Cards may turn to Kozma at shortstop

VIERA, Fla. -- It's easy to look back now and tell the St. Louis Cardinals all the things they should have done last winter besides committing to Rafael Furcal as their shortstop.

But seriously, have you looked at that free-agent shortstop market last winter? What "big-time" shortstop should they have signed?

A not-necessarily-healthy Stephen Drew, who had no interest in sitting behind Furcal? A guy from Japan (Hiroyuki Nakajima) who comes with doubts he can cut it as a big league shortstop? The artist formerly known as Alex Gonzalez?

Or what shortstop should they have traded for? They weren't going to blow up the franchise to get Jose Reyes. So who else? Troy Tulowitzki? Asdrubal Cabrera? Jhonny Peralta? None of those guys ended up getting dealt last time we checked.

Only Jed Lowrie did (by Houston). But the Cardinals have never seemed like big fans of his defense at short. And his new team, the A's, hasn’t installed him as its regular shortstop, either, you'll notice.

So "I don't think there’s much we could have done," GM John Mozeliak says now. "I get how it's second-guessed, because it's easy to second-guess."

But at the time, back in November and December, the Cardinals were being told, he says, that Furcal's elbow wasn't going to require Tommy John surgery. And while they had obvious concerns about him, Furcal's doctors had advised him not to start throwing again until January. So they were a team stuck in "Now What?" mode.

“OK, could we have had him come out to make stronger throws in January, just to find out? I guess,” Mozeliak says. “But that's not going to change your offseason strategy. That market had already come and gone.”

So now here they are, with Furcal done for the year, back in "Now What?" mode. And while they continue to look around just in case, the answer to "Now What?" is almost certainly going to be an option that nobody, including the Cardinals, could have anticipated a year ago this time:

Pete Kozma.

And that's a typically Cardinal-esque story in itself.

It wasn't so long ago that the 24-year-old Kozma wasn't even the starting shortstop for their Triple-A team. He’d been moved to second in preparation for, theoretically, life as a big league utility man. And the Cardinals had gotten to the point at which, any time they were forced, by roster issues, to kick around names to boot off their 40-man roster, Kozma's name was always in the discussion.

So, as recently as last summer, when folks in St. Louis talked about him, what they asked, mostly, was: “How could the Cardinals have drafted that guy in the first round [in 2007] ahead of Rick Porcello?”

But then you know what happened?

September happened. And October.

When Furcal blew out his elbow in late August last season, up came Kozma. He hit .333/.383/.569 in 82 plate appearances down the stretch, followed by an excellent postseason which included a game-winning, two-run, ninth-inning single in an epic Game 5 comeback in the NLDS in Washington.

So as the Cardinals were considering their alternatives this spring after Furcal went down, they turned, as they so often do, to their guy.

“That’s part of our business model,” Mozeliak says, “is giving guys that we’ve developed a chance to play. … If you look at our September success and our October success, it was with a guy named Kozma. I think he's earned the right to try again.”

Now we should point out that they haven’t officially anointed him as The Man yet. They’re still looking at non-roster invitee Ronny Cedeno. And Mozeliak admits they’re still looking, period.

“Are we still looking? The answer to that is yes and no,” the GM says. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything that’s going to be a dramatic upgrade that we’re going to be able to do. But to say we don’t have our scouts out there paying attention to things would be unfair, too.”

In the meantime, though, Kozma has done nothing to lose this job. He's hit .419 this spring, hasn't made an error in 10 games and has played with a sense of self-assurance that seems bred from his late-season success.

“It's confidence,” Ron "Pop" Warner, Kozma's manager in the minor leagues last season, says. "He's always had it in him. I just see a different swag to him now, in the confidence that he carries when he’s out there playing."

“Now, he believes he should be here,” Mozeliak says. “I look at his camp, this year to last, and he looks like a different player.”

Then again, last year in spring training, Kozma was mostly a guy just passing through. He got only five at-bats, was an early cut and then almost disappeared off the radar screen completely.

The Cardinals had a number of conversations during the season about whether to drop him off the roster. And Mozeliak still isn't sure why that never happened.

“He was somebody who, frankly, was at the top of the list to maybe come off, but for some reason we never did,” the GM says. “And I’m very glad we didn’t.”

Even in late summer, when Furcal began having issues, Kozma wasn’t the first guy they turned to. Initially, Ryan Jackson was called up instead of him, a in early September, Kozma spent most of his first week and a half in the big leagues watching Daniel Descalso play short.

But on Sept. 10, Kozma got a chance to start against the Padres, went 3-for-4 and opened a lot of eyes -- not just with those three hits but with his energy and defensive skills.

“I actually saw it the first time we put him at shortstop on the defensive side,” manager Mike Matheny says, “because that’s really what we were looking for. First time we sent Pete out there, we watched him go to his left and his right, and we said, 'Wow this guy looks like a shortstop.' He just never had that deer-in-the-headlights look to him, which happens to a lot of young players when they get their opportunity.”

Now, it’s safe to say there are still doubts about whether Kozma can duplicate his stretch-drive success story over a full season. We're talking, after all, about a player who hit a tough-to-duplicate .415 on balls in play. And this is also a fellow who hit .236 with a .652 OPS over six minor league seasons and .223/.286/.324 in two triple-A seasons.

But Matheny says: “When a guy gets an opportunity and has some success, you just never know what he’s going to do with it. I know you've got people pointing to the sample size and this or that and the other. But I point to the fact that those were some seriously high-leverage situations this guy came in, and he consistently did a nice job in the field, consistently did a nice job with the bat. So I think maybe we just hadn't tapped into him earlier.”

Well, they’re about to find out. Oh, it’s possible that by July, they’ll be back out there shopping for a bigger name. But for now, they're doing what the Cardinals always seem to do: reach into their system and pull out an answer.

“For us, change means opportunity,” Matheny says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean something to panic about. We've got guys who kinda believe, 'Yeah? Now what?' and almost thrive on that thing where something happens and, with everybody else, the sky’s falling. But we’re like, 'All right. That'll make it even better when we get something rolling.'"