Of all positions on the field, the shortstop position has consistently provided the most prospects among Dayton Dragons players. The list of Dragons shortstops dating back to 2005 is filled with future Major League players and also includes the hottest Minor League player in baseball today, Billy Hamilton, who has been moved to center field. Over a six year period from 2005-2010, six Dragons shortstops reached the Majors Leagues including Paul Janish, Adam Rosales, Chris Valaika, Todd Frazier, Didi Gregorius, and the current Reds starting shortstop, Zack Cozart, who became the 50th Dragons player to play in the big leagues when he made his debut in 2011.
Cozart was chosen by Baseball America as the best defensive shortstop in college baseball in 2007 at the University of Mississippi. He was signed as a second round draft pick by the Reds and brought his shining defensive skills to professional baseball. After his first pro season, Baseball America called him the best defensive shortstop in the Reds farm system since Gookie Dawkins, who was drafted exactly 10 years prior to Cozart.
Cozart joined the Dragons immediately after signing with the Reds in 2007, skipping rookie-ball entirely. He played in 53 games with Dayton that summer, adjusting to the wood bat as he hit .239 with two home runs and 18 runs batted in. But he impressed with his defense, as documented in Baseball America's Prospect Handbook before the 2008 season.
"He's already an excellent shortstop with fluid actions, soft hands, and a quick first step. As a heady baseball rat with good instincts, he fits the profile of many other recent Reds draftees (a reference to Frazier, Janish, Rosales, Valaika, and second baseman Justin Turner). He's also durable, as he never missed a game during his three years at Mississippi. Cincinnati believes his bat will eventually catch up to his glove."
Cozart returned to the Dragons in 2008 and showed improvement with the bat including an unexpected display of home run power. He belted a grand slam home run on April 27 and then twice within a three week period starting May 28, he hit two homers in the same game. His batting average also improved after a slow start due to an injury. He hit .297 in the second half, adding eight homers and 31 RBI with a slugging percentage of .468. For the year, Cozart finished at .280 with 14 home runs and 49 RBI. He was selected in a poll of managers as the best defensive infielder in the Midwest League and also chosen as the shortstop on the league's full-season all-star team. It was the kind of season Cozart would have hoped for as his defense remained strong and his offense improved.
Cozart jumped to Double-A in 2009, batting .262 with 10 homers for Carolina. He was chosen as a Southern League All-Star. Then in 2010, he jumped to Triple-A Louisville in just his third full season of professional baseball. He was chosen as his team's Most Valuable Player and led the International League in runs scored. He was also selected as the shortstop on Baseball America's post-season Triple-A all-star team, batting .255 with 17 home runs, 67 RBI, and 30 stolen bases.
Cozart opened the 2011 season back in Louisville but continued to show improvement at the plate. In 77 games, he hit a career high .310. Then on July 7, Cozart was called to the Major Leagues by the Reds and installed as the team's starting shortstop. He opened his big league career with a seven-game hitting streak, batting .379. On July 17, Cozart hit his first career home run, connecting off his former college teammate, Lance Lynn of St. Louis. He hit another homer on July 22 against the Braves. But then the next night, Cozart injured his non-throwing elbow on a collision on a defensive play. Surgery was required and his season was over. In just 11 games, he hit .324 with two homers.
Cozart returned as the Reds starting shortstop in 2012 with his rookie status still in tact, becoming the first Reds opening day rookie shortstop since Frank Duffy in 1971. Cozart played like an established veteran all season and was a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award. He finished second among National League shortstops in fielding percentage. He finished the year with 15 home runs, the most by a Reds rookie shortstop since 1935. Cozart finished the year with a batting average of .246 but added 33 doubles, just seven short of the club's rookie record held by Johnny Bench, Frank McCormick, and Chris Sabo. He became just the fourth Reds shortstop of any experience level to collect at least 30 doubles and 15 homers in a season. He and teammate Todd Frazier formed the left side of the infield on the Baseball America All-Rookie Team. Most importantly, with Cozart as an everyday player at a critical position, the Reds ran away with the National League Central crown.
Cozart returns as the Reds shortstop in 2013. His club has shown the ultimate confidence in his long-term value, trading the player behind him on the organizational ladder, highly-regarded shortstop Didi Gregorius. The shortstop who was behind Gregorius, Billy Hamilton, has been moved to center field. Cozart is clearly the man at shortstop for the Reds, and the 50th Dragon to reach the Major Leagues. Next up: Dave Sappelt.
Click here for Zack Cozart's Major League Statistics, photos, and highlight clips.
Click here for Zack Cozart's Minor League Statistics.