Even if he doesn’t keep cranking monster home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals experiment with Pete Kozma as their starting shortstop is one well worth undertaking.
The Redbirds opted to go with a guy who has one month of major league playing time under his belt when starting shortstop Rafael Furcal went down to a season-ending arm injury instead of making a trade for a more established player.
The team can afford to sacrifice some offense with a power packed and productive offense that includes the likes of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig as long as Kozma catches the ball. Any offense he provides is a bonus.
But the bigger way that Kozma could have far-reaching impact on the Cardinals over the next several years is by allowing the team to stay out of the trade market for a player at a position that has become prohibitively expensive to fill. The top shortstops in the game, as proven by the recent contract to Texas Rangers infielder Elvis Andrus and the previous deal of Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, cost more than $20 million a year.
That’s more than the Cardinals paid per year to sign ace Adam Wainwright to a contract extension.
And if the Redbirds were to try to go the trade route, they’d likely have to part with a big chunk of their young pitching in order to get a good shortstop.
Whether they’re dealing in dollars or talent, the cost of going shopping for a shortstop is going to be prohibitively high.
Kozma, if he settles in as a solid glove man with an opportunistic bat, could save the Cardinals $100 million over the next five or more years that they could use to fill other needs. Wouldn’t it be better to spend $20 million a year on another top pitcher to replace Jake Westbrook if Kozma can gobble up ground balls at short and hit at a respectable level?
It might seem like a lot to ask from a guy who was almost released during the 2012 season because of his slow development. Kozma was a .236 hitter in the minors and lost his position at short to Ryan Jackson last season at Class AAA Memphis. But some players have a way of finding another gear when they make it to the major league level.
The important thing to remember is keep expectations realistic.
No one is asking Kozma to hit .300, score 100 runs, hit 40 homers or steal 40 bases. If he plays above average defense -- something that seems within the capabilities of a guy who was named the best fielder at his position by Baseball America when he was in Class AA -- and manages to hit around .250 with a decent on-base percentage, the big boys can do the heavy lifting at the plate.
Dal Maxvill proved 45 years ago that you can win the pennant and World Series with an offensive black hole at shortstop -- as long as that shortstop has a sticky glove and good range. He was a member of three World Series teams in St. Louis and two more in Oakland despite a .217 batting average over 14 major league seasons.
Ozzie Smith was a .231 hitter with one homer in four seasons when the Redbirds acquired him from the Padres. Yet manger Whitey Herzog correctly assessed that the no-hit, all-field shortstop was the missing link to post season glory in St. Louis.