McNeal: What’s next for Pete Kozma and the Cardinals?

ST. LOUIS — Just one month after helping his club win Game 2 of the World Series, shortstop Pete Kozma had become persona non grata on the Cardinals.

Hey, that can happen when you post the lowest OPS in the National League over the past 23 seasons (minimum of 140 games played), no matter how slick your glove. The Cardinals gave Kozma a season to show he could hit big-league pitching and when all he managed was a .217 batting average and .548 OPS, they wasted little time finding a proven hitter to take over his position.

And the moment the club committed $52 million for four years of Jhonny Peralta, Pete Kozma’s run as Cardinals’ shortstop was history. If you weren’t thrilled to see the Cardinals spend so much on a player coming off a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, put yourself in Kozma’s place.

But such is life in the pros and to paraphrase my favorite line from Mike Matheny, the Cardinals aren’t in the lessons business. They’re in the winning business.

So what’s next for the former first-round draft pick? Just 25 years old, Kozma has shown that, defensively anyway, he can handle the toughest position on the field besides pitcher and catcher. He also proved to be a good teammate who seemed to appropriately appreciate his opportunity to play in the major leagues.

A starting job in the majors isn’t in his future, at least not immediately, but Kozma has options:

Return to the minors …

Talk about cold. After spending an entire season in the majors, much of it as an everyday player, being sent back to the bushes would make a painful kick to the gut. General manager John Mozeliak even admitted it would be tough to see Kozma start the season in Memphis.

Still, considering the Cardinals don’t have any other shortstops that close to major-league ready (the Astros picked up Ryan Jackson) in the short term, he would provide valuable insurance if Peralta were to be sidelined for any length of time.

Head to the bench …

Don’t count on this. Daniel Descalso has proven he can handle the utility role and if the Cardinals carry two backup infielders, the other figures to be a right-handed hitter with a more dangerous bat than Kozma. When Mozeliak says he’s still looking for bench help, he’s saying a lot about Kozma’s chances of being a backup in St. Louis.

Take talents elsewhere 

Despite his lack of offense, Kozma carries some trade value because of his defense. On a team that doesn’t need offense, he would make a solid late-inning backup. Kozma has played plenty of second base in the minors as well as a little third so he has some versatility.

If the Cardinals were to try to trade Kozma but were unable to find a return to their liking, they could designate him for assignment. This would allow the other 29 teams a chance to claim him. If more than one tried to pick him up, he would go to the team that finished with the poorer record last season. If he were to go unclaimed, the Cardinals could release him and allow him to shop for a team on his own.

Unless Kozma were to become part of a blockbuster trade before spring training, he very likely will report to Jupiter just as he did last spring. His chances of breaking camp with the Cardinals, however, will not be nearly as good.
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