After the St. Louis Cardinals ate the final year of Adam Kennedy’s contract, they turned second base over to neophyte Skip Schumaker – and it worked!
This story has its origins way back in 1997. That June, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted a pair of players who would be in and out of their picture for the next 13 years. Prior to the selection of left-handed pitcher Rick Ankiel in the second round, the Cardinals made second baseman Adam Kennedy their first pick, 20th overall.
The system’s 1999 Minor League Player of the Year made his major league debut that August. He didn’t remain long however, as he was shipped off to the Anaheim Angels along with Kent Bottenfield for Jim Edmonds during the next spring training.
Six years later, Kennedy came home, signing a three-year contract with the Cardinals worth $10 million. It didn’t work out well for either party.
He batted .219 his first season back, which prematurely ended with knee surgery. Kennedy’s 2008 included a request to be traded over concern that he lacked a defined role on the team. He saw time at first base and made his career debut in right field in addition to second base.
Despite the problems, it seemed that Kennedy would remain wearing Cardinals number seven for the final season of his contract in 2009. Then, on February 9, just days before spring training, St. Louis surprisingly gave Kennedy his release. The club remained on the hook for the $4 million due the second baseman for the season.
A seemingly-crazy idea that manager Tony La Russa hatched and general manager John Mozeliak first floated in the press in late January suddenly became the Cardinals’ “Plan A” for the second base position in 2009.
Outfielder Skip Schumaker would move to second base despite having only a bit of college experience at shortstop almost a decade earlier. It was a Cardinals year-to-year move last successfully pulled off by Red Schoendienst over 60 years prior, in 1945-46. Even experienced Cardinals infield coaches had questions over the likelihood of the experiment’s success.
To his immense benefit, once he got past the surprise, Schumaker totally immersed himself in learning his new position on the fly. I remember a particularly difficult spring training contest when he could have packed it in after a couple of tough errors. Instead, Skip persevered, taking extra fielding practice every day led by devoted coaches Jose Oquendo and Joe Pettini. Skip held the job to start the season and never looked back, seemingly improving his defense all season long.
Almost as impressively, Schumaker maintained his level of offensive performance through it all, batting .300 for the third consecutive season. In fact, his .306 average was seventh among National League leadoff hitters. In an example of how Skip gets the most out of his abilities, he led the entire NL in groundball-to-flyball ratio for the second straight year at 4.01-to-1. Schumaker, a student of former Cardinals slugger and new hitting coach Mark McGwire, is again working out with McGwire this winter in California, joined by keystone partner Brendan Ryan.
Though he made the opening day roster in four consecutive springs starting in 2006, 2008 was Schumaker’s first full season as a major leaguer. As such, he just became arbitration-eligible for the first time. Skip could remain under club control for three more seasons before being eligible for free agency. Kennedy, a free agent, is on his way to his third organization since leaving St. Louis less than a year ago.
No matter what the future holds, Schumaker’s amazing, defying-the-odds transformation deserves to be one of the Cardinals top 10 stories of 2009.
Follow me on Twitter.