By Scott Priestle, CNATI.com Posted January 28, 2010 1:08 PM ET
Gradually, Zack Cozart has learned to utilize his leg strength within his swing and recognize a hittable pitch from one best taken. His improvement was most evident in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, where he hit .340 with a .953 OPS in 13 games.
"I love being up in those big situations where your team needs a hit," he said. "In the past, I wasn't as confident in my bat, so I couldn't say that. But I feel like I've really improved. Right now I'm as confident as ever. I don't think I've even come close to my ceiling."
If his offensive games continues to evolve at the rate it did last season, Cozart will soon be a starting shortstop in the major leagues, because his defense has been considered big-league-ready since the day the Reds drafted him.
Even if his offensive growth slows, he is in the organization at the right time. After years of slugfests at Great American Ball Park, the Reds have been rebuilt around young pitching and defense.
"That's going to be Cincinnati's best attribute," Cozart said Thursday morning, before embarking on the team's annual winter caravan. "That's what the soul of this ballclub is."
Assistant general manager Bob Miller agreed.
"We're committed to it, because of our ballpark," Miller said. "Any ball that is not hit out of the park, we have to convert into outs. If the ball is in play, we can't miss those opportunities."
Finances play a role, too. If the Reds could afford to sign Jason Bay and John Lackey -- or even Orlando Cabrera and Johnny Damon -- they would. But without cash to throw at free agents, they have to fill holes in the roster from within the organization, and in recent years the organization has become stocked with pitching prospects and athletic position players.
The Reds likely will open the 2010 season with Paul Janish at shortstop and Drew Stubbs in center field, two young players who earned high marks for defense in the minor leagues. Stubbs has significant offensive potential, but Janish is in the picture almost exclusively because of his defense.
Third baseman Scott Rolen and second baseman Brandon Phillips have won Gold Gloves. Among the candidates for left field, Chris Dickerson has a center fielder's range and Chris Heisey is considered above average defensively.
"That will help any pitching staff," Miller said.
Not short on talent
The shift in philosophy is most obvious at shortstop, where the Reds have intriguing prospects at nearly every level of the organization: Cozart, who likely will begin 2010 at triple-A Louisville; Miguel Rojas, a 20-year-old from Venezuela who is expected to play at high-A Lynchburg; Mariekson Gregorius, a 19-year-old from the Netherlands who is ticketed for low-A Dayton; and Billy Hamilton, also 19, who turned down a chance to play major college football in order to sign with the Reds last summer.
Gregorius and Hamilton are raw, and Cozart and Rojas are much more advanced defensively than offensively. They might not be the second coming of Barry Larkin, but at least the position is no longer the black hole that it had been for almost a decade.
"It is one of the deepest positions in our minor-league system," Miller said.
It did not get that way by accident. Cozart and Hamilton were second-round draft picks in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and Rojas, Gregorius and 18-year-old Junior Arias were signed as international free agents.
"You always try to find those up-the-middle guys, because they're the hardest ones to get," Miller said.
Said Janish, a fifth-round pick in 2004: "The way they're building the team, our pitching staff is going to be strong, there's no doubt about that. If that's where you're going to build a team, you've got to have a strong defense."
Finding value in defense
Even high-revenue clubs such as the Boston Red Sox have placed a higher premium on defense in recent years.
As defensive statistics have become more sophisticated, it is easier to assign value to a player such as Janish or Adam Everett, skilled shortstops who have struggled at the plate. And as the cost of offensive talent has soared, teams have found the Janishes and Everetts of the league more attractive.
"You can't help but notice things like that," Cozart said.
The Reds have talked to free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera, but Miller said team officials are comfortable heading into spring training with Janish as the No.1 shortstop. They believe there is enough offensive talent on the roster to compensate for a light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop -- "if everybody hits the way we think they're capable," Miller said.
For his part, Janish said he dedicated his off-season to becoming a better hitter.
"I've taken a more academic approach and focusing on the absolutes of what I need to do to be successful," he said. "I'm as confident as I've ever been going into a spring training. I'm really just ready to get it going. I'm a little anxious to get going. I'm getting cabin fever sitting at the house."
So is Cozart. He plans to report to spring training Feb.9, two weeks before Reds position players are required to be there.
He has anticipated that day since his stint in the Arizona Fall League ended.
"That was such a great experience. Hopefully, the confidence I got, I can just build on that and carry it into spring training and the season," Cozart said. "I know they drafted me for what I can do defensively. I think I'm improving with the bat. I've improved a lot.
"Obviously defense is still my best attribute, and it's an important one. That's why it's Janish's job to lose, because he's so great defensively."
CNati managing editor C. Trent Rosecrans contributed to this report.