The St. Louis Cardinals have a shortstop problem.
What? You heard about that? You read what I wrote about that (here and here), and you read what Grant wrote about that? Well, first, thanks for reading. We love you for that. Second, I'm not here to pick on Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. They're doing their best. I'm not here to pick on anybody. You probably know that Kozma and Descalso weren't supposedly to play nearly as much as they have this year. The Cardinals paid Rafael Furcal $7 million this season to play shortstop most days, and instead they paid him $7 million to recuperate from Tommy John surgery.
And so it goes for the St. Louis Cardinals, who haven't developed their own good shortstop since Garry Templeton. If you don't recognize that name, don't worry; when Templeton was a rookie, someone named Chevy Chase was actually running America. Those were strange times.
Seriously, that was a long time ago. Templeton manned shortstop through the '81 season. But he could be a bit much, and the Cardinals traded him to the Padres for Ozzie Smith. Which worked out exceptionally well for the Cardinals, as Smith built his Hall of Fame résumé while holding the position through 1994.
And in the 19 seasons since then, the Cardinals have employed and deployed some pretty good shortstops. It's just that none of them came up through the system. Beginning with Ozzie, the Cardinals have been signing, or trading for, their shortstops for more than 30 years. With only one real exception.
Consider: Since 1994, 15 shortstops (or semi-shortstops) have batted at least 100 times for the Cardinals. Leading the way: Edgar Renteria, David Eckstein, and Royce Clayton ... none of them homegrown. Here's the complete list of the Cardinals' homegrown shortstops with at least 100 plate appearances since 1994:
Brendan Ryan (1332 PA)
Tyler Greene (556)
Pete Kozma (552)
Tripp Cromer (369)
Luis Ordaz (203)
Cromer sort of took over from Ozzie in 1995; you might recall how Ozzie felt about that (Tony La Russa sure does). Cromer went back to the minors in '96, and played little in the majors afterward. Greene played more second base than shortstop for the Cardinals, and never converted his minor-league promise into major-league numbers. Brendan Ryan, you know about. Kozma, you know about (but just in case you just awoke from a long slumber, Kozma's the poor man's version of Brendan Ryan, which is to say he's just barely good enough to play in the majors). Oh, and Luis Ordaz was one of the worst hitters in the Saturday Night Live Era.
The Cardinals have been so good everywhere else that they haven't really missed Garry Templeton's successor. Just one year ago, everyone acted like Kozma was a worthy candidate. His minor-league hitting statistics suggested elsewise. Now his major-league hitting statistics suggest the same. I happen to think Ryan Jackson might serve the Cardinals well. Based on how little he's played for them, they seem to disagree.
So what's next for the Cardinals? I don't believe they'll put up with Kozma's bat (or Descalso's glove) in 2014. With Furcal's and probably Carlos Beltrán's contracts off the books, they'll have money to spend. And it seems likely that some (or all!) of that money will go to a shortstop, with Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta hitting the free-agent market.
And if that doesn't work, what's on the home front? Ryan Jackson's still hanging around, and ... well, Ryan Jackson's still hanging around. The Cardinals' only real shortstop prospect this year was 20-year-old Kenneth Peoples-Walls, who excelled in the Appalachian League. The rookie-level Appalachian League. KPW's obviously a long ways from the majors, and there's no telling if he'll still be a shortstop two or three years from now.
I guess the good news for Cardinals fans is that you're probably watching your 2014 shortstop in this World Series. After it's over, you can call the Busch Stadium switchboard and vote for Kozma or Drew. Or if the Cardinals lose and you're feeling spiteful, you can just leave a nasty message about Brendan Ryan.
Correction: I erred in the timing of Ozzie Smith's transition from starter to part-time player, and Tony La Russa's role in that transition. In '95, the Cardinals were managed not by La Russa, but rather by Joe Torre and Mike Jorgensen. And Cromer probably wasn't considered a long-term option at shortstop, but was force-fed into the lineup because Ozzie was injured.
La Russa took over as manager in 1996; at the same time, general manager Walt Jocketty brought in young Royce Clayton to compete with Ozzie in spring training for the every-day shortstop job. Clayton won that competition, and wound up playing roughly two-thirds of the time during the regular season. Here's La Russa in his recent memoir:
Ozzie didn't like that arrangement. Then he got injured at the end of spring training, with a pulled hamstring, proving our point about the necessity of having someone of high caliber on the squad to play short. Finally, Ozzie's dissatisfaction grew to the point that we needed to do something. Finally, everyone agreed the time seemed right and Ozzie announced his retirement. As you know, I'd later go out of my way to make sure that my retirement wasn't a distraction. Everyone is entitled to do things his own way, and I'm sure that Ozzie had good reasons why he wanted the remainder of the '96 season to be a kind of farewell tour for himself. I don't want to equate the contributions of a player to those of a manager. My point here is not to talk about how each of us chose to announce our leaving, but about how my role in Ozzie's final season has been portrayed.
When it was over, Ozzie said that I hadn't respected him and that he wanted nothing to do with the organization as long as I was there. Over the years, he's done just that. On Ozzie's farewell tour, I went out of my way to make sure that, in the last game of a series and the last time Ozzie would be in that city, he either played that day or took the lineup card out so that he could receive the fans' accolades and often gifts from the opposing team. That treatment is the opposite of disrespectful.
La Russa goes on to contrast Ozzie's last season with that of Reggie Jackson, "who remained in the shadows and worked tirelessly as a mentor to some of our young hitters like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire."
So Jackson learned Canseco all his experiences. Interesting.
Anyway, from this distance, La Russa seems to have treated Ozzie fairly. And here's the funny thing ... statistically speaking, the Ozzie outplayed Clayton. Even at 41, Smith ranked among the league's best shortstop on a per-game basis. Granted, getting so much rest probably helped some. But Ozzie thought he could still play, and he seems to have been absolutely right.
My thanks to everyone who pointed out my errors.
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