The most talked about issue for the St. Louis Cardinals is what is going on at shortstop. The loss of Rafael Furcal to elbow surgery has hastened the future of the lone position on the organization’s map where there is no ideal succession plan in place. It was an issue that was on thin ice all winter, and could be a focus throughout the summer and into next winter as well. The options at shortstop include more questions than answers, and addressing the issue start both at the bottom of the organization all the way to the top of it.
Majors: The injury to Furcal set everything in a different direction than hoped for. While there was always a cautious optimism regarding his status, if not a given assumption that it would be a multiple man job this season. The worst came to be with Furcal never even making it to a spring lineup, and simultaneously activating every backup scenario possible at once for a replacement.
The initial answer to the question will be Pete Kozma, incumbent replacement for Furcal when the injury ended his season last fall. Kozma has been making a statement for his fitness for the spot, hitting .419, through 10 games, but due to his inconsistent past since being made the team’s first round pick in 2007, questions will continue to surround his performance. Defense will continue to be a work in progress for him, but the idea is that his only job is to keep the position stable for the time being.
Behind him, is a mixture of utility men in Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Jackson. Cedeno was brought in to be a support option in case Furcal wasn’t ready, and he has remained in that capacity behind Kozma. He has struggled in the spring, which has gone very noticed by GM John Mozeliak. Despite having a partially guaranteed Major League contract, prolonged struggles could make him this season’s J.C. Romero. Jackson was the first promotion to fill in for Furcal last year, due to his similar range to Furcal in the field, but his greatest advantage with the glove has been offset severely by his limitations at the plate.
High Minors: The minor league ranks have begun to blend with the Major Leagues as of late. Jackson could very well be the odd man out in the chase for a spot in St. Louis, and would be left to continue on in Memphis. He’s got the best glove of any shortstop in the system, but has shown no bat at all in brief stint last season (.118 in 18 at-bats) or this spring (.143 through 10 games). But he did manage to hit over .270 for three seasons while he rose from the Single to Triple A levels, so there’s some medium for him to improve upon…if he regains the chance to do so, due to a new teammate this year.
Greg Garcia is looming as perhaps the best current fit for the long-term picture up the middle. He played the entire season at Double-A Springfield, and hit .284 with 20 doubles and 10 home runs, while managing to have an impressive 80 walks vs. 83 strikeouts. He’ll be 23 this season, and will be the starter in Memphis this season. Garcia’s future is probably more of a Descalso (who he profiles quite similarly to thus far in the minors), but an offensive profile of this sort plays much better at shortstop than at second base. He has shown a steady improvement throughout the system, and is perhaps the lone prospect with a chance to actually fill into more potential as he matures.
Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry stated in February at the Cardinals Winter Warm Up that Garcia would see plenty of opportunities to show what he could do this spring, due to the World Baseball Classic’s impact on the spring roster, but the loss of Furcal has now made auditioning Kozma the top priority, and Garcia’s chances thus far have been less than originally anticipated.
The lone issue at hand is how Jackson fits into the picture now, especially with Kolten Wong being the everyday second baseman at Memphis for the time being. Garcia’s improved stock, combined with Kozma’s increased role and the presence of Cedeno, have thrown his role into question.
At Springfield, Jake Lemmerman, who was the return from the Dodgers for Skip Schumaker this winter, could see some opportunity. The 23-year-old hit has hit .285 as a minor leaguer, but has struggled since reaching Double-A, hitting only .233 in 137 games.
Low Minors: There’s no true emerging option at any of the lower levels of the Cardinal system. Many of players that take on shortstop do it in a moonlight capacity, while making most of their impact at second base. Some could find their future at shortstop due to organizational need, but the clearest sign of the team’s need to draft well up the middle is here. The only player that made a majority living at the position was Matt Williams, who played 126 games as short for the Class-A Quad Cities River Bandits.
Prognosis: If there is any position that the team could have its hand forced in, either via trade or draft, it is at shortstop. There is 0% chance that Furcal will retained after the season, so the page has been turned in real time for the Cardinals. While there are bodies to fill the space now, the answer over the long-term simply is not there, nor is it on the horizon. Even if Kozma, Jackson or Garcia can become an adequate major leaguer, the need to restock the organization’s depth at the spot is well past due. For a team that is full of succession plans, the lack of one at short has hit a dangerous level and isn’t going to be a quick fix.