In a surprise, second baseman Daniel Descalso became the late-season third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has taken heat from many, including me, for often playing infielders out of position. The most recent example occurred following the Memphis Redbirds’ defeat in the Pacific Coast League finals when Daniel Descalso was called upon to make his MLB debut with St. Louis.
As a part of his transition to the majors, the 23-year-old was immediately thrown into the fire at third base, not his regular second base spot. Apparently La Russa was more comfortable with Aaron Miles and Skip Schumaker at second than seeing more of all-glove, no-bat Pedro Feliz at third.
Heads all over the Cardinal Nation were repeatedly scratched as the season neared its close with Descalso continuing to see time at the hot corner exclusively.
After he had made a couple of early token pinch hitting appearances, Descalso was given the start at third base in nine of the Cardinals final 11 regular season games. He was moved to shortstop late in one contest, but curiously never took the field even once at second base, the position at which he had been named the 2010 PCL post-season all-star.
To his credit, Descalso performed adequately at third, but no one knew ahead of time what to expect.
There were some whispers from the St. Louis media about organizational concerns over Descalso’s range, yet if that was the case, why had he been kept almost exclusively at second for the last three years?
This reminded me of an item from last winter’s hot stove. Back in January, I had a dialogue with Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch after the writer made the following comment about the lack of depth at third base at the time during a web chat.
“Descalso and David Freese are the only LISTED third baseman so far due in camp.” (caps are Strauss’ emphasis)
Though I blogged about it at the time, “Descalso to get shot at third base?”, it turned out to be much ado over nothing. Descalso, a non-roster invitee to major league spring camp, was among the very first cuts, announced on March 7.
Though he was called back from minor league camp repeatedly and ended up participating in 14 spring games for the Cardinals, during all nine games in which he took the field in Florida, Descalso was always the second baseman.
Descalso does have some prior experience at third, but it was some time ago, during his 2007 professional debut. That year, he spent about 2/3 of his time at third base (47 games) with the rest (23 games) at second for Batavia and Quad Cities. That was the last time until now that Descalso had meaningful innings at the hot corner.
La Russa’s expectation of young infielders when they come up from the minor leagues is defensive versatility. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, as we have seen the same pattern time and time again.
When natural shortstop Brendan Ryan made his MLB debut in 2007, La Russa played him more games at third base (24) and second base (17) combined than at short (28 games) that first year.
The downside? Ryan had never before played second base and had logged just one game at third in four previous years as a professional prior to arriving in St. Louis.
Two years later, another shortstop, former first-round draft pick Tyler Greene, reached the major leagues. He topped Ryan by appearing at five different positions defensively in his rookie year, with a total of 20 games at third, second, first and centerfield plus 30 at short.
Greene’s preparation? A four-year minor league career spent entirely at short other than four games at third in 2008.
Why hadn’t the organization learned from this by the time Descalso’s number was called to join the bigs?
This season, wrapped around a month missed due to injury, Descalso’s name was written on the Memphis lineup card 110 times at second base with his only diversion being six games at first base. Not once was he given time at short or third base.
Obviously, the Memphis coaching staff felt Descalso is a solid second baseman as the only time former MLB second sacker Ruben Gotay started there was during Descalso’s time on the DL. Instead, Gotay received the call 106 times to play out of position at third base for the Redbirds despite the obvious fact that he would not be a part of the St. Louis picture.
Bottom line, I find it very difficult to blame La Russa for Descalso not having played third for Memphis. My question is why the minor league staff and player development organization didn’t fully prepare Descalso for what would await him in the majors?
Former first-round pick, shortstop Pete Kozma may be next in line. With 421 games of minor league experience up through Double-A, Kozma has a grand total of one game in the outfield in 2007 and two games at third in 2008. All the rest were at short, where his defense has been erratic.
If and when Kozma reaches the majors, and if La Russa is still the manager, any guesses as to how the youngster will be deployed? More importantly, will everything possible have been done to ready him?