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12/13/11 12:06 PM EST

Cozart likely to begin '12 as starting shortstop

26-year-old had Tommy John surgery on left elbow in August

CINCINNATI -- When it comes to saying who will be their regular shortstop in 2012, the Reds haven't straight-out declared that rookie Zack Cozart has the job.

The club has couched it, just a little.

"There's a good chance he is the guy," Reds manager Dusty Baker said recently. "You reserve that little bit to see how his health is and how his arm comes out."

The question about Cozart's arm stems from Tommy John surgery performed on his non-throwing left elbow in August. The 26-year-old, who also had a minor surgical procedure to clean out his right ankle in September, was cleared last week to resume full baseball activity.

"I'll be beyond 100 percent come Spring Training, proving I am healthy and proving that I think the job should be mine," Cozart said during Redsfest on Dec. 2.

The Reds aren't done tinkering with the shortstop position, however. During last week's Winter Meetings, they surveyed the landscape for a veteran shortstop that's versatile at other positions. Theoretically, this person would be backup or insurance to Cozart.

Cozart's first big league stint lasted all of 11 games, and was cut short on July 23 vs. the Braves when he collided at second base trying to turn a double play. He was originally diagnosed with a hyperextended elbow, but later it was revealed that he had a torn ligament.

Reds shortstops that have paired with Brandon Phillips since 2006:
Todd Frazier
Zack Cozart
Edgar Renteria
Orlando Cabrera
Miguel Cairo
Paul Janish
Drew Sutton
Chris Valaika
Alex Gonzalez
Jerry Hairston Jr.
Adam Rosales
Jolbert Cabrera
Juan Castro
Jeff Keppinger
Danny Richar
Enrique Cruz
Pedro Lopez
Rich Aurilia
Royce Clayton
Felipe Lopez
Ray Olmedo
During those 11 games for Cincinnati -- including nine starts -- following a July 7 promotion from Triple-A Louisville, Cozart batted .307 with two home runs and three RBIs. His career in the Majors began with a seven-game hitting streak.

"We liked what we saw," Baker said. "Very rarely do you see a young shortstop come in the middle of the season and step right in and start. That shows the confidence we had in him at that point in time. We were trying to get back in the pennant chase.

"He can bat at the top of the order or be a down in the order guy. He's a slick fielder, a good baserunner. We like what we have in him."

Shortstop has been one of the most unstable positions for the Reds over the past several years, and that's something they very much want to correct.

Since second baseman Brandon Phillips joined the club in 2006, he has been paired with 21 different double-play partners.

Besides Cozart, Baker has another shortstop option in Paul Janish, who entered 2011 as the regular. Janish is known for playing excellent defense, but could not get it together at the plate last season. He batted only .214 and had a two-week stint in Louisville in July before being recalled because of Cozart's injury. Janish's confidence issues as a hitter might have seeped into his defense, as he made 12 errors.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty would like to add an infielder that could provide more offense off the bench, and he pursued veteran Ramon Santiago before he re-signed with the Tigers late last month. There appears to be no interest in retaining veteran Edgar Renteria, who was Janish's backup last season.

There are not many free-agent options, with names like Jack Wilson, Nick Punto and Cesar Izturis on the list along with 37-year-old former Red Orlando Cabrera and 41-year-old Craig Counsell.

And before Reds fans even ask, forget about trading for displaced Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez, as he is owed $46 million over the next three seasons by Miami. A reputed clubhouse distraction with a mercurial personality, Ramirez's production has waned the past couple of seasons. He batted just .243 in 2011 with a meager-for-his-salary .712 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Filling this spot is down on the list of offseason priorities for the Reds, who would like to add a starting pitcher, a closer and a right-handed-hitting left fielder before addressing the shortstop position.

But whoever the Reds acquire for the spot, it would take a lot this spring to pry the inside track from Cozart.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.