Pete Kozma might have gotten sudden public support along with the St. Louis Cardinals starting shortstop job after Rafael Furcal announced Thursday he would have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2013 season, but Kozma has deserved some of that respect long before now.
Kozma hit .333 in 26 games for the Cardinals at the end of last season after Furcal injured his elbow Aug. 30 against the Washington Nationals, and he was a big key to the team’s late-season success that got it within one game of the World Series.
But the Cardinals have rarely viewed Kozma in a positive light.
The organization considered releasing Kozma four times while he was in the minor leagues. Granted, the former first-round pick did put up dismal numbers much of his minor-league career, but the Cardinals have continued to treat Kozma as if he is that same minor-league player even after his big-league success.
The club openly solicited trade proposals to find a different shortstop during the offseason. And when a trade never developed because the Cardinals were unwilling to part with their young pitching prospects, they signed Ronny Cedeno as an option in case Furcal wouldn’t be healthy.
“We were looking at just making sure we have protection (and), in essence, if Pete continues to do what he did, he’ll likely be in the big leagues,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “We didn’t want to just go into the season and find out that Furcal couldn’t go and find out Kozma was not (going to build on) the six-week period. We had a lot of optimism. It was just shoring up the position.”
But Cedeno has hit just .167 in spring training and played poor defense, at times. That’s probably not where the Cardinals will shore up the shortstop position whether Kozma got the job or not.
Kozma also hasn’t gotten much more respect from Cardinals fans. A forum on stltoday.com Thursday was titled “Is there a worse middle infield in baseball right now?”
There certainly are worse middle infields. Can anyone name the middle infielders for the Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres or Houston Astros?
Plus, Kozma and whoever wins the second base job (Daniel Descalso or Matt Carpenter) are solid fielders who won’t embarrass themselves in the field. Cedeno, on the other hand, might be a liability in the field and at the plate.
Overall, that short period of success is likely a large factor in why people have yet to believe Kozma can handle the Cardinals shortstop position full time in 2013 and beyond. They hadn’t seen that sort of success previously in his career, and they were unwilling to get their hopes up in case Kozma was a one-hit wonder.
Instead, Kozma has excelled during spring training, hitting .429 with five RBIs and two homeruns, and the Cardinals have suddenly started talking him up as someone they really want to have as their starting shortstop this year.
“There’s no doubt given what Kozma did for us in the last six weeks of the season last year we do have a high level of confidence that he can continue to add that energy and be that type of player we saw last year,” Mozeliak said Thursday after the Furcal news broke.
It’s funny how circumstances tend to change those types of feelings.
Kozma would be a huge help to the Cardinals if he can hit for a good batting average and get on base fairly consistently. The Cardinals have enough power in their lineup with Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, David Freese and Allen Craig likely to fill the middle of the order, but they’ll need someone on base when they come up.
Kozma would most likely hit in the seventh or eighth spot in the Cardinals lineup, so he won’t face a ton of pressure to be a star at the plate. The Cardinals just need someone who can get on base and hold their own defensively at shortstop this year, and Kozma is a good candidate to fill all of those needs.
He might get his chance this year, but he’ll have done so by overcoming a strong perception by his team that he wasn’t good enough.
For Kozma, that motivation could make 2013 all the more fun.