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Cozart needs to feast more on hitting

Cozart needs to feast more on hitting

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A native of the Memphis area, Reds shortstop prospect Zack Cozart is more than happy to talk up Beale Street and ribs from the famous Rendezvous.

Cincinnati has its own well-known ribs place too, the Montgomery Inn, but Cozart has never tried them to compare. There's a location right down the road from Great American Ball Park along the Ohio River.

"Hopefully, I will get the chance to taste them there," Cozart said.

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If Cozart keeps progressing, the 24-year-old could soon be eating all the renowned Cincinnati food he wants as a Major Leaguer.

Since being selected out of the University of Mississippi in the second round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, Cozart has moved briskly. He had two seasons in the Midwest League at low Class A Dayton, but he skipped a level last year and started at Double-A Carolina. He finished the year at Triple-A Louisville for its postseason and also participated in the Arizona Fall League.

"He's close, definitely," said Freddie Benavides, who is the Reds' Minor League field coordinator. "Defensively, he could go up there right now. Of course, he needs Triple-A a little bit and to get some at-bats and mature a little more."

In his first pro season during 2007, Cozart batted only .239 for Dayton in 53 games with a .288 on-base percentage. He was adjusting to using wooden bats for the first time and was also hampered by a shoulder injury.

Back at Dayton in 2008, Cozart improved to a .280 average and .330 OBP with 24 walks compared to 77 strikeouts but showed some pop with 14 home runs and 49 RBIs. Last season at Carolina, he batted .262 with 10 homers, 59 RBIs and a .360 OBP. He walked 63 times compared to 87 strikeouts.

Despite playing with a sore thumb, Cozart batted .340 during the Arizona Fall League.

"I just think it was learning how to hit," Cozart said. "It was a testament to my hitting coach, Darren Bragg, and [hitting coordinator] Ronnie Ortegon. I learned how to use my lower half. In college, we had metal bats and don't have to use anything. You flick the bat and the ball goes. That first season when people ask me about it, I say it was a huge learning curve. It helped me get better."

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Although he committed 23 errors last season at Carolina, Cozart is known for his defensive skills and has drawn comparisons to slick-fielding Reds shortstop Paul Janish.

"Basically, I was drafted solely for my defense. I take pride in it," Cozart said. "Obviously, I still have to improve every year. I'm trying to get better at all aspects of the game, including defense."

But ask Janish how important having a big-league ready bat is after he batted .211 last season. Despite his great glove work, the Reds signed free agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera this winter for his bat.

"Everybody knew from the beginning that [Cozart] was a very good defender. He has shown improvement every year with the bat, which is ultimately going to be the test," Reds Minor League director Terry Reynolds said. "To be an everyday guy, he'll have to hit with a good average and occasional power, and he's done that. He's done everything we hoped he'd do as far as progressing as a pro."

"He's going to hit at the big league level," Benavides said. "He's got the instincts. He runs the bases well. He's a smart runner."

It's not a lock yet that Cozart will start the season at Triple-A. The organization is blessed with other middle-infield prospects like Chris Valaika and Todd Frazier. And of course there are veterans like Chris Burke and Miguel Cairo, plus younger players like Janish and Drew Sutton competing for big league roster spots.

Whoever doesn't make it will likely trickle down and affect the battles to play at Louisville.

"I'm trying to prove I should be on the big league team," said Cozart, who was ranked as the Reds' 10th best prospect by Baseball America. "Everyone always says it, but it's about consistency. That's the easy answer, but it's true. The more consistent you are, obviously the better you're going to be. Last year, when I was hot, I was really hot. But then I was really cold. I need to stay hot longer."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["spring_training" ] }