Tag Archive | "Offseason"

Rookie Kolten Wong Expected to Be St. Louis Cardinals’ Starting 2nd Baseman

Kolten Wong’s journey has traveled many directions in his short time establishing himself on the St. Louis Cardinals’ roster. He was the prospect who was poised to take the position over late last season. He became the heir apparent during the offseason. He struggled at the start of spring training.

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Now he appears to be the starting second baseman when the season begins.

As spring training winds down for the Cardinals, most of their roster decisions have been made. One of the key positions that seemed to demand attention was second base.

General manager John Mozeliak acquired an insurance policy for his young prospect when he signed Mark Ellis to a contract in December 2013. Ellis would challenge the young Wong to produce immediately if he wanted to hold on to his starting role.

Wong responded early in spring training by pushing himself too hard and found himself without a hit in his first 10 at-bats. Speculation was rampant that Wong simply was not ready. The young man was doing very little to change the minds of his critics.

Then something clicked in his progress—Wong relaxed and started showing signs of the talent so many had talked about prior to this season. He finds himself leading the Cardinals this spring with a .372 batting average. He has an impressive .674 slugging percentage and is leading the team in OPS with a 1.100 mark. The offensive production that some predicted seems to have arrived.

Meanwhile, his challenger struggled to take the field often enough to truly create the competition that management seemed to want. Ellis was slowed by a left knee ailment that caused him to miss seven consecutive games, and now finds himself preparing for Opening Day.

Ellis is expected to be ready for the season opener on March 31. When discussing the situation with Rick Hummel the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,Ellis expressed frustration with the injury more than with not being the starter:

I’m always disappointed when I can’t play…. I never want to be the guy in the training room. I want to be the guy who nobody has to worry about. They don’t have to worry about, ‘Hey, is this guy going to be able to play today or not?’ That’s what is disappointing.

Wong seems ready to begin his rookie season, and Ellis is ready to be the veteran backup.

The Cardinals are ready to win with both of them.

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.com.
Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things baseball throughout the season.

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St. Louis Cardinals need Lance Lynn in starting rotation despite struggles

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn may have saved his spot in the starting rotation with a solid six innings Wednesday when he held the Milwaukee Brewers to one run in a game the Cardinals eventually won 5-1.

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But his spot in the rotation should have been safe regardless, even if he might not have deserved it with his recent performances.

Lynn has a 13-10 record but had been awful or close to awful in his five previous starts before Wednesday as the second half of his season fell apart for the second consecutive season.

He began the season nearly the same way he did his rookie year in 2012. He won 10 of his first 12 decisions in 2012 and won 10 of his first 11 this season, but what happened next is what keeps Lynn from being a force in the rotation.

Lynn went 3-3 after the All-Star Break in 2012 until the Cardinals sent him to the bullpen in late August to rest and work on his mechanics.

That decision helped, as Lynn all four of his starts in September as the Cardinals made their push to qualify for the second wild-card spot. Of course, the Cardinals could afford to let Lynn regroup in the bullpen for a couple of weeks because they had a rotation that still had Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia, and Chris Carpenter was on the way back from the disabled list.

They had no such luxury this season when Lynn lost five of six decisions between Aug. 4 and Sept. 5 and saw his earned run average jump from 3.78 to 4.37.

Lohse signed with the Brewers in the offseason, Garcia blew out his shoulder in May and Carpenter never could get back from his arm injuries. Plus, manager Mike Matheny does not yet have enough confidence in Jake Westbrook to move him back into the rotation from the bullpen, which is where he’s been since he returned from a back injury.

The Cardinals also have two rookies already in the rotation with Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, and their only other options are rookies Tyler Lyons or Carlos Martinez, who have both been inconsistent in their first seasons in the major leagues.

So Matheny must continue to give the ball to Lynn every fifth day regardless of his performance. The pressure in this situation is not on Matheny; it’s squarely on Lynn, who must consistently pitch well for the Cardinals to maintain their slight lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division to avoid having to play in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, as they did against the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

Lynn often gets frustrated when his outing does not go perfectly. For example, he gave up three homeruns and four runs total in five innings Sept. 5 against the Reds in Cincinnati, and his body language after each was terrible.

It’s fine to be frustrated. The Cardinals certainly wouldn’t want their pitchers to be happy after they give up a homer, but they also need their pitchers to refocus immediately and get the next hitters out to avoid a bad at bat becoming a bad inning and a bad game. The Cardinals lost Lynn’s latest start against the Reds 6-2 in part because he struggled to bear down and push through the adversity that is part of nearly every Major League Baseball game.

He was much better Wednesday against a much weaker lineup. The Brewers don’t have near the quality hitters of the Reds, who could easily be a playoff opponent for the Cardinals this year.

But the Cardinals don’t necessarily need Lynn to be a postseason starter. They can find three pitchers to take care of the starts in October. They instead need Lynn to be at his best in September so they are positioned for success once the playoffs begin.

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Five reasons the Cardinals should say no to Jake Peavy

There have been numerous reports recently that the St. Louis Cardinals are interested in White Sox starter Jake Peavy. At first, I thought to myself “That would be great!” The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it was just the “Shiny New Toy” part of my brain talking. Once the rational part of my brain took over, I realized they should take a pass on the former Padre, and here are five reasons why:

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 Cost. Unlike the recently-dealt Matt Garza, Peavy is not a free agent after the 2013 season. Garza will cost the Texas Rangers either three or four players for, at most, three months of value (unless they re-sign him during the offseason). The current collective bargaining agreement prevents the Rangers from collecting any draft-pick compensation if he departs as a free agent after the season. If Peavy is under contract for 2014, it stands to reason that the White Sox are going to expect as big a return (if not bigger) than what the Chicago Cubs obtained for Garza. That’s an exorbitant price for a 3X-year-old starter who is due to make $14.5 million in 2014 (which would make him the 2nd-highest paid pitcher on staff). And did I mention his injury history? That brings me to reason #2:

Injury-prone. Peavy was once a workhorse of several competitive Padres teams. But since 2007, he has made more than 30 starts (the standard of a consistent, healthy starter) exactly once – in 2012. He hit the DL with elbow trouble in 2008. When the White Sox traded for him in 2009, he was on the DL with an ankle injury. In 2010, he ruptured the tendon that ties the latissimus dorsi muscle to the rear of his pitching shoulder and missed significant time in 2011 as well. He has already missed several weeks in 2013 due to a rib injury.  Giving up multiple prospects (Carlos Martinez has been rumored recently) for a player with such a spotty health record? PASS.

Playoff-tested? Not so much. In the Walt Jocketty days, Peavy might have been the perfect trade-deadline acquisition for the Cardinals. But Peavy’s playoff history does not sparkle. He reached the postseason twice, in 2005-06 while with the Padres. Both seasons, the Padres faced the Cardinals; both times, they pounded him like a drum In those two starts, Peavy lasted a combined 9 2/3 innings and surrendered 19 hits, 13 runs, three home runs and struck out just five hitters. He hasn’t been close to the playoffs since then. Once again, PASS.

Lateral move? Although Peavy is a former Cy Young Award-winner, does he really represent a big upgrade over their current fifth starter? Pitching for an awful White Sox team this season, Peavy’s park-adjusted ERA+ is 104 (a tad above replacement level). St. Louis’ current fifth starter, Joe Kelly, has an ERA+ of 95, but most of his appearances this season have been out of the bullpen. In his past four appearances (all at least five innings), Kelly has pitched to a 2.49 ERA – which is more than acceptable for a fifth starter on a strong offensive club. If he falters, the Cardinals have Martinez, Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha, and others ready to fill in. Peavy might stay healthy and pitch effectively, but how ill would club management (and fans) feel if they traded away Martinez, for example, only to watch Peavy go down with an injury in his third start? Think about Mark DeRosa in 2009. I don’t think any Cardinal fan is anxious to re-live that deal.

Other alternatives: I would argue that the Cardinals would be better off bolstering their bullpen. Acquiring a reliever such as Jim Henderson, Luke Gregerson, Glen Perkins, or the like would be less expensive in trade, yet it could have just as powerful an impact on the pitching staff. Remember how well Edward Mujica worked out last season? Adding another arm (or two) would alleviate pressure on young flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal and the other young arms in the pen.

While he’s not the power strikeout machine he was in his Padres heyday, he could be an effective pitcher for a contender. He could even show flashes of dominance on a good day. But, given the health risks, expensive salary and talent cost, is he worth the gamble? I don’t think so. I hope John Mozeliak agrees with me.

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The Evolving Kansas City Royals: The Pitching

For several years now the Royals have had one of the better farm systems in Major League Baseball.  Most teams should be so lucky.  The Royals however haven’t been able to translate this advantage into success on the field and there would seem to be one very good reason for this.

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You can’t win the World Series with the AAA Storm Chasers.  It takes time to scout and develop major league talent.  While developing young talent can be exciting, it usually comes with long periods of growing pains while the fans wait for the team to assemble all of the necessary pieces to win consistently.  And if you’re a mid-market team like the Royals then you hope that you have enough players developed each year to keep costs down.

In a weak division, the offensive core might be enough to keep the Royals out of the basement for the foreseeable future but to be yearly contenders they are still missing something.  Pitching, pitching and maybe a little pitching.  This is where general manager Dayton Moore earned his paycheck this offseason.

Moore started his offseason by acquiring Ervin Santana (and cash) from the Angles in exchange for LHP Brandon Sisk.  The Angles are of course currently attempting to outspend every other team in baseball and thought they could do better than Santana.  Forced to exercise his buyout option, the move seems more about dumping Santana to try and buy up more expensive pitching arms than it was about picking up prospects.  Santana isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a team ace but he can definitely eat up innings and has the potential to strike out a ton of guys.  Unfortunately he also has the potential to give up a lot of runs.

Santana is coming off of a pretty bad year where he gave up a league leading 39 of said home runs as well as one of the more undesirable ERAs (5.16).  The Royals are hoping that the Santana they get is the Santana that can strike out 200 plus batters while posting a 3.49 ERA like he did in 2008 and so far so good.  In 7 starts, Santana has a 2.79 ERA.  What probably scares the Royals is that fact that almost half of his earned runs have come off of the long ball.  Still, it seems like a smart move, especially since Sisk, the minor league pitcher they gave up to acquire Santana, now needs Tommy John surgery.

Sisk, who has been a career minor league pitcher, seemed ready to come up and take on a bullpen position.  He posted a 2.54 ERA at the AAA level in 2012 but elbow surgery puts his future into question.  The Angles did place Sisk on their 40 man roster which means they still see potential, but for now the Royals seem to have come out on top of this trade.

But by far the biggest move for the Royals this offseason was the 6 man trade with Tampa Bay.  The trade sent starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for minor leaguers Patrick Leonard, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers.

Wade Davis probably isn’t going to win over the hearts and minds of the ever patient Royals fans.  Just another arm for an under achieving starting rotation.  James Shields is another matter as he’s the closest thing to an ace the Royals have had since the departure of Zack Greinke.  He’s had a strikeouts per 9 innings rate of over 8 since 2010 and pitches deep into games.  But even if he’s everything the Royals hope he will be, he is only signed through this year with a $12 million dollar option for 2014.

The Royals gave up the 2012 minor league player of the year for what seems to be a 2 year shot at winning a weak division.  The Rays, who can’t draw a crowd and can’t ever hope to spend the kind of money that other teams in their division do have to rely on smart moves in order to compete and this is one of them.  The Royals have an incredibly deep farm system but giving up what some people consider to be baseball’s best prospect for an outside chance at a championship is risky but it does send a message.  The Royals want to win and they want to win now.  They haven’t been to the post season since they won the World Series in 1985 and they want that to change.

Early in the season they hold a winning record but their hopes of making the playoffs are probably tied to beating the Tigers.  Their offensive core will remain in Kansas City for the time being but the pitching that they have literally bet the farm for will not.  The silver lining here is that the Royals fans finally have something to be excited about, that is unless Wil Myers turns out to be an annual MVP candidate.  If that turns out to be the case, nothing short of a World Series will be worth the cost.

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I really like this Lorenzo Cain fellow

In a way, the 2013 performance of center fielder Lorenzo Cain is bittersweet. On one hand, I’m glad he’s playing well, especially with the struggling Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas in the lineup. But if Cain stayed healthy last year, would he play as well in 2012 as he is now? It’s hard to say, but Cain played well before various leg injuries limited him to 61 games, ending up with a .266/.316/.419 line with 222 at-bats, 31 RBI, nine doubles, seven home runs, striking out 56 times, drawing 15 walks and stealing 10 bases.

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Cain knew a good 2013 performance would decide if he was the Royals center fielder of the future or another has-been. In the offseason, Cain worked on strengthening his legs to avoid the leg and hip injuries that plagued him last year. And so far, it’s paying off. He’s played 17 of 18 games with a .350/.420/.483 line, 60 at-bats, nine RBI, five doubles, a home run with 14 strikeouts, six walks and two stolen bases.

Against lefties, Cain has a .357/.500/.357 line with 14 at-bats, four RBI, two strikeouts and three walks. Against righties, Cain has a .348/.392/.522 line with 46 at-bats, five RBI, five doubles, a home run with 12 strikeouts and three walks. He’s hitting and scoring well against left and right handed pitching, though he’s faced more righties than lefties.

Among regular staring position players, Cain leads the team in batting average (.350), on-base percentage (.420), on-base percentage with slugging (.904) and he’s got caught stealing three times. Actually, he leads the American League in being caught stealing, so his running game needs some work.

Cain has a .970 fielding percentage in center field, with the league fielding percentage being .990. His range factor per nine innings as a center fielder is 2.41, with the league range factor per nine innings is at 2.66. He’s only committed one error in 119.2 innings of play, so while his current defense is below league average, he’s far from a defensive liability in the field.

It’s unlikely Cain will keep up his high batting average and he won’t hit a lot of home runs. But so far, Cain is a good center fielder who can hit, get on base and play average defense. If he stays healthy (and there’s still a question if he can) and works on his running game, Cain will be a solid center fielder for the Royals. And at 27, he’s got the potential to improve. With the Royals offense being what it is, let’s hope he does improve.

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Matt Carpenter, Pete Kozma could shatter expectations for St. Louis Cardinals

One of the St. Louis Cardinals’ biggest questions marks during the offseason was how the team would fill the middle infield positions, and the answers the Cardinals found could end up making those positions of strength throughout the season.

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The Cardinals had planned to have Rafael Furcal be their starting shortstop on opening day, as he had been last season. But Furcal’s torn right elbow ligament didn’t heal in the offseason and he had to undergo surgery during spring training.

That left Pete Kozma, the player who hit .333 in 26 games for the Cardinals last season, as the man to fill one of the most important positions on the field. However, the Cardinals still didn’t have much confidence in Kozma because they still had bad memories of him being the organization’s first-round pick in 2007 that had a .236 batting average in six minor-league seasons.

But shortstop was only one half of the uncertainty surrounding second base for the Cardinals during spring training.

Daniel Descalso played 143 games for the Cardinals in 2012 and played stellar defense whether he was at second base, shortstop or third base, but he also hit just .227. The Cardinals didn’t think they could survive another season with a second baseman who hit under .230 so they asked Matt Carpenter work on learning the position during the offseason so he could potentially take over second base in 2013.

Carpenter did his work and won the job in spring training, but that still meant the Cardinals planned to enter the season with a rookie at shortstop and a former utility player who hadn’t had more than 300 at-bats in a single season.

That combined inexperience justifiably sent shivers down the spines of many Cardinals fans, and for good reason.

The Cardinals had tried to patch holes in the middle infield before with limited success. They traded for Furcal only when Brendan Ryan and Tyler Greene proved they weren’t going to be good enough at shortstop. Also, the Skip Schumaker experiment at second base lasted for a couple of years, but he was replaced by the .227-hitting Descalso last season.

So for better or worse, the Cardinals ended up with Kozma and Carpenter as the middle infield combination for 2013, but early results show this concoction could not only work, but it could work pretty well.

Carpenter hasn’t played second base yet because he’s been over at third base while David Freese recovers from an injury, but he and Kozma have already made an impact one series into the season.

Carpenter had three doubles in the team’s first three games, and he played solid-to-great defense at third base. Kozma hit .308 in the opening series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, including a double and a homerun.

Granted, that is an incredibly small sample size. Both players could eventually be exposed throughout the course of the season and consistently take terrible at-bats. But at this point, each has looked confident at the plate and in the field, and they are both getting results.

If that continues, the Cardinals might win a lot of games because of a middle infield composed of two players who the team didn’t even consider good enough to start until circumstances forced them into the lineup.

Sometimes the unexpected gifts are the best of all.

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Kozmamania T-Shirts Available

The St. Louis Cardinals have seen their share of injuries this off-season.  The one that appears to have the most impact currently will be at shortstop.

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Rafael Furcal, the Cardinals starting shortstop, is out for the season after requiring Tommy John surgery to repair an elbow injury that dates back to late last season.  An offseason and Spring of market investigation for a replacement has yielded no results to date, leaving general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny to react the same way they did last season, with Pete Kozma.

Kozma, an enigma of a ballplayer, had all but been given up on due to his (lack of) performance at the minor league level.  A first round draft pick that seemed to be a bust, Kozma was the reason that Furcal arrived in St. Louis in the first place.  But when Furcal went down last season, the Cardinals were left with very little choice and handed the position to the struggling prospect.

What happened was something no one expected: he succeeded.  Kozma found a glimpse of his potential on the biggest stage possible and performed well during the final month of the season and in the post-season for the Cardinals.  As the Cardinals prepare to break camp, Kozma is prepared to be the starting shortstop once again.

Friend of the site Sam Feldman helped i70baseball immortalize Kozma and the feelings surrounding him with a t-shirt that is now available on TeeSpring.com.  The shirt, which embodies both the spirit of the fans that have an extreme feeling of support for the young shortstop as well as a sarcastic feel for those that feel the hype is a bit too high, is available for a limited time at the price of $15 per shirt.

Kozmamania has hit St. Louis.  Get your shirt today.

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Wigginton Should Be Next Cut

The St. Louis Cardinals sent home one unproductive veteran player Tuesday in their latest round of cuts, and they need to do the same with another, even if it costs the team a relatively large amount of money.

Robinson Freese Wigginton

The Cardinals brought Ronny Cedeno in to spring training as an insurance policy at the shortstop position since Rafael Furcal did not recover from an elbow injury he suffered last season, and the team had yet to believe Pete Kozma would be good enough to handle the position full time.

But the Cardinals realized they would not be in good hands with Cedeno, a career .247 hitter, as their primary option at shortstop. Kozma burst out of offseason to hit .429 in the first 10 days of exhibition games while Cedeno struggled to raise his batting average above .167.

Cedeno eventually picked up the pace to finish with a .290 average, and Kozma predictably didn’t hit above .400 the entire spring (he fell to .318), but Kozma showed the Cardinals he could handle the responsibilities of being the starting shortstop. That meant the Cardinals had little need for Cedeno, who had signed for one year and $1.15 million.

Daniel Descalso will now be the Cardinals only backup middle infielder, but Cedeno’s release freed up a spot on the bench for more talented hitters such as first baseman prospect Matt Adams.

But that’s only because the Cardinals will likely be hesitant to release the other unproductive veteran free agent they brought to camp: Ty Wigginton.

Wigginton has just four base hits and a .103 batting average with eight strikeouts so far this spring, yet the Cardinals probably won’t release him because they made the poor decision in the offseason to sign the 35-year-old, who hasn’t hit above .250 since 2009, to a two-year, $5 million contract.

Sure, $5 million isn’t an incredible amount of money in the modern world of baseball, but expecting Wigginton to be a productive player at all, much less two years, is almost asking for a miracle to happen.

Maybe Wigginton will run into a late-inning homerun and ends up helping the Cardinals win a game at some point this season, but they have much more talented players who will start the season in the minor leagues.

Future second baseman Kolten Wong, future outfielder Oscar Taveras and even outfielder Adron Chambers provide more potential benefits to the Cardinals that Wigginton, but they aren’t making $5 million across two years and they are young players who the Cardinals don’t want to rot on the bench.

So Wigginton will probably make the team no matter how bad he hits. Thankfully, there should still be a spot for Adams, who has hit .304 this spring and is tied for the team lead with 12 RBIs. It would be nice if the Cardinals went with Chambers, who provides speed, or outfielder Shane Robinson, who has had a great spring with a .465 batting average and 12 RBIs, but one will likely be left off the opening day roster.

The Cardinals are chiseling away at their roster for opening day. Unfortunately, they will probably leave one blemish and give Wigginton a job based on what they hope he can do, because he certainly hasn’t shown them anything this spring that makes him worthy to make a Major League Baseball roster.

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Oh, So Now Pete Kozma Is Good Enough For St. Louis

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.

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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.

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St. Louis Cardinals could win with Pete Kozma, Oscar Taveras in lineup

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.

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And those players are shortstop Pete Kozma and outfielder Oscar Taveras.

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.

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