In 2007, a Cardinals scout named Steve Gossett pushed hard for the franchise to draft Pete Kozma. Gossett saw more than baseball skills from the Oklahoma high school shortstop. He saw a player whose character and dedication could pay big dividends.
Gossett was betting on Kozma’s heart.
The Cardinals followed Gossett’s advice. Today, they’re benefitting from it.
Since replacing the injured Rafael Furcal in September as the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop, Kozma has played a significant role in helping St. Louis reach the 2012 National League Championship Series against the Giants.
Kozma, 24, hit .333 (24-for-72) in the 2012 regular season for St. Louis and achieved an on-base percentage of .383. In the postseason, his on-base percentage is .385 and, in six games, he has five RBI, including the pair that capped the Cardinals’ come-from-behind 9-7 victory over the Nationals in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Boxscore
Because he often struggled in the minor leagues since being selected by the Cardinals as the 18th pick in the first round of the 2007 amateur draft, Kozma’s productive play for St. Louis has been a surprise to most. But Gossett, now a Mets scout, saw Kozma as a standout after coaching him in an Oklahoma summer league while Kozma was in high school.
In 2007, his senior season at Owasso High School in suburban Tulsa, Kozma hit .522 and struck out only five times in 113 at-bats. His first-inning home run lifted Owasso to a 1-0 victory over Edmond Memorial in the Oklahoma Class 6A state championship game. The Oklahoman newspaper named Kozma all-state player of the year.
“I would play every day if I could,” Kozma said to The Oklahoman.
Larry Turner, Owasso’s coach, told the Associated Press that Kozma was “the best player I’ve ever had.”
Draft forecasters expected the Cardinals to take a college player with their first pick. Gossett, though, was advising Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals’ vice president in charge of their draft, to select Kozma.
“I got to know this kid,” Gossett said to the Associated Press. “I know what’s in his heart. I know what kind of family he comes from, his work ethic.”
Gossett predicted that the Cardinals “are going to love the way (Kozma) attacks the game.”
“The one thing that stuck out in my mind about Pete is you look in his eyes and you see a guy that you really feel is going to play in the big leagues,” Gossett said.
Baseball America magazine had forecast Kozma being selected by the Reds with the 15th choice in the first round. The magazine rated Kozma “the best all-around middle infielder in the draft.” But Cincinnati chose catcher Devin Mesaraco.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals were prepared to select pitcher Blake Beavan in the first round. But the Rangers, with the pick just ahead of St. Louis, drafted Beavan (who now pitches for the Mariners).
Though pitchers such as Rick Porcello (now with the Tigers) and Jordan Zimmerman (now with the Nationals) were available, the Cardinals took Kozma.
“This is a first-round talent,” Luhnow told Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch at the time. “He has the potential to be a real impact in the big leagues at a premium position.”
(In the third round of that 2007 draft, the Cardinals chose infielder Daniel Descalso. In the Cardinals’ four-run ninth inning against Washington in Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series, Descalso got the two-run single that tied the score and Kozma followed with the two-run single that produced the winning runs.)
Kozma became the third infielder selected by the Cardinals in the first round since 1997. The others were Adam Kennedy (1997) and Tyler Greene (2005).
Though he had committed to play college baseball at Wichita State, Kozma signed with St. Louis.
He wasn’t a sensation.
In 2009, his third minor-league season, Kozma appeared to be regressing. He hit .231 that season and had almost as many strikeouts (104) as hits (111). Baseball America did name him the best defensive shortstop in the Texas League that year.
But in 2010 Kozma committed 34 errors at shortstop.
In 2011, Kozma received fielding instruction from coach Jose Oquendo during a brief stay at the big-league spring training camp. It was enough to steady his defensive play. In May 2011, Kozma was called up to the Cardinals from Class AAA Memphis as a replacement for injured utility player Nick Punto. Kozma produced a RBI-double in his first big-league at-bat (against the Astros’ Bud Norris), becoming the first Cardinal to get an extra-base hit in his first at-bat since Hector Luna (a home run) in April 2004. Boxscore
That was the highlight of his initial St. Louis stay. Kozma batted .176 (3-for-17) for the Cardinals and soon was returned to Memphis. There, his struggles continued. He hit .214 for Memphis and finished the 2011 Class AAA season with more strikeouts (91) than hits (85).
Kozma opened 2012, his sixth professional season, at Memphis again. He hit .232. When the Cardinals tabbed him to replace Furcal in September, some wondered whether rookie Ryan Jackson would have been a better choice. But Cardinals manager Mike Matheny liked Kozma’s defense.
“To me, Pete has impressed everybody at every level with his defensive ability,” Matheny said to the Post-Dispatch on Sept. 8. “When we have a need around here … there is no question that takes priority.”
It proved to be the right choice.