ANAHEIM, Calif. — After spending his entire career at shortstop in Cincinnati, Zack Cozart was willing to switch positions for the chance to join the Los Angeles Angels‘ promising lineup.
Cozart was even willing to switch twice.
The All-Star infielder agreed to a $38 million, three-year contract with the Angels on Friday, also agreeing to play third base in an infield suddenly packed with veteran talent.
“It’s just going to be a fun team to be around,” Cozart said. “(Left fielder Justin) Upton is already texting me. From what I hear about the clubhouse, it seems like it’s my type of team, a bunch of good grinder guys that want to get after it and win.”
Cozart gets $12,666,666 next season and $12,666,667 in each of the final two years of the deal.
With Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons already at shortstop, Angels general manager Billy Eppler initially was interested in signing Cozart to play second base. The free agent said he was amenable to that move, but then Eppler managed to swing a trade to acquire second baseman Ian Kinsler from Detroit on Wednesday.
The Angels maintained their pursuit of Cozart, but now to be their third baseman.
“He said, ‘If this is going to help us get into October, I’m all for it,’” Eppler recalled. “That right there made me feel extremely good that not only did we get the right player from an ability standpoint, but we got the right player from a character standpoint.”
Cozart has already spoken with retired third baseman Eric Chavez, who now works for the Angels, and he plans to consult former teammate Scott Rolen about moving to the hot corner.
“I’ve been on some bad teams lately,” Cozart said of the Reds, who have lost at least 94 games for three straight years. “When I found out the Angels were interested, that was one of the big things for me. It should be a really good team to join, so I was on board. When I found out (about playing third base), I was a little shocked because everything was happening so quick. But at the end of the day, I want to win.”
Cozart was a first-time All-Star this year, hitting .297 with 24 homers and 63 RBIs — all career bests. The 32-year-old veteran has a .254 average in parts of seven big league seasons.
Cozart’s offensive numbers shot up markedly last season, but he and the Angels don’t see it as a blip. Cozart said he changed his batting stance last winter, and Eppler believes his overall numbers bear out the long-term improvement, including his impressive hitting against right-handed pitching over the last three seasons.
After finishing 80-82 last season and missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, the Angels have put together a lineup around Mike Trout with offensive potency and an incredible defensive pedigree.
The Angels’ probable starters include five Gold Glove winners (catcher Martin Maldonado, Simmons, Kinsler, Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun) and three more considered well above average with the glove (Upton, Cozart and Trout).
Los Angeles already landed the biggest prize of the offseason when Eppler and owner Arte Moreno persuaded Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani to join the club. Ohtani is expected to join the Angels’ rotation and to serve as a designated hitter between starts.
Yunel Escobar was the Angels’ oft-injured third baseman last year, but their biggest problem areas in recent seasons have been in left field and at second base. Eppler has filled both spots impressively by trading for Kinsler after retaining late-season acquisition Upton last month with a $106 million, five-year deal.
Luis Valbuena and C.J. Cron could play first base when Pujols is serving as the designated hitter, but it’s too early to tell whether either will be with the club when it reports to spring training in February.
Cozart’s versatility also will be important if the Angels move to a six-man rotation to benefit Ohtani, who is used to pitching once per week. That means one less roster spot is likely to be available for a position player, and Cozart could be a backup at both middle infield positions.
“If we do go to a six-man and carry 13 pitchers, versatility and flexibility is going to be everything for this roster,” Eppler said.