Spring training is generally the time of the year to focus on prospects that might have a shot to help the club in the future, and the St. Louis Cardinals might have already found two position players who can step into the regular lineup and fill important needs.
Kozma isn’t necessarily a prospect anymore after his 27-game stint with the Cardinals last September, but the team has thus far been reluctant to place much confidence in the 24-year-old shortstop.
However, Kozma hit .333 after he was called up to the big club last season, and he is hitting even better, .353, through the first week of spring training while also playing solid defense, especially compared to the other shortstop in camp, Ronny Cedeno, who had two awful throwing errors in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Washington Nationals.
The Cardinals also might desperately need Kozma once the season starts because of Rafael Furcal’s ongoing arm problems.
Furcal was hoping to return to game action Saturday, but his throwing arm still hasn’t recovered from a ligament tear he suffered Aug. 30 and bone spurs that also cause him discomfort. Right now there is no timetable for his return and nobody is willing to speculate about whether or not he’ll be ready for Opening Day.
When teams shuffle around that question, it usually means the player is pretty unlikely to start the season on the field instead of the disabled list, and that makes Kozma’s presence all the more important.
It is puzzling why the Cardinals don’t want to commit to Kozma. The team tried to find an outside option at the position during the offseason, but no team was willing to make a satisfactory deal that didn’t pilfer the Cardinals loaded young pitching staff.
So as the situation stands now, the Cardinals might be forced to give Kozma a real shot at the everyday job.
Now that might cause panic in the hearts of some Cardinals fans who remember Kozma as a high draft pick who produced next to nothing in the minor leagues. In fact, he was so bad the Cardinals considered releasing him four times while he was in the minors.
But considering the Cardinals have won with players such as Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker up the middle, they certainly have enough talent (and arguably better pitching) to field a winning team with Kozma at shortstop, and Daniel Descalso or Matt Carpenter at second base.
The outfield is a bit of a different story, however.
Taveras has been hitting the tar out of the ball so far in spring training, batting .318 with a grand slam and six RBIs. But the Cardinals don’t have nearly the same need for a player to come along and become a regular starter.
Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran make up a very solid outfield lineup, but there could be other ways to make Taveras productive without stunting the 20-year-old’s growth by stashing him on the bench.
All three of those outfielders will likely need consistent rest throughout the season to stay fresh, so Taveras could easily slide in as an excellent fourth outfielder. Plus, the Cardinals can play him in the field and use Beltran as the designated hitter during interleague games, which occur more often this year than in the past.
In any case, the Cardinals have accomplished one of the biggest goals of spring training. They have found young players who can potentially fill important roles on the team this year.
Now the team just has to follow through and actually use them.