Picked No. 1 by the Cardinals in 2007 (No. 18 overall) -- less than a year after the Cardinals won the World Series with undersized shortstop David Eckstein -- he quickly became known as "that guy the Cardinals took instead of Rick Porcello." The moniker was a direct reference to the club's decision to pass on the Detroit Tigers' starter -- widely considered the stronger prospect -- and go with a high school middle infielder from Owasso, Okla., instead.
Five years later, while Kozma was languishing in Triple-A Memphis with a .236 career average in the minor leagues, former Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder reflected on the first-round selection on his personal Twitter account.
"Kozma," he said. "I remember that pick. How is that working out? I remember coaches laughing about that I think."
Coaches weren't the only ones laughing at what seemed to be the most visible draft bust in recent memory. Even Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak admitted to nearly releasing Kozma at least five times during the 2012 season. With more promising shortstop prospects in the system ready to log playing time in Memphis, it seemed time to finally move on from the Pete Kozma debacle.
And then Rafael Furcal got hurt -- and everything changed.
After a bit of depth chart voodoo that saw Kozma leapfrog major-league utility infielder Daniel Descalso as well as club-hyped shortstop prospect Ryan Jackson, Pete found himself entrenched in a starting shortstop role with the defending World Series champions in the midst of a late-season pennant race.
In 26 games, the sub-.240 hitter in the minor leagues hit .333 with an on-base percentage of .383 and a whopping .569 slugging percentage. The Cardinals would narrowly secure a playoff spot -- due in large part to Kozma's contributions -- and soon found themselves in a best-of-five NLDS battle with the league favorites and media darlings, the Washington Nationals.
Kozma, affectionately dubbed "The Wizard of Koz" by a fan base in love with Hall of Fame inductee Ozzie Smith, added to his growing legend with a series-winning RBI hit in the ninth inning of Game 5. The win ranks among the most unlikely comebacks in postseason history but for the shortstop from Owasso, it represents an equally unlikely turning point in his still-young career.
An Unexpected Opportunity
After his late-season success and postseason heroics, Kozma entered spring training in 2013 as the favorite for a utility infielder role with St. Louis. Rafael Furcal -- an All-Star selection as the Cardinals leadoff hitter and starting shortstop in 2012 -- was expected to return after avoiding surgery for the elbow injury that sidelined him in September.
Further complicating the shortstop picture for Kozma, Mozeliak signed veteran infielder Ronny Cedeno as added insurance in case Furcal's elbow didn't cooperate. Once again, Pete found himself seemingly stuck behind two players favored by the organization on the shortstop depth chart.
And once again, Furcal's elbow found a way for Kozma to overcome.
After experiencing increasing discomfort in a still-injured throwing arm, Furcal finally elected to have Tommy John surgery and end his season before it began. The club responded by announcing a competition for the shortstop role between Cedeno and Kozma, but the contest appeared to be weighted in Cedeno's favor due to free-agent contract considerations and long-term experience at the major-league level.
But the resilient Kozma found another gear, and the club eventually released Cedeno in a risky decision to hand the starting shortstop keys to the hero of game five. Pete Kozma, after a sub-par career in the minor leagues as "the pick that went wrong," had made the opening-day roster as the starting shortstop for a franchise known for perennial contention.
Despite inhuman play by middle-infield prospect Ryan Jackson in Triple-A -- not to mention a fan base clamoring for a big-name shortstop acquisition via the trade market -- Kozma has taken control of the shortstop position and never looked back.
According to ESPN.com, Kozma's .278 batting average through May 26 is fifth among starting shortstops in the National League (minimum 75 plate appearances) while his .339 OBP is sixth. As an eighth-place hitter, his .291 average is second behind only Brandon Crawford in the National League (minimum 50 plate appearances), and his OBP of .355 is third.
But, as his game-winning single in last year's postseason suggested, Kozma's greatest asset may be his uncanny track record in key game situations.
Defying those who believe the ability to perform in the clutch is a myth, the .278 hitter through May 26 is hitting .405 with runners in scoring position in 42 at-bats. That's the best batting average with RISP among all major-league shortstops (minimum 25 plate appearances), and tied for 12th in all of baseball. His 18 RBIs hitting from the eighth position in the lineup is third in the major leagues (Matt Dominguez and Brandon Crawford each have 20).
Of course, as impressive as they are, his offensive statistics only tell half the story. Perhaps more significant is the stability Kozma has injected into the Cardinals' infield.
In 211 total chances, Kozma has only one error, and his .995 fielding percentage is tied with Troy Tulowitzki and Andrelton Simmons for the best fielding percentage among all MLB shortstops. His 156 assists are second behind only SS Ruben Tejada (159) in all of baseball.
After such a mundane start to his professional career, Kozma is clearly exceeding the Cardinals' expectations in the field and at the plate.
Here to Stay
Many have wondered if Pete Kozma can hold on to the starting shortstop position for the Cardinals all season long. In fact, I wrote about the pressure created by Ryan Jackson's eye-opening hitting line in Triple-A just two weeks back, and multiple media outlets and Cardinals fans have identified the middle infield as an opportunity for potential upgrade by the trade deadline.
But as long as Pete Kozma continues his consistent fielding and timely hitting, no one will be able to wrestle the shortstop job away from him anytime soon. It looks like the Cardinals' No. 1 draft pick from 2007 is here to stay.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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