurs under the new CBA rules regarding 2B collisions. The knee surgery was significant but Cozart returned to play in 2016 sooner and better than anyone expected (albeit with a heavy knee brace).

There has been no indication that the knee will be an ongoing problem during his MLB career. The quad injuries were from playing too much while the legs were not strengthened and rehabilitated from the knee injury. Quads heal with proper rest, recovery and rehabilitation. The oblique injury was an isolated, short-term issue with no residual effects.

Othan than being an aggressive player, Zack Cozart hasn’t shown a predisposition to injury. If Cozart had repeated issues with oblique or shoulder injuries, repeated significant joint issues (ankles, wrists, elbows, knees, etc) or chronic injuries (muscles, spine, neck, vision, concussions, etc.), that would be different. But such is not the case.

The Reds have no one to replace Cozart’s offense and defense over the next three seasons. Moving Eugenio Suarez to shortstop and Nick Senzel to third base will result in overall negative production. The starting pitching should be better and more consistent. With starters going longer, the bullpen should also be better. The Reds could be competitive with pitching improvements and even a slight offensive decline.

But the Reds can avoid offensive decline in 2018 by extending Zack Cozart’s contract and create an offensive juggernaut with the addition of Senzel during the second half of 2018.

Sure, there is risk in extending Cozart, but unless another team steps up with a contract in the $50 million range, the risk/reward curve favors signing him. A contract of three years at $30 million provides a good framework to start and negotiations may end with an additional team option for $10 million and $6 million buyout.

Zack Cozart is not a stopgap player to fill a void until someone else is ready to take over at shortstop. He is a solid 5 WAR player providing real value offensively and defensively. The Reds cannot afford to pay FA market prices. An average annual value (AAV) of $10-12 million over 3-4 years would be recovered in a single season with another 4-5 WAR performance. Everything is gravy beyond that.

That’s the risk/reward move the Reds need. They won’t find value elsewhere on the free agent market to add 4-5 WAR. Spending that money acquiring a new pitcher entails much more risk with less reward.

32 thoughts on “Knees, Surgery, Aging and Extending Zack Cozart

  1. It’s a compelling argument for a complex free agency case. What I take issue with is your assertion that “An average annual value (AAV) of $10-12 million over 3-4 years would be recovered in a single season with another 4-5 WAR performance. Everything is gravy beyond that.” While it might be recovered in a season, a small market team like the Reds must be sure that that high WAR season coincides with when the team is good. If Cozart has that season in 2018 when the team is still not competitive and then goes into the tank in 2019-20 when they are good, there’s no gravy whatsoever. That’s a bad use of resources. As we’ve hopefully learned from the Astros and Cubs, when you’re bad, it pays to be really bad so ideally when you’re good, you’ve gleaned the talent to be really good. Increased WAR for a middling team is nothing positive.

    • Completely agree. I do see the argument and if we are talking about making the playoffs in 2018, then yes it makes sense. But if we are talking about trying to be real, WS contenders in 2019/2020 then a 3 year contract is a bad use of resources. The decline wont be linear so to think Cozart will still be worth 2.5 WAR in 2020 seems very optimistic to me.

  2. The risk/reward of extensions.
    The 2017 Cozart = the 2014 Mesoraco. Granted, Mesoraco wasn’t entering free agency at the time of his contract. The risk is very similar and the Mesoraco contract did not work out well for the Reds. Mesoraco went on the DL twice in his very good 2014 season. He’s been injured in one fashion or another ever since signing it. Too much risk with Cozart and certainly wouldn’t go beyond a 2 year / $20M offer, $9M in 2018 and $11M in 2019. That is as far as I would go on a Cozart extension. If he turns it down, then adios, come back and talk if you don’t get the offer you are looking for if we haven’t already moved on. Three years is too long and $36M is far too much.
    There are two extensions the Reds should look at this winter, and Cozart really isn’t one of those two. Suarez and Barnhart have more than earned that.

  3. I agree with WV that extending Barnhart and Suarez are higher priorities than Cozart, but where does it say only two extensions are allowed in any year? I’ve been arguing for keeping Cozart all year, but this lays it out pretty clearly and in full. Is there risk? Of course, but there’s also a risk if the Reds don’t extend Cozart. They really don’t have anyone to fill his shoes at the plate or in the field, and the odds that Suarez blossoms at short, or Peraza somehow learns to hit are far longer than the odds of Cozart staying fairly healthy. Money is coming available from various sources. Cozart may not be crazy expensive. I say sit down and start negotiating DW. I’d love to see the Reds extend Cozart for three years.

    • Well, one of your wishes can be checked off. The Reds just extended Barney for 4 years.

      • Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Barnhart will be guaranteed $16MM (Twitter link). That sum will paid out in the form of a $1.75MM signing bonus and annual salaries of $4MM (2018), $2.5MM (2019), $3.5MM (2020) and $3.75MM (2021). The 2022 option is valued at $7.5MM and comes with a $500K buyout, per Buchanan.

  4. Shchi,

    Your argument is well-thought and reasoned.

    “An average annual value (AAV) of $10-12 million over 3-4 years”

    To even consider giving Zach Cozart this kind of deal, though, committing to pay him to age 35 and beyond, 2 factors need to be present, IMO:

    1) The Reds seriously believe they will contend for a playoff spot in 2018.
    2) The Reds feel someone else will offer Cozart a similar type of deal in free agency

    Unless 1 and 2 are both, there isn’t a business reason to offer him more than a 1 year deal, if he is even offered a contract.

    Play Peraza or Suarez or Acquired Player X (Hi, Ketel Marte) at SS in 2018 if it’s another season of sorting/non-contention, with Cozart as back-up until another back-up can be found.

    Committing in 2017 to paying Cozart for production in 2020 or 2021 feels like fool’s good.

  5. Good article. It was not that long ago that Cozart was near the bottom in wRC+. Now he is near the top. Plate discipline and some adjustments to his swing have made a big difference. I’d like some other Reds follow his example.

  6. Why not simply issue the QO and get the best (from a probability standpoint) of those 3-4 seasons if he accepts? If he gets hurt or regresses, you are only taking a one year hit. If he continues to perform at this level, you win next year and his price would not be that much higher if you wanted to extend him for additional years. Additionally, we should have some answers about our other middle infielders by the end of next year (Is Gennett for real? Can Peraza get on base? Will Herrera ever be able to play in the field? Is Blandino a factor?). Alternatively, I would be for letting Cozart go and moving Suarez to shortstop to open up 3B for Senzel, but it doesn’t seem like the Reds are seriously considering this.

  7. Great piece…and I’m with you…altho, $12 M/yr might be a little steep. I do think this is the real Cozart we are seeing. Age will erode his production (both defense/offense), but is likely to remain higher than Peraza (unless he improves quickly). Moving Suarez back to SS just doesn’t make any sense to me…3rd and SS are very different and while Suarez might be better at SS now than he was earlier, he has already shown himself more than adequate at 3rd. No need to make room for Senzel yet, as much as everyone wants to see him next year…even so, I’m sure Senzel could move to 2nd better than Suarez could move back to SS. That leave Gennett the big question mark. Bring him back next year at the start of the season and see if he’s the real thing. If not, move Senzel there if you bring him up. Blandino, Herrera both would be a drop in production.

    • “… Senzel could move to 2nd better than Suarez could move back to SS.” pretty much sums up my thoughts as well.

  8. Another possible way to address this (bear with me, it has a lot of moving parts and stipulations):

    (1) Do not think of it as 3-year extension or nothing (or ludicrously expensive QO)

    (2) Assume rational behavior – that Cozart (and his agent) are determined on testing the free agent waters before coming back to a bid from the Reds. As they should. Given the combination of supply/demand, his injury concerns, age, $ – I wouldn’t be surprised if responses were few and lackluster and that, come January/February, there will be a window to assemble a mutually useful – but limited duration – package.

    (3) Limited duration because (a) we have a pipeline, but one that may not be fully effectively utilized until sometime in the 2019 season with transitions, etc., (b) we would be well advised for the left side of the infield (as well as for the outfield, where we have a similar transition issue) we probably have 5 guys (Suarez, Cozart, Perazza, Senzel and Blandino/Herrera/Vincej/XYZ). So depending on performance, opposing pitcher, availability, rest – you assume -everyone- not named Suarez gets 120 starts) (c) which makes sense given Cozart’s availability the last two seasons and (d) doesn’t permanently crimp or block the transition plans..

    (4) So you write a contract for 2 years (long enough to transition) –
    with base compensation based on a rational expectation of performance:
    2.0 WAR, 120 games (or x plate appearances) and a low $/WAR bench – say
    a $10M base – could be lower, could be higher
    and performance incentives
    additional $/incremental WAR, incremental game time, and offensive metrics
    above a threshold – time to insert Sabermetrics into contract writing
    AND to make the contract mutually beneficial – give each party – us and him – an early buyout option. I Year 1, say $3-5M for Cozart to buy out, in Year 2, either side can buy out at a price (or make it a mutual option). This way, if Cozart can get the deal he -relly- wants, there is a way, and if we have the opportunity to move him, we can because the contract has a favorable price tag.

    (5) A useful marriage of convenience and value.

    I know, I know, too tendentious, too many moving parts……………..

    • I think this is probably over-complicated but the Reds do need to be creative sometimes considering their budget. There may not be this many moving parts but there almost certainly would be some moving parts if a deal was reached.

  9. In response to to some of the points mentioned above…

    If the Reds extend Cozart before he reaches FA after the World Series, the 3 yr/$36MM contract doesn’t even com into play. From my perspective, that’s a maximum offer for the Reds in a competitive bidding environment. Anything more than that and I wish him well. I think his actual contract will be less than 3 yr/$36MM. I don’t think Cozart will sign an extention before becoming a FA, so we’ll see how the market develops, but if the Reds can sign him for a reasonable contract, they not only should, but they must.

    Signing or not signing Cozart has nothing to do with any other moves (i.e. Suarez, Barnhart, etc.) Signing Cozart is about getting better, not about maintaining something close to hat the Reds have now offensively. The Reds have 3 players capable of putting up 5 WAR: Votto, Cozart and Suarez. Losing Cozart will be a significant reduction to the offense and defense that can’t be replace by 2 or 3 lesser players. Adding Senzel to the offense some time in 2018 can make the offense even better, but only as an augment to Cozart, not as a partial replacement for Cozart.

    I expect the pitching to be MUCH better in 2018 than it was in 2017. That puts the Reds in a position to be competitive in 2018 if the Reds can avoid a reduction in the offensive and defensive capability of the team. That makes resigning Cozart a critical move now. The money is available and I can’t see any option that might produce the same bang for the buck.

    If you think Cozart’s 2017 performance was a flash in the pan, then resigning him is certainly folly. I don’t believe any injury concerns are justified for the reasons offered, but if valid evidence exists that Cozart is a serious injury risk, then resigning him is certainly folly. For the reasons stated, I believe Cozart’s performance was valid and repeatable.

    We are hopefully heading into an exciting and eventful off season with lots of developments to discuss and dissect.

    • Some clarifications for the rationale underlying my post:

      (1) Like you, Warren, I’m biased toward having Cozart on board next year, using the same reasoning. I don’t think the performance is fluke.

      (2) I also don’t think the injury hex is going to resurface. Depending on performance, he could easily be up there with Joey “Gamer” Votto in availability (certainly hope so) That;s a major reason why I recommended a low base assuming only 120 game availability offset by steep incentives for availability and performance above the benchmark. It provides insurance against injury and age related decline while compensating fairly if he performs sustainably at the current level.

      (3) It also for the Reds, avoids being locked into Cozart at age 35-36 and for Cozart doesn’t preclude the big paycheck down the line, either with the Reds or elsewhere. It also provides Cozart with a limited duration safety net if FA doesn’t pan out as expected – buys him another year to work the market while retaining/enhancing value.

      (4) I also assume that, by end 2019, we are going to know how the younger side of the pool – Suarez, Perazza, Herrera, Blandino, etc are going to play out and enables us to make a transition -if- performance warrants or a trade opportunity involving Cozart materializes.

      (5) And, finally, the forlorn hope that Price discovers his inner Maddon and adopts flexible position play for position players – especially if we have 4-5 guys for the left side and 5 guys for the outfield..

  10. I continue to believe that there is not much of a market for Zach Cozart out there. Every team is (1) set at shortstop, including all contending and big-market teams, or (2) rebuilding and not likely to spend big money on a 32-year-old Cozart. I still haven’t heard one plausible big bidder on Cozart. In other words, the same factors that kept him from being traded on July 31 are still at play now. No team is in the market for a $8-12 million/year shortstop.

    Cozart is a worth more to the Reds than any other team, plus he wants to play here. If the Reds play their cards right, the terms will be pretty favorable.

    • There is no shortstop available that will come close to providing 5 WAR. Cozart produced 5 WAR playing only 75% of the games and nursing two gimpy quads for half a season. In order to win, a team must have production, not just low cost. The cost benefit anaylsis is valid and necessary, but I simply didn’t (don’t) see a valid option from a production analysis.

  11. Keeping Cozart is an incredible idea. Incredibly foolish. How many times do you need to look back and see the Reds get burned by a multi year injured player. Cozart is hurt before the contract even starts and you are even thinking about this? Do you want to resign Mez and Bailey too?

    • Every player–no exceptions–is an injury risk. Warren’s explanation of why Cozart shouldn’t be considered perpetually injured makes sense to me and, given the lack of a reasonable replacement and the possibility of the Reds being in contention in 2018, I’d resign him, with the same caveat everyone else has mentioned–no huge, long-term contract.

    • The contract for Bailey was a market value FA contract for a pitcher. That’s an exceptionally high risk endeavor. That was a desperate move by WJ in an attempt to salvage a starting pitching rotation he had totally mismanaged, for a last push before he left as the GM. It was a move no small to mid market team should ever consider.

      The contract for Mesoraco was a good, low-cost gamble by both the Reds and Mesoraco; it just didn’t work. There really wasn’t a significant cost impact in Mesoraco’s contract until 2017 and 2018. It could have been a huge windfall for the Reds (it obviously wasn’t); it could have been nothing more than a security-blanket for Mesoraco and his family (unfortunately that’s what happened) or it most likely could have landed somewhere in between (the expected but unacheived result). The hip and shoulder surgeies that derailed Mesoraco’sd career were completely unexpected and unrelated. Sometimes that happens, especially to pitchers and catchers.

      In answer to your question, no. I do not want to resign Mesoraco and Bailey. Given the circumstances and available information, I would have signed Mesoraco to the contract that was given though and not signed Bailey to the contract he received. I believe the Cozart contract falls vary close to the Mesoraco contract in the risk/reward evaluation, but nothing is a sure thing.

  12. Regardless of what happens, ZC has been a stand up guy and easy to root for. Best of luck to him and his donkey going forward!

  13. Good arguments for sure on extending Cozart with a multi-year offer, but from what I have read the QO for him would be a 1 year for $18M. I don’t see him signing a 3 year, $30M contract. The Reds cannot afford another bad contract, the risk is too great. Reds need to let him walk. Another error by the front office of not moving him last year at the trade deadline to Seattle.

  14. Shchi, Another cogent and well reasoned article and analysis. I always enjoy reading you, as my baseball season ebbs to another blah ending up here in the far north woods. Just about hot stove season…and the Reds have given us too many recent hot stove-only seasons of late and not enough pizzazz during the 162. Hoping next year is better, but I think that will take a solid vet FA pitcher, strong growth from at least 2 of the young SP’s, and a sudden managerial epiphany by Price. Perhaps asking too much collectively. Keep writing and posting…one of these days I’ll have to find my way back to the QC during the season and share a frosty one at a ball game…

    Yes, bring back Zach…the prospect infield situation is far, far from a sure thing positive at this stage. Hoping Senzel is the real deal and on the verge of healthy. Not sold on Peraza and his bottom-end metrics at this point, but also not ready to relegate him to the discard pile yet at his relatively young age. Scooter has been a joyful cheap pickup, but I don’t think there is sustainability in his offensive numbers and his D is subpar. (And I think small market teams have to excel in the smaller glory things like team defense to help bridge the budget competitive gap.)

  15. I’d sign him for 3 years 36 mil without blinking. I’m amazed at how people so easily can ignore a 5 WAR. Even if he drops to a 2.5 WAR in year three, the contract will still have been a good one, especially as salaries continue to increase. People want to be cheap with salaries, but to what extent? The chances of this team having a replacement by 2019 who can generate a 3 WAR even, is very remote. Sometimes you have to roll the dice.

  16. It really depends on if the Reds think they are close to competing or have a decent chance to compete in 2018. It also comes down the the money. Like @Big5Ed said above, I also don’t think there’s going to be a big market for Cozart. The Reds may end up getting a pretty good deal. It could be as low as 2yrs with an option as far as years and the AAV may be around $10-million. The Reds almost have to do that if they think there is even a chance they’ll compete in 2018… If the market for Cozart does turn out to be heavier, then signing him at that 3yr/$30-million+ contract gets too risky for a team like the Reds to take on. If they don’t sign him and he signs somewhere for say $2yrs/$22-million plus an option then I think it tells the baseball world that the Reds don’t think they’ll compete in 2018 and it’s more sorting. If Cozart ends up signing somewhere for 3yrs/$40-million or so though, then the baseball world will figure that Cozart was simply priced out of the Reds market considering the risk the Reds felt he represented.

    • I’ll add that it only takes 1 team to really want him for 3yrs/$40-million+ to happen for Cozart. I’m not a big proponent of WAR value on the open market but there is certainly some merit to it as it’s based on real contract data on the free-agent market. Good free-agents are expensive. Some teams may look at his 5 WAR this year and figure even at half that his 2018 is worth $20-million. They could get to 3yrs/$40-million plus pretty quickly.

  17. 2 years with a 3rd year mutual all for the value in the range of what has been discussed. He’s far above anyone available out there. Senzel starts at 2B in Louisville and by the middle of the year, he’s up unless we keep Scooter and Scooter tears it up again. Geno stays at 3B period … we saw that again today.

    Then again, I’m just a fan and none of it is my money. As far away as I am, I can’t even make firm plans to attend a game.

  18. I completely agree with your sentiment. I suggested a couple of months ago that they should offer him a 3 year contract @ 9 mil per year, with a 3 million dollar buyout if we don’t extend him for the fourth year. You gave logical reasons why we should do the extension, I didn’t. You stated your position well. Great read.

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