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The Nationals Could Use Zack Cozart

The Nationals again failed to win a round in the playoffs this year. Now, playoff success is pretty random and the Nats lost some series in Game 5, and they outscored the opponent in some of those series. However, we are in an era of super-teams in the NL with the Cubs, Dodgers and Nats all being loaded.

Also, the Nats’ window might be closing soon with Harper heading to free agency and several key players getting old. However, for next year they definitely should push all in since the division is ready for the taking, with the Phillies and Braves nearing the end of their rebuild but not winning yet in 2018, the Mets having lots of question marks regarding health (pitchers and also Conforto), and the Marlins tearing it down once again.

The Nats do have a really good team, but it is rather top-heavy. I wouldn’t call it stars and scrubs, because that would imply they have only 3-4 really good players when they have like 10 really good players, but the bottom of their roster is still weaker than the Cubs or Dodgers, who are using the more modern way of trying to bolster the bottom roster spots with 1 to 1.5 win players instead of zero or negative WAR players.

Here are the 10 players with the most PAs per team:

The Nats are right up there in wRC+ and WAR with the other big guys, and that was actually including the bad luck of losing Eaton for the year. The Nats clearly dominated the other two in top-six WAR and wRC+, but were quite bad with the bottom four. Now they will get Eaton back, which makes it a little better, but the top six actually included a 105 wRC+ for Michael Taylor, who is projected for just an 84 RC+ and was sporting some BABIP luck (.363 BABIP and .345 wOBA vs .294 xwOBA).

So the Nats could use some help with their lineup. However, their payroll is already pretty high, and the owners were not willing to spend much above that.

One solution would be getting Zack Cozart. Surprisingly, he was neither traded nor giving a QO by the Reds (I don’t understand why; the front office of the Reds at least should have tried to get a marginal return for him when they didn’t give him the QO), so he probably won’t be too expensive. Now Cozart was overperforming a lot himself and isn’t expected to get anywhere near his 5 wins of 2017 (.399 wOBA vs .332 xwOBA), and he also is 32 and had some injuries in the past, but he still is projected for 2.8 wins and a 98 wRC+, which is pretty good for a shortstop — where he is also good defensively.

That would allow the Nats to put Trea Turner back in center, where he can probably use his speed even better than at short (although he isn’t bad there), and more importantly it moves Eaton to a corner, where he is elite. So getting Cozart would improve the team both defensively and offensively and makes their lineup a little deeper with one fewer almost automatic out.

You don’t want to give him a long-term contract, but if you get him for two or even three years and around $15M per year, that wouldn’t be a bad value. Using the minus 0.5 WAR per year formula for aging past 30, you get 2.8 WAR in 2018, 2.2 in 2019 and 1.7 in 2020. That would be 6.7 WAR in three years, which is worth roughly $60M at $9M per win. I do think that he can be had cheaper, and even if the Nats decide to rebuild after 2019, having him on the hook for one more year won’t cripple them.

The Nats need to do everything to win in 2018; they can worry about the future later. And getting Cozart is a good little short-term upgrade who won’t demand a long-term commitment that might interfere with a potential rebuild in the post-Harper era.