[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.