Carpenter and Kozma solve Cards’ middle-infield dilemma

ST. LOUIS — During the past offseason, Matt Carpenter was talking with his mom about his future in the major leagues. Though Carpenter enjoyed a strong rookie season with a .365 on-base percentage in 340 plate appearances, his baseball future coming into 2013 was far from secure.

No one knew if he could become more than a utilityman in the big leagues. Not even Carpenter.

“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I’m going to be (in the majors) tomorrow,'” Tammie Carpenter recalls. “He was like, ‘Am I really good enough to continue to do this or did they just kind of make a mistake?’ That’s the mentality he has. Don’t take anything for granted.”

Well, the Cardinals certainly didn’t make a mistake when they moved Carpenter to second base and, early on, installed him as their leadoff hitter. Likewise, St. Louis did not err when it decided to put Pete Kozma at shortstop instead of shopping for a fill-in for injured Rafael Furcal.

Together, the 27-year-old Texan (Carpenter) and the 25-year-old Oklahoman (Kozma) have played roles in the Cardinals’ early success that were as important as anyone on the roster. Maybe even more, considering the uncertainty around them coming into the season.

Carpenter played only two games at second base last year, while Kozma spent barely a month in the majors. He played well but still wasn’t given much of a chance to unseat Furcal before the veteran was lost for the season.

With a total of three errors between Kozma and Carpenter, their defense has been as steady as any shortstop-second baseman tandem in the game.

Offensively, Kozma’s .254 batting average is lowest among Cardinals regulars, but he still leads the majors in hits out of the eight-hole and is tied for the lead in runs scored from that spot. Considering he hit .236 in six minor league seasons, an 18-point improvement in the majors is as impressive as it is difficult to explain.

“I know I couldn’t tell you,” Kozma says. “I’m doing the same things here that I was doing down there. I don’t get it.”
Kozma’s numbers still pale to those put up by Carpenter. That’s no knock on Kozma, either. Carpenter has put up some of the best numbers in the National League. He’s second in runs (50) and hits (80), third in batting average (.332), fourth in on-base percentage (.412) and tied for first in doubles (19). His OBP when hitting in the leadoff spot (.438) is the best in either league.

Can you say All-Star?

“That would be hard to grasp,” Carpenter says. “I would be overwhelmed, but I don’t try to think about it. I come here every day to play. That’s my mentality and I’m going to keep with that.”

Who could blame him? A veteran scout who saw much of the Cardinals’ last home stand admits that he is surprised with Carpenter’s production but doesn’t believe it has been a fluke.

“He’s got a very, very good swing,” he said. “He really stays inside the ball, is a good low-ball hitter and uses the whole field well. I just didn’t realize he would be this kind of hitter.”

On Kozma, the scout offers a lesser assessment but one that still fits the Cardinals’ needs: “He’s not spectacular, but he’s very dependable with good hands and range. He’s one of those nondescript players who is average across the board. But give me the steady player that gets the most out of his ability rather than the guy who makes the spectacular play but is careless on the routine.”
While Carpenter and Kozma figure to man the middle of the Cardinals’ infield for the rest of this season, their partnership might not last long term. With second baseman Kolten Wong getting closer to the majors — he’s hitting .321 at Memphis — the Cardinals eventually could have one of those problems that’s nice to have. That is, what do they do with all their talent?

One possibility: Put Wong at second, keep David Freese at third and try Carpenter at shortstop.

“I haven’t seen him challenged enough going to his right (at second base) to know how he would handle balls in the hole at shortstop,” the scout said. “But he’s tall, rangy and I wouldn’t be adverse to trying him. I don’t think the Cardinals would, either. They have written the book on guys playing multiple positions.”

Another possibility would be to trade Freese and move Carpenter to third, keeping Kozma at shortstop and Wong at second. Carpenter lacks the corner-infield power, but he’s plenty productive in his own right, and his defense at third is at least equal to Freese’s.

If finances became the decisive factor, Carpenter would rate the edge. Freese is making $3.15 million and figures to get a raise in arbitration. Carpenter, in his second season, will be making around the $500,000 minimum for a while. A Wong, Kozma and Carpenter alignment could cost less than $2 million total next season.  

How the infield eventually aligns is a puzzle to be figured out later. For now, Carpenter and Kozma are still proving they have found a home in the major leagues.

“We have the MLB Extra Innings (package) and even now when I sit and watch him, I think this is so surreal,” Tammie Carpenter says. “You just can’t believe that he’s out there.”

Keep playing like this and Carpenter, as well as Kozma, will be making believers out of everyone.

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