How Soon Until the St. Louis Cardinals Give Up on Pete Kozma?


In a generally uneventful Wednesday night loss to the Minnesota Twins, there was one key milestone achieved, but it was one that the Cardinals probably would have preferred to avoid. With regular shortstop Jhonny Peralta assuming the designated hitter duties for the night in an AL ballpark, manager Mike Matheny had little other choice than to plug in Pete Kozma at short, and the results were exactly as most would have expected.

Kozma, a former first-rounder who has been a weak hitter through the vast majority of his professional career save for a couple insanely good months at the tail end of 2012, dropped under the dreaded .100 batting average mark. Kozma, who is hitless in 15 at-bats since May 19 and went into the game hitting .102, went 0-for-2 against Twins starter Tommy Milone, dropping his average for the season to .098. In what has become a common practice on days that Kozma starts, Matheny chose to pinch-hit for him in the late innings, sending Jon Jay to the plate for him in the eighth. With AL rules in place and Peralta the only other player on the team capable of playing shortstop, however, Matheny was so desperate to hide Kozma that he was willing to forfeit the DH for the remainder of the game in order to move Peralta into the field for the eighth inning.

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The Cards are at a crossroads with Kozma; after five seasons in the big leagues, he’s out of options, so they must remove him from the 40-man roster and expose him to waivers if they want to send him to the minor leagues. That’s a painful thing to have to do to a player who was a huge postseason hero in the 2012 NLDS (and is also 4-for-15 with three RBI during his career against traditional postseason foe Clayton Kershaw). With that said, baseball has to come to the forefront at some point, and the Cardinals can’t just keep throwing a guy out there who has no extra-base hits this year and is failing an astounding 90.2 percent of the time that he comes to the plate.

The Cardinals could easily elect to recall middle infielder Greg Garcia, who saw brief action with the big-league club last year and is hitting .313/.405/.369 with no homers this year at Triple-A. Even though Kozma has been as bad as he has, though, it’s no guarantee that he’s on his last legs as a Cardinal.

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Contrary to a common but erroneous belief, backup middle infielders who are capable with the bat aren’t exactly rampant around the league. Just five players in the National League who would fit the true definition of a “utility infielder”, capable of playing at least one middle infield spot with between 40-100 at-bats, have a batting average above .250 and an OPS above .700. Of course, there’s a huge disparity between those baseline numbers and the exceptionally bad .098 average and .262 OPS that Kozma has posted thus far, but the point is that it shouldn’t be an expectation for a player like Kozma to put up good or even mediocre offensive numbers.

The fact that Kozma has turned himself into a full-on utilityman capable of playing third, first, the outfield, and even catcher further helps his cause. While Kozma is by no means a Gold Glover at his secondary positions, a player like Greg Garcia, for instance, has not played third all year, has no experience at first or in the outfield, and is inferior defensively to Kozma at short. That might not be as big of a deal on a team with a more conventionally-constructed roster, but with Kozma currently acting as the primary backup at all four infield positions, with backup catcher Tony Cruz seeming to be the next most-sensible option, the Cards would need to find a player who was capable of taking on that role with no dropoff.

Of course, that problem could be remedied if the Cardinals were to return third-string catcher Ed Easley to Triple-A and call up two players to fill the one role that is currently being performed by Kozma. In that scenario, the Cards could perhaps promote Garcia along with Jacob Wilson, who has hit well at Memphis and is capable of playing first, second, and third, along with the outfield in a pinch. While this would seem to be a logical move, you have to wonder why Easley, who has just a pinch-hitting appearance and four innings behind the plate in a blowout to his credit during his three weeks in the big leagues, is still on the team if there’s a better roster fit existing in Triple-A.

A more likely scenario might involve the Cardinals sending Easley back to Memphis and bringing Garcia or Wilson to the majors in his place. (They could also clear a 25-man roster spot by sending down reliever Miguel Socolovich, who has yet to appear in a game since his June 9 recall.) That way, the team gains more infield depth and has another hitter on the bench who isn’t an automatic out like Kozma, but they still retain the fielding versatility of Kozma. Retaining Kozma while adding a more useful player than Easley to the bench would make it more possible to operate with a 13-man pitching staff and four-man bench, which the Cardinals have done most of this season and is becoming more common throughout the National League as a whole.

The Cardinals certainly have a few more capable hitters than Kozma waiting at Triple-A. But with the 27-year-old’s willingness to play all over the field, it might still be a while longer before the Cardinals decide to give up on him.

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