The Colorado Rockies will come out of the All-Star break in great position to make the playoffs. With a little less than half the season remaining, they lead the Chicago Cubs by seven and a half games for the second Wild Card spot. And they only trail the Arizona Diamondbacks by two games for the top spot. With the trade deadline just three weeks away, the Rockies would benefit by acquiring some players to help push the team over the top and have a chance to host the Wild Card game rather than having to play on the road (or miss the playoffs altogether).
It’s a nice change for the Rockies, who haven’t been in this position at the trade deadline in the last six years. Typically, the question has been whether or not the Rockies should sell valuable veterans in order to build for future seasons. That’s for other teams this year. One of those teams is the Cincinnati Reds who currently sit in last place in the NL Central. The Reds have been moving on from veterans the last few years, sending away Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, and Jay Bruce among others. This year, the Reds have another veteran player teams will be inquiring about in shortstop Zack Cozart.
★ ★ ★
Cozart is in the midst of the most productive season of his career. He is on a career high pace in basically every offensive category, slashing .316/.394/.547. His .358 BABIP is also significantly higher than in any other season of his career, so some negative regression can be expected. Cozart has never been a big power threat but he has shown steady improvement in that department over the last three years, so there is some evidence that the power surge may be real. There are signs of positive player development this season in other areas as well.
Cozart has become a less aggressive hitter this season, increasing his walk rate and lowering his swing rate significantly. He is seeing more pitches and taking a higher percentage of balls outside of the zone, forcing pitchers to throw strikes. This may be helping him square the ball up more as his line drive rate is up while his infield fly rate is down. Besides the offensive help Cozart would provide, he has also been a very dependable defensive shortstop throughout his career.
★ ★ ★
Obviously, this trade would have an impact on one Rockies player in particular: Trevor Story. It’s no secret that Story has struggled with the bat this season. There are two telling numbers for Story and the first is his hard contact. Last season, he had a healthy 44.9 percent hard contact rate. This season that number has fallen to just 31 percent. Story is just not hitting the ball with authority. This leads to the second telling number: his line drive rate. Story has dropped from a 23.6 percent rate in 2016 to just 18.2 percent this season. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if he were hitting more fly balls with authority but the numbers indicate that most of those missing line drives have turned into weak fly balls and infield pop-outs. This isn’t the same guy who was a leading Rookie of the Year candidate just a year ago.
It’s easy to forget that Story was a long shot to be the Rockies opening day shortstop heading into the 2016 season. He had an incredible spring and began the season on a tear so there was no looking back. Getting Story back on track is important and one option for the Rockies, should they look to acquire a shortstop, would be to let him get every day at bats in Albuquerque to help get his swing figured out. The other option would be to keep Story on as a power bat off the bench and fill in at short when necessary.
The Rockies shortstops rank 27th in baseball in terms of WAR this season. They rank 24th in wRC+ league-wide. Other than at catcher, there isn’t playing time available anywhere else on the field right now. There are so many veterans and productive players in the outfield that adding another outfielder would just make things more complicated. Shortstop is the easiest position to upgrade for the Rockies and it could carry major benefits for the future by giving Trevor Story the chance to get back to the player he was in 2016.
★ ★ ★
The big question is what would a trade for Cozart look like for the Rockies? Cozart is in the last year of his contract so he would be the definition of a rental player for the second half of the season. The best way to figure out what kind of value the Rockies would be giving up in a trade is to look at similar trades the last couple seasons. Fortunately for us, there were two relatively similar deals last season so we have recent history to guide us.
Last July, the Milwaukee Brewers sent Aaron Hill to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for prospects Aaron Wilkerson, a right-handed pitcher and Wendell Rijo, a second baseman. Wilkerson was having a good year in the Boston system at the time of the deal but was not considered a major prospect, projecting as organizational depth or a long-reliever. Rijo was a well-thought-of prospect, ranking in the mid-teens for the Red Sox on most prospect lists but struggling at the time of the trade. Like Cozart, Hill was on the last year of his deal and having a surprisingly good season at the time of the trade. He was a good veteran presence and had a good track record of success throughout his career. Cozart is more highly thought of than Hill was at the time of the trade so the Rockies would probably be looking at paying a slightly steeper price in any deal for Cozart.
Later in July, the Minnesota Twins sent Eduardo Nunez to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for left-handed pitcher Adelberto Mejia. Mejia was a top-5 prospect in the Giants system and at the time of the deal and was ranked at 91 on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects list. Nunez was a highly touted prospect in the Yankees system for a few years but never could live up to the hype before being traded to the Twins in 2014. He had a very productive 2015 and a great start to his 2016 campaign at the time of the deal. Nunez had one more arbitration year left so, unlike Cozart, the Giants had an extra year of control when they acquired him. Nunez was a more highly thought of player at the time of the deal than Cozart is now so the asking price is likely to be a little less for Cozart.
Judging from these two deals, the Rockies are likely looking at something in the middle here in any deal for Cozart. It wouldn’t be a top 5-10 prospect but would likely involve two mid-tier prospects. I could see the Reds asking for Jordan Patterson and Sam Moll or Parker French and Sam Hilliard, for example. This type of value is what the Rockies can expect to give up if history is any indicator, and it feels about right for a rental shortstop having a breakout year.
★ ★ ★
The Rockies offense has been one of baseball’s worst this season and banking on turnarounds from all the under-performing players (Story, Carlos Gonzalez, Ian Desmond) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Bringing in Zack Cozart would give the offense a boost without upsetting the apple cart too much. Giving up a pair of mid-tier prospects may not have appealed to the Rockies of the last six years, but this is a different team. The Rockies need something to help inject life into the offense. Not only would it provide a lift on the field, but adding Cozart would also show the fans and the players that winning is truly what matters. It would show that the organization won’t let this opportunity slip through their fingers. And we all know these opportunities can be few and far between.