2006-2007 Cardinals by Position: Shortstop

The third in a new series analyzing each position on the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals ball club and grading the outlook for 2007.

The St. Louis Cardinals have seemingly always been blessed with great shortstops. In the history of the team, they have had players such as Ozzie Smith and Edgar Renteria, who have won 15 Gold Glove awards together – 13 of those belong to Smith, one of the best defensive players to ever play the game. In 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals brought in yet another special shortstop, and it has paid numerous dividends for the Cardinals.

David Eckstein has been called scrappy, pesky, tough, and clutch in his career as a baseball player, but perhaps this 5-foot-7 shortstop should just be called a hard worker. Eckstein has had a strange and exciting life in baseball – from being named to the Jewish All-America team in college as a walk-on at the University of Florida (he's not even Jewish) to being named the World Series MVP in 2006.

Even before winning a World Series with Anaheim in 2002, Eckstein had been considered a fan favorite. Perhaps it is his friendly demeanor or his amazing work ethic that makes him so loved by the fans. More likely, it's a mix of those two. While Albert Pujols steals the show with his towering home runs, David Eckstein is battling at the plate and making amazing plays at shortstop. His whole career has been absolutely great, but he still has many years ahead of him, including the 2007 season, during which he will build off his great World Series performance in '06.

David Eckstein hasn't always been so highly desired by teams. In 1997, he was drafted in the 19th round by the Boston Red Sox. Obviously, that tenure never came to fruition, and in 2001, he made his rookie debut with the Anaheim Angels. In 153 games, Eckstein batted .285 with 26 doubles, 41 RBIs, 29 stolen bases, and 60 strikeouts. Eckstein showed promise that season, and improvement was definitely in his future. 2002 brought Eckstein up to a .293 batting average in only 152 games. He had six triples and eight home runs that season, but his patience at the plate was amazing. He had only 44 strikeouts. In fact, Eckstein's strikeouts never went above 50 again – his lowest total actually coming in 2006 with the Cardinals (41 K's).

In '05, when Eckstein became a Cardinal, he experienced one of his better seasons. Having a career high in hits (185), triples (7), walks (58), and batting average (.294), Eckstein found himself very comfortable at his new home. He perfected the "suicide squeeze bunt" under Tony La Russa – one of the most intriguing plays in baseball. He played hard, he battled at the plate, and became an instant fan-favorite.

2006 was a roller-coaster season for David Eckstein. Things were going smooth until August, when Eckstein went down with an injury similar to the one that kept Albert Pujols out for multiple weeks – an oblique strain. Eckstein was down until September 22nd, when he came back fully healthy again. For the club, things were getting bad, as the Cardinals lost more and more games, becoming what experts thought to be the weakest team to make the playoffs.

Indeed, at the end of the season, the Cardinals may have been one of the luckiest teams to even make it to the postseason – they stumbled into October with help from the Atlanta Braves, who kept Houston away from the National League Central crown. Most of the Cardinals, including Eckstein, were struggling mightily at the plate, and the pitchers were doing even worse – but that playoff magic started to set in, especially for David.

At the end of the season, the Cardinals' shortstop had a .292 batting average and a career-low 41 strikeouts. Not bad, but it was nothing compared to his performance in the World Series. Although Eckstein has always been a tough out, the experts found it hard to believe how well he played against Detroit. Of course, considering they didn't even foresee the Cardinals making the Fall Classic in the first place, it had to be impossible to predict that David Eckstein would be a postseason hero.

In fact, Eckstein didn't really come alive until Games Three, Four and Five of the World Series, when he went 8-for-13 with four RBI. In Game Four, Eckstein hit three doubles while going 4-for-5 at the plate. He caught a few breaks on fielding mistakes by the Detroit outfielders, but great players seem to always get those breaks.

Eckstein can build off his performance in the 2006 playoffs by changing absolutely nothing. If there has been one player more consistent than Eckstein at shortstop over the last two or three seasons, he definitely hasn't been noticed. David is the ultimate team player, the ultimate clubhouse guy, and he has the best attitude of any baseball player I have seen.

It isn't unreasonable to think Eckstein will be a Cardinal for the rest of his career, because he seems to fit in so perfectly. When he takes an off day, it disappoints fans who come to the game – he's that special a player. Between his scrappy plate appearances and his hard work on defense (a .981 career fielding percentage with only six errors in 2006), he's what every player should strive to be. His oblique injury in '06 should not cause any problems, so expect another fabulous season for David Eckstein.

As for his backups, Aaron Miles played a little bit of shortstop when Eckstein was out last year, and if necessary, Scott Spiezio can most likely play the position. Production should not be an issue, and the bench will not play a large role here, especially given the frequency Eckstein plays. Barring a freak injury, he should be on the field most of the season in 2007.

Shortstop should continue to be a bright spot for the Cardinals for years to come, as the Cardinals have already started speaking to Eckstein's agent about a contract extension.

Overall Position Grade: A-

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