On one hand, you’ve got a shortstop who had an awful .243/.281/.365 in the first four seasons of his career, clustering him among no-hit wonders like Ramon Santiago and Clint Barmes. He fared better the next two seasons, though injuries limited him to just 53 games in 2015, and his .252 batting average .308 OBP muted much of the impact of his career-high 16 homers in 2016.
Now, all of a sudden, Zack Cozart looks like a superstar. Through 36 games this season, Cozart’s batting an incredible .351/.432/.595. The NL’s Wins Above Replacement looks mighty weird right now: Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Turner ... and Zack Freaking Cozart (number six: fellow Red Eugenio Freaking Suarez!). You can wave away some of this as a mirage, starting with an off-the-charts .400 batting average on balls in play that’s 106 points above league average and 115 points above his previous career high for a full season, and that’s a monstrous fluke. Still, you can’t ignore all of it: a 13.5% walk rate that’s more than double his career mark, across-the-board improvement in plate discipline measures, a .244 Isolated Power mark that ranks him with the likes of elite hitters like Daniel Murphy.
With a very raw and still underdeveloped cadre of pitching prospects, the Reds figure to be at least two years away from contention—maybe more. That means they’ll want to build with youth, and Cozart doesn’t fit that description with his 32nd birthday coming in August. With free agency coming a couple months after that, the simplest move would be to trade him at the deadline, or wish him good luck with another team and collect the high draft pick in return. On the other hand, Cozart won’t go for anywhere near the big bucks that other players with big numbers will fetch in the open market, nor we will fetch elite prospects in a trade, due to his lackluster track record, age, and contract status. And while giving multi-year deals to 32-year-olds can be a kiss of death for a rebuilding ballclub, shortstops who can hit don’t grow on trees, and Cozart’s discounted price could make him worth a re-up, especially if a hometown discount further drives the price down.
Suarez won’t even become arbitration-eligible until the end of this season, so the Reds have the luxury of seeing how that might play out without being forced to make any decisions. But what the hell should they do with Zack Cozart?! There are no easy answers here. Then again, this is a pleasant problem to have, and one that Reds brass never could have anticipated.