JUPITER, Fla. – Mike Matheny would gladly take the version of Pete Kozma the Cardinals saw in September and October if he’s needed to play significant time this year with Rafael Furcal out.
“I think anybody would,” Matheny said.
The 35-year-old Furcal has been shut down from all baseball activities due to renewed discomfort and pain stemming from a partially torn ligament in his right elbow that forced him to miss the last month of the regular season and playoffs last year.
And Kozma, just like he did when Furcal went down last fall, is expected to get the first shot at everyday playing time as his replacement.
“You have to look at probably the best baseball we played was when we had Pete,” Matheny said. “I think that’s very encouraging and exciting about what it could potentially look like going forward but we’ll just continue to watch and see how things go.”
Kozma, a former first round pick by the Cardinals in the 2007 draft, has just a .236 career batting average in more than 2,400 at-bats the past six seasons. He was hitting just .232 for Triple-A Memphis at the time of his promotion on August 31.
But he somehow transformed into an All-Star when he took over for Furcal, hitting .333 (24-for-72) with five doubles, three triples, to home runs and 14 RBI in 26 games to finish the regular season.
He hit a key three-run homer in Game 3 of the Division Series in Washington before recording the game-winning and series-clinching hit to complete the Cardinals’ historic comeback in the ninth inning of Game 5.
And his strong finish to 2012 has given him a newfound confidence that he didn’t have earlier in his minor league career.
“I think he looks like a different player,” Matheny said. “But it didn’t take long, kind of as soon as we gave him a chance last year he looked like a different player. He never looked overwhelmed. He looked like he could play the position and I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been around but you get a little success and that typically sets you up for more.
“I think he just proved to himself what I think he always new and wanted to prove to everybody else that he could play at this level.”
Asked about an increased confidence level based on his finish, Kozma said, “Definitely. From what I did at the end of last season, just build off of that, see what I did, check out the video and carry it over to this year.”
Kozma had three hits in Sunday’s game in Viera against the Nationals and enters Tuesday’s off day hitting .409 through the first ten games of the spring.
Newcomer Ronny Cedeno also figures to get a chance at winning the starting shortstop job in Furcal’s absence but what Kozma did down the stretch would appear to put him in the lead at this point.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking about but if he’s putting me in the lineup then I’m definitely going to go out there and give it my best shot,” Kozma said. “It’s definitely good to get in there.
“Whenever Mike puts me in the lineup to start or whatever, I’m just trying to get some reps in and definitely take that time and take advantage of whenever I get put in the game.”
Cedeno, an eight-year big league veteran with the Cubs, Mariners, Pirates and Mets, has the experience factor on his side. He’s played 779 big league games and taken 2,292 at-bats in the Major Leagues compared to just 42 games and 89 at-bats for the 24-year-old Kozma.
But Cedeno is just 2-for-16 to start the spring and has looked shaky on a couple of throws in the field.
“It’s very frustrating and very sad because he’s a good teammate,” Cedeno said of Furcal’s injury. “I don’t make the decision so I’m going to try and do the best I can and try to get an opportunity from Mike whenever he needs me.
“First thing I’m trying to figure out is I’m trying to make an adjustment at the plate. My timing is off a little bit. I’m getting better, it’s part of spring training, working on what I need to get ready for the season.”
Asked to evaluate his spring so far Kozma said, “I think I’ve done alright. Defensively has been a little shaky. I haven’t taken balls off the bat in a while so that’s coming along. I’m feeling better every day, looking at at-bats. I feel very comfortable in the box and I’m seeing the ball well right now.”
Both figure to get plenty of time at shortstop this spring. Ryan Jackson could get a look as well and second baseman Daniel Descalso, who has looked impressive at shortstop in the past, could get thrown into the mix depending on how Matt Carpenter progresses at second base.
Luckily the Cardinals have almost a month before opening the regular season April 1 in Arizona. And they plan on taking as much time as it needs to figure out their best option.