Coming into 2013, most St. Louis Cardinals fans could probably agree that the most pressing questions at the major league level are regarding the health and productivity of the middle infield.
As recently as two years ago, the same could have been said about the organization's minor league pipeline at second base and shortstop. In terms of top prospect penetration, our 2011 top 40 featured just three middle infield prospects.
The current total is a much more robust six.
Two of the prior three are still in the picture, shortstops Ryan Jackson and Pete Kozma, with graduated second baseman Daniel Descalso replaced by second baseman of the future Kolten Wong, taken in the first round of the 2011 draft.
|Wong: 2B of the future|
The three recent top 40 additions are second basemen by trade – Greg Garcia, Starlin Rodriguez and Breyvic Valera – and each is very much a rising stock. In the 2013 rankings, they are all among our top 20 prospects in the system.
While this relative blessing of riches in the middle is especially good when major league openings occur, finding everyday playing time for all of them in the minors if healthy may be a challenge.
As four of the six are very close to the St. Louis, a scrum for at-bats is likely ahead. Key considerations are not only where the player can play defensively, but also who is ahead of him in the pecking order. That makes increasing versatility crucial for the five non-Wong players.
Cardinals farm director John Vuch spoke extensively about the middle infield at Winter Warm-Up this past weekend. The comments that follow are a mixture of ones from his public presentation and a one-on-one interview to be posted here in its entirety tomorrow.
The farm director summarizes the potential challenge starting at Triple-A.
"We're going to have a lot of guys in the mix potentially at Memphis at shortstop," Vuch said. "Certainly, Jackson and Kozma will be competing, trying to make the major league club, but there is a realistic chance that both of those guys could wind up back in Memphis, along with Greg Garcia, who was our starting shortstop at Springfield last year.
"That really gives you three guys who are all capable of being everyday shortstops along with Kolten Wong, who is an everyday second baseman who was an all-star in the Texas League. He certainly needs to move up to Triple-A as well. You have more middle infielders than you have spots for.
"We're probably not going to have one everyday Triple-A shortstop. Jackson will play some shortstop. If Kozma is there, he will certainly play some shortstop. Garcia will play some shortstop there. One guy might play a little more than the others but if you have all three guys on the club, all three will get significant time at shortstop.
"They may have to get some exposure at third base. They may have to get some exposure at second base on days that Kolten is not playing," the farm director suggests.
We will look into each infielder. For reference, I will list their predominant 2012 level of play.
Pete Kozma – Triple-A
Much is known already about last September's major league surprise in St. Louis. The main open question is which Kozma is the real one. Asked to compare Jackson and Kozma, Vuch said the following.
"Kozma is a little more athletic shortstop," observed the farm director. "He will make the play in the hole. He has a little more arm strength. The backhand ball between short and third – he can make that play a little better than some of the other guys."
Ryan Jackson – Triple-A
|Jackson: looking for MLB chance|
Vuch describes Jackson's strengths, which seem to me like a taste that is acquired over a longer period of time.
"Defensively, he is the kind of guy that is very steady," Vuch noted. "He is kind of an intuitive shortstop. He is a guy that really reads the ball off the bat well. He is not the Ozzie Smith, flashy, diving – he is more steady. But he has a knack for when the ball is hit, he has a knack for being where the ball winds up going. Part of that is good vision. He is anticipating. He is moving before the ball is hit. Even though he does not have the foot speed that some of the shortstops have, he ends up making the plays."
While this description could have "late-game defensive replacement" written all over it, the farm director helps explain the importance of a dependable shortstop.
"If you talk to the big league staff, a lot of times they will sacrifice range and sacrifice the spectacular play for the guy that with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and you are up by a run and a ground ball is hit to short, you don't have to close your eyes. You want the guy who is going to make the play. Especially Jackson's case, that is the kind of defender that he is," Vuch concluded.
Greg Garcia – Double-A
|Garcia: opened eyes in 2012|
As Vuch outlined above, the challenge may be in the numbers. Through Wong and Garcia are ready to move up, Jackson and Kozma may still remain in Memphis.
"Greg can certainly play second base," the farm director noted. "He can play shortstop. I think he will get a little exposure at third base as well. He started last year at Double-A being the utility guy and about two weeks in, (I) got a call from Shildty (Springfield manager Mike Shildt), ‘Is there anyway we can get this guy at shortstop, because he can handle it.'
"I think that surprised some people in that coming into 2012, we looked at him as more of a utility guy, a second baseman that couldn't handle playing short every day. But he did a nice job there.
"His big-league future may still be as a utility guy, but a big thing for him is that he at least has shown that he can handle shortstop, even if he is not an every-day major league shortstop. If something were to happen and you had to play him for a week or two, you could do it and know he could certainly handle the position," Vuch said.
Starlin Rodriguez – A-Advanced
|Rodriguez: ready for Double-A|
Barring anything unusual in camp, Rodriguez' initial 2013 level assignment seems set.
"I would be very surprised if he does not start out the year at Springfield," the farm director stated. "He will probably play predominantly second base but we will explore … some other positions with him as well."
The organization seems serious about broadening him.
"He certainly has the speed to play center," Vuch noted. "Whether he does that in games initially or plays second base in games and takes some balls off the bat in batting practice in center field, he is going to learn to play other positions."
As good as Rodriguez may be at second base, he is expected to be blocked at the major league level.
"With Kolten Wong as your second baseman of the future – and we think Starlin Rodriguez certainly has a major league future ahead of him, as well – to make that fit, you have to increase versatility," the farm director said.
Breyvic Valera – short-season Class-A
|Valera: staying in the infield|
Having just left his teenage years behind and yet to play a game of full-season ball means that there is time to decide what to do with Valera, who was the second baseman for Batavia his past summer. Furthermore, there is not yet consensus to change his current course.
"To me – and there is a mixture of opinions on this and one of the things we will talk about in spring training is what the best fit is for him – but Breyvic to me profiles better as a infielder," Vuch stated.
"I don't think Breyvic is going to play in centerfield, so if you if put him as a corner outfielder, I don't think he is going to have the power you look for from a corner outfielder. I think he will have the ability to play it and it is one of those things again if he is not going to be an every-day second baseman, then the more spots he can play proficiently is only to his advantage.
"To me, I think it is in his best interest to let him continue to develop in the infield. There are others that feel differently. That is a discussion we will have in spring training," Vuch concluded.
Colin Walsh – Class-A
|Walsh: more time in the OF?|
Though considered an outfielder in our top 40 rankings, Colin Walsh (ranked #36) possesses a potent bat and has played some second base in the past as well. Vuch mentioned Matt Carpenter as someone who Walsh might be asked to emulate as a major leaguer. Yet to play a game at A-Advanced, Walsh will run into the traffic jam as soon as he shows he is ready for Springfield.
"Walsh will probably play second base at the beginning of the year but we are going to explore outfield – left field – third base, first base," Vuch said. "I think those kinds of guys – it is in their best interest to be proficient at multiple positions."
Alex Mejia – short-season Class-A
|Mejia: injury recovery on track|
Another middle infielder who would have pushed hard for a top 40 spot had it not been for a knee injury incurred last summer is shortstop Alex Mejia. He is not expected to be ready in April, but with all the others, the organization sees no need to rush him back.
As Vuch noted multiple times, any issues with playing time will be the result of he systems' riches, a most admirable place to be.
"It will be a difficult problem to solve, but I would much rather have too many guys that are capable of handling a spot than not having enough guys to fill in. It is going to take some creativity," the farm director acknowledged.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
© 2013 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.