TEMPE — Zack Cozart has played the same position his entire life, from Little League to high school and college ball. For as long as he’s been on the baseball field, Cozart has been a shortstop. After four years in the minors he finally got his shot on a major league roster with the Cincinnati Reds and played seven successful season with the organization. Now he’ll be asked to take on an entirely new challenge with the Los Angeles Angels — switching to third base.
Cozart already knew he would be switching positions when he came to the Angels. Current Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons is widely viewed as the best shortstop in baseball, and Cozart was expected to move to the other side of the infield to play second base. A phone call from Angels general manager Billy Eppler, however, informed the 2017 All-Star that he would, in fact, not be moving to second base, and would be staying on the left side of the infield.
The Angels were working on a trade for then-Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Eppler wanted to consult Cozart about the trade, and a possible move to third, before finalizing it.
“Billy just straight up said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be honest with you, if you aren’t comfortable at third base, we won’t swing this trade,’ but that never even crossed my mind,” Cozart said. “When you have somebody as good as (Kinsler), you have to go get him.”
Cozart expressed that he was taken aback at first by the requests to play positions other than shortstop, but said he quickly saw the value in being a multi-position player.
“It was a shock at first, because I had already thought I was going to play second, and then I had to worry about playing third,” Cozart said. “Guys that can switch positions and play a different spot every day are pretty impressive. It’s definitely harder than people realize.”
Luis Valbuena sees time first base, third base and designated hitter for the Angels. He parroted the difficulty of playing everywhere on the baseball diamond, and said he was working with Cozart every day on the field.
“It’s hard (at third), yeah,” Valbuena said. “The ball is hit harder, so you have to be ready very early.”
Third base is often called “The Hot Corner”, and for good reason. When right-handed hitters make early contact on a pitch, the ball often rockets right at the third baseman. Quick reflexes are an absolute necessity when working the left corner of the infield.
Valbuena started his career as a second baseman in the Seattle Mariners organization. He played second base for the Mariners and the Cleveland Indians, and eventually moved to third base during his time with the Chicago Cubs. Valbuena has spent time at first, second and third base, shortstop and outfield. If there’s anyone who knows what it’s like to play everywhere, it’s Valbuena.
“It’s good (to play multiple positions) because it gives you more time to play,” Valbuena said. “It gives someone more chances to play because they can play so many positions.”
Valbuena also said Cozart was working hard every day to get better, and that he looks good at his new position.
Cozart said that the biggest thing he needed to focus on was his footwork and positioning, but wouldn’t be able to get a full feel for third base until he was there during a game.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a few plays that are weird to me out there, but I should get used to it,” Cozart said.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he knows Cozart is working hard at getting acquainted with third base, and expects the team’s defense to be one of the strong points this season.
“We had good infield defense last year, and I think it had a positive influence on our (pitching) staff,” Scioscia said. “It’s going to be an important part of our club, and I think it’s really one of our strengths.”
The Angels made a plethora of moves for marquee free agents in the offseason, and Cozart said he saw that as a reason to sign with them.
“It made me feel good that we were swinging a trade for Kinsler, because the whole reason I signed with the Angels is that they had just signed (Shohei) Ohtani and (Justin) Upton the month before me,” Cozart said. “So when they started talking to me, I thought this team looked like they were doing something and going for it. There were already great players here before me and Kinsler got here, and we’re just hoping to add to it.”
Cozart made his spring training debut at third base Wednesday at Tempe Diablo Stadium against the Cleveland Indians, handling the only ball that was hit to him, a lineout. It was the first step at the beginning of a three-year-long experiment for the Angels and Cozart.