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With the start of Spring Training drawing closer, anticipation is building for the 2018 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 13, so it’s time to break down the Angels’ roster.
This is the third installment of a multi-part “Around the Horn” series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season. We’ve already examined the Angels’ situations at catcher and second base. Today we’ll examine third base.
ANAHEIM — Zack Cozart was willing to change positions not once but twice during his conversations with the Angels, a fact that endeared him to the club even before it signed him to a three-year, $38 million deal in December.
General manager Billy Eppler was originally interested in signing Cozart, a longtime shortstop, to fill the Angels’ void at second base. But after Eppler reached a deal to acquire veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Tigers, he circled back with Cozart and asked if he’d be open to playing third. Despite having no professional experience at third base, Cozart decided to accept the opportunity with the Angels, becoming the final piece in what could arguably be the best defensive infield in the Majors.
Cozart, 32, will replace veteran Yunel Escobar, who became a free agent this offseason after a two-year stint in Anaheim. A first-time All-Star in 2017, Cozart batted .297 with a .933 OPS and 24 home runs — all career highs — last season for the Reds. Cozart, who hit .246 with a .674 OPS over his first six Major League seasons, credited his offensive breakthrough to a tweak in his batting stance. Rather than start with his hands high, Cozart began resting his bat on his shoulder during his setup.
“It freed me up mentally,” Cozart said last month. “I didn’t have tension. I didn’t have to think about anything other than seeing the ball and hitting or taking a good pitch.”
Though Cozart has never played third base, he still figures to be a defensive upgrade over Escobar; his background as one of the top fielding shortstops in the Majors should help ease his transition to the hot corner. Cozart has also said that he plans to consult former Gold Glove third basemen Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen as he prepares for the position change.
With Cozart at third and defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, the Angels will have a special combination on the left side of their infield that should be fun to watch.
Cozart will garner most of his starts at third, though he is also projected to be the Angels’ backup middle infielder and will give the club protection at those spots in the event of injury. Luis Valbuena is also available to play third, a position he manned regularly in the second half of last season after Escobar landed on the disabled list.
Also on the third-base depth chart will be Kaleb Cowart and Jefry Marte, though both displayed offensive shortcomings during their looks with the Angels in 2017.
Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com.