(Baseball StL) -- Right on cue, Pete Kozma hit a homerun today for the Cardinals. A few hours earlier, Kozma inherited the starting shortstop job when the team announced Rafael Furcal would miss the entire season. Kozma also singled and help set up a run in the game against the New York Yankees. It’s just a spring training game, but Kozma’s continued hot hitting in the Grapefruit League has to give his manager, teammates and Cardinals fans more confidence that he can handle the job on a full time basis.
The fact that Kozma is even in the conversation as the Cardinals starting shortstop is something nobody expected a few seasons ago. The Cardinals were very close on a number of occasions to giving Kozma his release. He spent six undistinguished seasons in the minor leagues and often looked overmatched at the plate. But something clicked for Kozma last September when the Cardinals called him up to replace Furcal in the heat of the pennant race. Suddenly Kozma became an offensive threat. He showed surprising power, an ability to drive the ball to the gaps, and outstanding speed on the bases. Except for a rough game in San Francisco in the NLCS, he also handled the position well defensively. He looked like the player the Cardinals had envisioned when they drafted him out of high school in the first round in 2007.
There are several veteran shortstops who the Cardinals could pursue in the trade market to replace Furcal. Guys like Baltimore’s JJ Hardy, Texas’ Elvis Andrus, Cleveland’s Asdrubel Cabrera, and Troy Tulowitzki of Colorado. All of them look better on paper than Kozma. A lot better. But each of those players would require a costly package of prospects in return, and the Cardinals want to hang onto their power armed young pitchers and prized hitting prospects Oscar Tavarez and Matt Adams.
The Cardinals should have plenty of offense even without much production from the shortstop position. All Kozma really has to do is make the plays defensively. It looks like he’s going to get that chance. He’s played much better than Ronnie Cedeno this spring, who may not even make the final roster. The Cardinals like what they’ve seen of shortstop Greg Garcia in the minors, but he’s not ready yet. The time is now for Pete Kozma. He’s on track to become the seventh different starting shortstop in the last seven opening days for the Cardinals following Furcal, Ryan Theriot, Brendan Ryan, Khalil Greene, Cesar Izturis and David Eckstein. If Kozma can play like he did last September he’ll probably hang onto the job a lot longer than the other six shortstops before him. But if he fizzles, the Cardinals will likely have to part with one or more of their talented young pitchers to find a more reliable player to replace Furcal.