Much of the focus this off-season for the Minnesota Twins will be on their need for starting pitching, and rightfully so under the circumstances. But there are other areas on the roster that need to be addressed, particularly in the infield as starting jobs at third base, shortstop and second base are at best undecided right now.
A recent report says the Cincinnati Reds may be willing to trade one of their two young shortstops, Zack Cozart or Didi Gregorius, if such a deal would get them a leadoff-hitting outfielder or a closer. Both Cozart and Gregorius are highly regarded, but Cozart is older (27) and has far more major league experience with 638 plate appearances to just 21 for Gregorius.
If the Twins do add a shortstop this winter, they would most likely want someone with some major league experience that is theoretically in or entering their prime. The players currently on the 40-man roster with experience at shortstop include the far past their prime (Jamey Carroll) and the young and unproven (Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, Eduardo Escobar). Carroll will be back in 2013, as he is under contract for at least one more year, but he is clearly better suited to being a backup infielder at age 39 by the time next season starts. Dozier, Florimon and Escobar are all candidates for the Opening Day roster next year, and Escobar’s versatility could add him to the mix at third base and second base as well.
In any case, a talent upgrade is needed in the Twins’ middle infield and general manager Terry Ryan should make that priority No. 2 after he adds a starting pitcher or two. So could Cozart be on Minnesota’s radar?
2012 was Cozart’s first full major league season, and he hit .246 with 15 home runs, 35 RBI and 33 doubles over 561 at-bats (600 plate appearances). He is also considered an above average defensive shortstop, which would be an important factor for Minnesota after the adventures they’ve had defensively at that spot over the last couple seasons.
27 is generally considered an age where hitters hit their prime, though Cozart’s minor league body of work (.270, 50 HR, 225 RBI, .421 slugging percentage over 2,166 plate appearances) suggests he is not necessarily an elite hitter. Playing his home games at Target Field and not at the hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ballpark would likely reduce his home run total, but Cozart hit nine of his 15 home runs last season on the road and his fly ball and home run/fly ball percentages (38 and 8.8 respectively) were not particularly elevated overall. So simply improving his consistency at the plate, as he had three monthly batting averages below .250 in 2012, may yield solid overall offensive numbers even with moving to the tougher American League.
Another positive factor for the Twins if they show interest in Cozart is that he will not be arbitration-eligible until after the 2014 season, and thus will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season. So it would be fairly inexpensive for Minnesota, outside of what it would take to get him in a trade, to see if Cozart has more offensive upside and he would be a clear upgrade to their infield defense.
If Cincinnati is seeking an outfielder for the top of their lineup, the Twins have a couple players that would fit that role in Denard Span and Ben Revere. The Reds may also look to add someone who can play left field with Ryan Ludwick declining his part of a mutual option with the team, in which case Josh Willingham could be a fit as well. The Twins would be selling high on Willingham coming of the best season of his career in 2012 (35 HR, 110 RBI), and they can can probably get a player (a starting pitcher?) with more of a major league track record than Cozart for him in a trade.
It comes down to how serious the Reds are about parting with Cozart, but the Twins look like a capable trade partner and they have assets that may appeal to Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty. I think the outfielder to part with is Span, as Revere is younger and a solid potential replacement for him while Willingham gave the Twins a right-handed power hitter it has not had for awhile in 2012 and should do so again next season at a reasonable salary ($7 million) as long as he can stay healthy.