COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals' offense certainly doesn't appear to need the boost, but Pete Kozma's pedestrian numbers as the Redbirds' starting shortstop may not survive the dog days of summer nonetheless.
As the hero of Game 5 in the 2012 NLDS against the Washington Nationals, Kozma has earned a reputation for getting big hits in critical situations. A month and a half into the season, he's living up to that reputation with a .324 batting average with runners in scoring position. It is perhaps the one bright spot to Kozma's 2013 offensive campaign.
Through 37 games, the right-handed middle infielder is hitting just .252 with a .312 on-base percentage and a paltry .309 slugging percentage -- and it's only getting worse. Before getting a four-point boost courtesy of the New York Mets' pitching staff, Kozma's average sunk to a measly .248. Even then, he's managed only seven hits for a .226 average in the past 10 games.
Of course, for a team that's experienced a virtual carousel of shortstops over the last nine years, it may be helpful to remember the Yadier Molina rule of thumb when evaluating Cardinals shortstops. As long as he's making the plays in the field, any offensive contributions are a bonus. And Kozma has certainly been solid defensively.
According to MLB.com, Kozma's fielding percentage as of May 15 (.994) is second only to Andrelton Simmons (1.000) among qualifying shortstops, and his total number of assists (120) is second only to Ruben Tejada (130). In other words, the ball is finding him -- a lot -- and Pete is doing what he's supposed to do with it.
It would seem the Kozma-naut from Memphis has injected much-needed stability into the Redbirds' middle infield, perhaps enough to stick as the everyday shortstop for the entirety of the 2013 season.
But then there's Ryan Jackson, the natural-shortstop-turned-utility-infielder hitting his way back into the big club's future middle-infield plans.
It wasn't long ago -- just last season, in fact -- when Jackson found himself the heir apparent on the shortstop depth chart after a career-turning season at Double-A Springfield in 2011. He followed his success with a respectable .272 performance at Triple-A Memphis in 2012, but when the St. Louis club found itself in need after Rafael Furcal's season-ending injury, Jackson found himself a victim of poor timing. He entered the 2013 season in Triple-A, beat out by Kozma and pushed by newcomer Greg Garcia at a position that once was his to lose.
So far, it looks as if the organizational depth chart at shortstop is in for another overhaul.
Through 31 games in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), Jackson is hitting at a chaotic pace. His batting line of .372/.445/.487 with a .932 OPS has landed him in the coveted number three-hole in the batting order -- and given St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak something to think about.
Hit .280 and someone pays attention. Hit .300 and more than a few eyes open. But hit closer to .400 than .300, and the Cardinals will find a way to play your bat.
With a 26-14 record the Cardinals don't appear to be giving anyone much of a chance to criticize their recent play. After addressing early season bullpen trouble, the St. Louis squad has been rolling over teams like that psychotic steamroller in Stephen King's 1986 film "Maximum Overdrive." But the super team is not without its kryptonite.
As Derrick Goold's article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has already addressed, Cardinals sluggers are once again struggling against left-handed pitchers. Players publicly refer to the anomaly as the result of small sample size destined to turn around over the course of a long season. That may be true, but entering the third game of a four-game series against the Mets on May 15, Cardinals hitters were sporting a flashy .277 average against right-handers (No. 3 in MLB and No. 1 in the National League) compared to an anemic .222 average against left-handers (No. 27 in MLB).
That's hard to ignore.
Pete Kozma, ironically enough, is hitting exactly .222 with a .259 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers in 27 at-bats over that same time frame. Ryan Jackson, frustratingly mired in Triple-A, is punishing left-handed pitchers with a line of .400/.478/.475/.953 in 40 at-bats.
Jackson may be just what the Cardinals need to break through against left-handed pitching.
In a typical year, Mozeliak may simply choose to stand pat, opting for stability and continuity in the middle infield rather than remove a piece from an easy-going lineup. But this is not a typical season for the Redbirds.
When the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the Cardinals are likely to find themselves in an enviable yet unfamiliar position. They simply won't have any needs. The starting rotation is stellar, the bullpen is improving, and both the lineup and defense are performing admirably. But still the urge to improve -- even by just the slightest tweak here or there -- will pull at Mozeliak and the front office.
Pete Kozma's starting shortstop position seems to present the path of least resistance on the roster.Kozma has certainly earned a longer look, and Mozeliak and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny are likely to give it to him but if there's one thing this Cardinals front office has shown over the last few years, it's that no one's job is safe. If Ryan Jackson's bat gives the Cardinals the best chance to win down the stretch, no amount of stable yet middling glove work up the middle is going to save The Wizard of Koz.
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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