Club, fans wait to see what Kozma will do for encore
After making splash in '12 playoffs, former first-rounder battling for roster spot
JUPITER, Fla. -- It took time for Pete Kozma to shed the expectations he inherited as a first-round Draft pick. It's taken much longer to put a dent in the doubt.
As soon as the Cardinals made Kozma their first pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, the infielder from Oklahoma was burdened with the task of proving people wrong. His selection wasn't celebrated in near the same way most in the first round are. Rather, headlines cast him as a projectable middle infielder taken far too early in his Draft class.
By the time the 2012 season opened, Kozma was on the fringe of being remembered only for who he wasn't.
And yet, when expectations sank to their lowest, Kozma found a way to emerge.
As general manager John Mozeliak tells it now, he went to bed several times last season anticipating that he'd remove Kozma from the roster the next day. Each time, varying circumstances changed those plans. That inaction ended up especially fortuitous for the Cardinals, who, on the final day of August, found their shortstop situation in serious flux.
Rafael Furcal was out for the season with an elbow injury. Ryan Jackson wasn't in the routine of playing every day. And so, largely by default, the task of filling in fell on Kozma.
His numbers -- Kozma was hitting .214 in 112 games at Triple-A -- would suggest he wasn't ready. Kozma, though, didn't buy this idea that he couldn't be better.
"Last year in Memphis, I felt good all the way through," Kozma said. "I felt good on my swing. I felt good on defense. I was solid all the way around the whole year. Even though my numbers probably didn't show it, I felt like I had a pretty solid year."
The events that unfolded upon his arrival have been oft-repeated. Kozma gave the Cards what they asked for defensively and surpassed what the organization anticipated from him at the plate. He drove in 14 runs in 26 games at the most critical point in the regular season.
The production continued into the postseason, where Kozma sent St. Louis into the League Championship Series with a two-out, two-strike, two-run, tiebreaking single to cap the club's improbable Game 5 comeback win over Washington.
"I think he proved to himself, more than anything, that he can have some success up here and that he could be productive," said Daniel Descalso, Kozma's middle infield partner last season. "I think that gave him some confidence and he was able to just worry about playing the game, instead of anything he may have been labeled as, or anything people might have said about him."
|"I think what I did last year will help my chances, but I still have to come into camp like I didn't do anything last year. I still have to come out and compete every day like I have the last few years in the past. I think I'll get a little bit more of a look. The confidence has always been there. I just have to go out and play."|
|-- Pete Kozma|
Indeed, Kozma, the quiet kid who had, long ago, been written off by many, finally had his moment. Now, the Cardinals are in the process of evaluating whether it can be sustained.
"If you think about when he first came up, what impressed was his offensive production," Mozeliak said. "And then, B, was the energy level he brought to the game and to the club. Those things stood out, and I don't think the energy is going to change. I think he really embraced and enjoyed his time in the big leagues.
"It's one of those classic examples of getting off to a good start and it keeps continuing. From a defensive perspective, I think we all got to see day-in, day-out he's a very athletic fielder. He's instinctive. And he can play every day in the big leagues."
The unknown, though, is whether there will be a spot for him there in the immediate. In signing Ronny Cedeno last month, the Cardinals acquired an experienced middle infielder who can serve as protection at short. It's unlikely that both Cedeno and Kozma can find room on the roster unless injuries enter the picture.
Having signed a guaranteed contract for $1.15 million, Cedeno seemingly leapfrogged Kozma into the second spot on the depth chart. It is Cedeno, too, who has been taking infield practice on the field with the projected Major Leaguers.
Kozma is hardly fazed, suggesting that Cedeno's entrance into the picture is as irrelevant as his own success in 2012.
"I think what I did last year will help my chances, but I still have to come into camp like I didn't do anything last year," Kozma said. "I still have to come out and compete every day like I have the last few years in the past. I think I'll get a little bit more of a look. The confidence has always been there. I just have to go out and play."
The Cards, in their roster decisions, will take into account what Kozma was able to do when given the opportunity in 2012. It will also be noted when he did it. Thriving under the pressure that he did was a window into Kozma's confidence, which he often masks by his unassuming demeanor.
"I think he answered a lot of questions," manager Mike Matheny said. "I had seen Pete play for a number of years, but never really had the opportunity to throw him into a situation like that. Give him an opportunity and see what he does with it. It was impressive."
That said, there is also an understanding that a sample size of two months can be skewed, which is why the club was aggressive in its attempts to add a shortstop this winter.
One thing the organization has made clear, though, is that regardless of the final roster decision, Kozma is no longer grouped among the forgotten.
"He's definitely someone that from day one, I think from the organizational standpoint, we wanted people to believe that he was the right pick," Mozeliak said. "And maybe we were a little aggressive in his advancement. But having said that, he is in a place now where he was able to catch up to all that."