It's been a revolving door at shortstop and second base for the St. Louis Cardinals for a decade. Yet, the lack of continuity at those positions hasn’t hindered on-field success. The Cards have reached four World Series and won two titles since 2004 while often employing a little more than utility players at each spot.
In 2014, the Redbirds will look to end the yearly duct-tape job up the middle by pairing rookie second baseman Kolten Wong with free agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
The Cardinals haven’t had the same second base/shortstop starting combination for consecutive years on Opening Day since Fernando Vina and Edgar Renteria shared the stage together from 2000-03.
How ironic that a franchise once blessed with cornerstone players up the middle in Tom Herr and Ozzie Smith would get by with stopgap options for so long.
Having two impact players in the middle of the diamond would be a welcome twist. Since 2008, Cesar Izturis, Khalil Greene, Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot, Rafael Furcal and Pete Kozma have started Opening Day at short.
Adam Kennedy, Ryan, Skip Schumaker (twice) and Daniel Descalso (twice) have received that same honor at second.
Not exactly Robinson Cano and Troy Tulowitzki.
In fairness, they haven’t been stiffs. Each one made an impact, especially in the postseason.
Whether it’s Kozma’s and Descalso’s timely hits in the 2012 National League Division Series, Schumaker’s double in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, or Furcal’s glove work in that same contest, they all played a role in St. Louis’ tremendous run of success.
Entering the offseason on the heels of a disappointing loss to the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic, shortstop was the only glaring weakness for a Cardinals squad loaded with talent and depth.
Kozma, even with his occasional heroics and stellar defense, wasn’t hitting enough to justify a full-time gig. Among National League shortstops with at least 300 at-bats last season, he ranked last with a .273 on-base percentage while slugging a hideous .548. As much as his defense was an asset, his bat was a greater detriment.
On too many nights, there were two automatic outs at the bottom of the Cards’ lineup.
So the St. Louis front office went shortstop shopping equipped with financial flexibility and a surplus of trade chips. Quickly turned off by an unappealing market, general manager John Mozeliak looked to the free agent class. Before Thanksgiving, he had his man, inking Peralta to a four-year, $52 million contract.
"We knew center field was very important, but the shortstop market on the other hand was one that was not deep in free agents," Mozeliak told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com at the time of the signing. "There were really two being bantered about us. For us, it was really focusing on someone who could hit from the right side, somebody that was a steady defensive player, someone that had experience and could fit right in. We certainly explored the trade market at many levels, trying to see what we could do there, but the acquisition costs seemed very preventative for us to move forward with that."
But Peralta would travel to St. Louis carrying more than just his consistent bat and solid glove. He brought along baggage in the form of the 50-game suspension he served last season with the Tigers as the result of Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation.
Since signing with the Cardinals, Peralta has said all the right things. Teammates have given him a clean slate.
"I know a lot of fans are going to say a lot of things," Peralta explained to Paul White of USA Today. "It's baseball, man. You need to forget about it and play baseball. We'll move forward and try to forget about it."
Cards fans, widely regarded as the most respectful and knowledgeable in baseball, have embraced Peralta. The faithful who fill Busch Stadium nightly won’t ask for much, just an honest effort and respect for a team and game they love dearly.
It’s the perfect situation for Peralta. He’ll play for a perennial winner in a town where the fans will cut him some slack. He’ll get the benefit of the doubt. The past is in the past.
Peralta is a .268 career hitter who’s never hit fewer than 10 home runs in a full season. He has four campaigns of 20 or more homers to his credit—the last coming in 2011.
According to FanGraphs, Peralta had a UZR (Ultimate Zone Ranking) of 3.5 last season in Detroit. Kozma’s 6.7 UZR in 2013 speaks to his defensive brilliance, but it also illustrates how competent Peralta is with the glove.
Peralta’s presence gives the Cardinals their best all-around shortstop since Renteria left in 2005. His new double-play partner, the rookie from Hawaii, could give the Redbirds fans a dynamic tandem at second and short like they haven’t seen since the days of Herr and The Wizard.
Wong has plus skills across the board. Defense may be his calling card, but he also possesses great speed and some pop.
The ability Wong showed in the minors gave Mozeliak the confidence to deal hometown favorite David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels, allowing Matt Carpenter to slide from second to third.
Wong struggled to display any of those abilities during last season’s September call-up. He had the entire offseason to marinate on that embarrassing pickoff to end Game 4 of the World Series.
“I didn’t do anything to make people believe that I’m ready to be there. I know that,” Wong told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before spring training. “All of the games, all of the time I had and I didn’t prove it to people that I’m ready. … That showed me that I had a lot of work left to do to be ready to compete. That’s what I’m doing. I want to make sure this time, going into spring, that’s not the case, that there’s not a question.”
Then in December, Wong had to deal with the passing of his mother, Keala Wong, who lost her long battle with cancer. He came to spring training in Jupiter adorned with a new tattoo to honor his mom.
“It’s something that I’m proud of,” Wong shared with Goold. “This means everything to me.”
Wong went to work, eager to prove he belonged in the big leagues. He was determined to earn the starting assignment rather than being the beneficiary of trade circumstances.
Since starting the Grapefruit League 0-for-10, Wong is one of the hottest hitter in spring training. He’s batting .565 since, with two homers and eight RBI.
A week after talk of Wong possibly starting the season in Triple-A, he’s cemented his place on the Opening Day roster.
Wong and Peralta will take the field side by side in Cincinnati for their first Opening Day together. The Cardinals hope it’s the start of something special.