CHICAGO -- We’re in draft season, so it’s easy to get excited about who your team could pick. After the draft, all 30 teams' selections will be graded and assessed and opined over, and you’ll be hearing about Mark Appel for years, perhaps having already heard about him for years. But there are many guys you won’t hear from again, and some guys you’ll want to quickly forget before moving on to the next new crop to obsess over.
But sometimes, years later a guy you might have forgotten shows up and provides you with a reminder that he was picked for a reason. Not because he was a slam-dunk obvious great, not because he was an easy pick, but simply because he can play. Case in point: Pete Kozma of the Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2007, Kozma has already been seen as everything from a safe pick to a flop to a success. Just within the 2012 season, he went from a farmhand being prepped for a utility role and someone in danger of slipping off the 40-man roster to a stretch hero at shortstop for the defending world champs. Kozma helped power St. Louis' return to October action with his bat and glove, belting 10 extra-base hits and slugging .569. But after what he’d done beforehand, slugging 200 points lower than that would have been considered a success.
Now Kozma is settling in as the Cardinals’ shortstop of the present after the latest Rafael Furcal injury. Maybe that constitutes a successful first-round pick, but at different points Kozma has been both a failure and a success. And because of that, he’s a good example of the danger of judging a player too quickly, or too simply.
As the 18th overall selection of the 2007 draft, Kozma was picked before such highly touted talents as Rick Porcello and Ben Revere, as well as high-upside arms such as Aaron Poreda and Andrew Brackman. He was picked before Todd Frazier. Of course, you can play this game with almost any draft, to try to make one team look smart or less so, and it’s not reliably fair. The Cardinals wanted a shortstop, and Kozma was the best on the board in 2007 after starring for Owasso High School in Oklahoma. It was a defensible, sensible pick, tabbing the best talent at the toughest position, but it wasn’t a choice with a ton of upside possibilities. Kozma was seen as a defense-minded pick, a kid who would earn his playing time through his glove work.
Could he hit, though? Thinking back, Kozma observed that hitting was one of the two biggest challenges he had to deal with. “Definitely the hitting; pro ball is just a huge jump from high school. And literally playing every day is just a huge adjustment, both on offense and defense,” Kozma said last week at Wrigley Field, when the Cards swung through Chicago.
It can be easy to forget that high school and college teams don’t face the grueling multimonth daily grind that pro players endure. Going pro isn’t simply an opportunity to show off your signature skills, it’s a test of your ability to use them daily for seven or eight months, going up against the best competition you’ve ever faced.
At any rate, it wasn’t long before picking Kozma looked like a poor choice, even as he was being pushed up the rungs of the farm system fairly aggressively. He spent very little time at high Class A before reaching Double-A in 2009, for example -- less than two years after leaving high school. He wasn’t ready to hit there, putting up a .600 OPS; repeating the level in 2010 got him up to .702. Moved to Triple-A in 2011, he struggled again (.569 OPS), contributing to the Cardinals’ decision early in 2012 to shunt him to second, making room to test farmhand Ryan Jackson regularly at short in his place. Kozma again improved at the plate while repeating a level, but not by a lot (.647 OPS). He was 24 years old, and already being written off.
Rather than sulk over being asked to move around, Kozma took it as an opportunity to remind the organization that he had value, in any way they wanted to put it to work for them. “I looked at it as a challenge because of my versatility, proof that I can do it," Kozma said. "If I can play short, I can play anywhere on the field. Second base took a little bit of an adjustment period, but I got used to it after a month or so. The more versatile you are, the better."
That, and he could still play short, which is why Kozma is a nifty fallback for a Cardinals team that needed one after risking big money on the fragile Furcal. Kozma's been on quite a roller-coaster ride, so it's understandable he doesn’t want to spend too much time reflecting on his journey now that he’s finally settled in this season.
“It feels good, looking back on last year. I mean, yeah, I did it, but I’ve got a lot to do in the next five months. It’s definitely different. Some guys are obviously pitching me differently than they did last September. I’m making an adjustment; everyone goes through it,” Kozma said.
Kozma turned 25 last month, young enough to improve, and an example of somebody who has improved after consistent exposure. At the same time, he now has more than just the advantage of an opportunity and his skills going for him. “There are a lot more tools I use here, a lot more video on pitchers and hitters. It’s easier to do homework here,” Kozma said.
With an OPS just over .600 right now -- right around where Baseball Prospectus projected him to be -- and solid marks on defense from scouts and advanced metrics, he has a wins above replacement almost smack-dab on zero.
Maybe for some that means he’s a real-world illustration of replacement level. Or of why replacement level is a fairly arbitrary standard, because what Kozma does on the field and at the plate isn’t without value. More than a few teams would love to have him at short right now, because there may not be 30 better big league shortstops on the planet right now. Then again, Kozma’s opportunity is a product not of some rational distribution of shortstop talent. It’s equal parts the product of his own ability and what he does control, but also of chance and what he does not, like Furcal's injury.
And also because the Cardinals invested a pick in him that might have seemed wasted a year ago, or three. But was it ever really a bad pick?
As one MLB team official noted about first-rounders in particular and prospects in general, “I think it’s easy for us to get lost at times in star chasing. Even the best teams have five or six stars, and 19 other roster spots. How you fill those is incredibly important, and we lose sight at times at how valuable those players -- like a Kozma -- can be. There are players in any system who are going to be big leaguers. Guys worth a 25-man roster spot despite the fact that they will not be stars.”
Is that really what you’re supposed to get with a first-round pick, though? Are people inside or outside the game so much in love with upside risk and the built-in expectation that those risks pay off -- even when upside arms like Poreda and Brackman clearly have not -- that they might lose sight of the value of a “solid” pick?
As the team official notes, “Sure, I think early in the [first round], you have to draft stars. But at 18, how many stars have been drafted 18th overall? That’s gotta be a tiny group. It may sound crazy, but if you get a big leaguer at No. 18, you’re doing well.”
The man has a point: From the past 30 years, only two players picked 18th overall have generated double-digit WAR totals on their careers, Joe Magrane (’85) and R.A. Dickey (’94) -- and Dickey only got that far by reinventing himself as a knuckleballer, something no talent evaluator might have foreseen. The best No. 18 of more recent vintage is Ike Davis of the Mets (’08), followed by Aaron Heilman (’01). By this statistical standard, Kozma is already the fourth-best No. 18 pick of the past 20 years, thanks almost entirely to one great September. Which is goofy, but there again, you can play that game with particular draft picks almost every year.
In the meantime, Kozma has an opportunity, having already made an impression. His value, as a regular, as a shortstop, as a first-round pick and as a ballplayer, can be many things. But whatever WAR might say, the numbers don’t really just add up to zero, not when there are players worth literally nothing, not in a world in which you can’t conjure up a Kozma on command when you lose a star at shortstop. It’s the Cardinals’ good fortune to have Kozma on hand when they’ve needed him.