I read with some sadness on Tuesday the entirely predictable fact that Pete Kozma, last season's starting shortstop for the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals, might not even make the team this year.
The entirely predictable part comes because despite the Cardinals' success last season, nearly everyone came to see Kozma as a place where the team could improve this offseason.
He is magical with a glove. His agility, his quick throws, his skill turning the double play nobody questions.
And yet, for all that, Baseball-Reference.com had him ranked 44th in Wins Above Replacement last season. In a league with 30 teams, that's a pretty low rank for a starting shortstop.
The problem is his hitting. Last October, when I covered the Cardinals as they outlasted the Dodgers and ultimately fell to the Red Sox, you'd hear members of the team talk about his hitting as if it were just destined to pick up.
The hitting talk with Kozma always follows the superlatives about his fielding. When something like words about Kozma's glove are in such close proximity to words about his bat, the speaker almost has to be optimistic about the hitting, or risk sounding rude.
"He's an exciting player to watch, defensively, no question," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told me last October. "And offensively, he's still fighting his way through."
But it's really difficult to imagine Pete Kozma as anything but a one-way player at this point. He wasn't going through a slump in 2013. He simply hasn't hit at any level since the Cardinals drafted him in 2007. His OPS last year was .548. For his career in the big leagues, it's .608. It was .652 in more than 2700 minor league at-bats, too. He'll be 26 in April. This is probably who Pete Kozma is.
Understand, Kozma wasn't the starting shortstop last year because the Cardinals didn't realize his limitations, or hoped blindly for improvement. Rafael Furcal was Plan A at shortstop, and got hurt. Ronny Cedeno was Plan B. Or put another way, a 30-year-old with a career OPS+ of 72 was judged at first to be a more favorable alternative by the Cardinals last season than their homegrown first round pick. But the Cardinals released Cedeno last spring after signing him to a $1.15 million deal that offseason, and that left Kozma standing. Although not for long.
This offseason, the team couldn't wait to go out and add Jhonny Peralta for four years, $52 million. There's a statement for you.
Again, totally understandable. Peralta isn't nearly the defender Kozma is. A Biogenesis suspension limited his 2013 season to just 107 games. And yet, Peralta was worth 3.3 WAR. Kozma? -0.1.
The Cardinals aren't paying this kind of money to Peralta to not play shortstop regularly, in all likelihood. He's likely to be important enough offensively that the Cardinals won't be eager to replace him for defense late in close games. So suddenly, Kozma, a man born to play shortstop, is either a second baseman or third baseman, without the bat for either spot.
And his hitting? Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo didn't mince words, perhaps because he didn't talk about Kozma's fielding first.
"(Kozma) needs to learn how the strike zone works," Oquendo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Tuesday, "and get on base somehow. He doesn't walk enough and he needs to cut down a little on his strikeouts."
But, you know, other than that...
This is not to say that the Cardinals are making a mistake here. However, there's something wonderful about seeing a guy like Pete Kozma, or Brendan Ryan with the New York Yankees, or in recent years, Adam Everett of the Houston Astros ply their trade in a one dimensional, but spectacular fashion. Somehow, this isn't celebrated when it comes to one-way players in the field. Kozma makes a great play in a deciding game against the Pirates, sure, but all anyone can talk about is his strikeouts, or weak ground balls.
This is a double standard. I simply haven't heard anyone, when Miguel Cabrera launches another home run deep into the Detroit night, mitigate by grumbling, "Sure, but did you see that grounder take eleven bounces into left field?"
Lest you think this is because I can look on with emotional distance every time Kozma leaves runners stranded on the corners, I will remind you that I spent years rooting for Rey Ordonez New York Mets.
Kozma's career OPS+ is 70. Rey Ordonez checks in at 59. In 1997, for a team that came within four games of a playoff spot, it was 36. In 1998, for a team that came within one game of a playoff spot, it was 53. You can easily make the argument that even a league average offensive shortstop would have given the Mets four straight playoff appearances.
But I don't think of the annual wait for the Ordonez home run, which usually came in September, when I remember his tenure with the Mets. I don't remember the fantastically long swing he had, or the fact that a hitter of his talents, in the eight hole usually, still couldn't manage to bunt very well. I think of his very first game with the Mets, back in 1996, and the throw he made from his knees to nail Royce Clayton at the plate.
A really great hitter will, ultimately, do what great hitters do. He'll hit home runs, or booming doubles, or fight off a good pitch and dump it into right field.
A great fielder, well -- you don't know what he'll do. He might float over the second base bag and snare a humpback liner. He might throw a runner out from his knees.
So I get it. And the Cardinals can't think this way. But I hope Pete Kozma finds a job somewhere, even if he's another Plan C, as a regular shortstop.
And some July afternoon, Michael Wacha will induce a grounder that finds a hole between Jhonny Peralta and the second base bag. It will be a single, likely outweighed by Peralta's hitting. And I might shed a tear over the spectacular play we all just missed.