Cesar, O Cesar!

Like his new team, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Cesar Izturis is playing above expectations this season and is nearing the completion of what has traditionally been his best month at the plate. Will it get even better?

On Wednesday evening, Cesar Izturis once again offered a reminder of the parallels between his play and that of his 2008 St. Louis Cardinals team overall, as both are surprisingly exceeding pre-season expectations. On this evening, the shortstop shot a triple into the left-center gap in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros, plating two important runs.

Yet, his years in MLB haven't all been smooth sailing for the 28-year-old. A veteran of multiple injuries, including nagging hamstring problems and the rarity of being a position player to have undergone (in 2005) and returned from "Tommy John" elbow ligament replacement procedure, Izturis has clearly dealt with his share of adversity.

After playing in 158 and 159 games in the 2003 and 2004 seasons respectively, injuries caused the switch-hitter's career momentum to unravel. Izturis averaged just 90 games played yearly over the three most recent seasons - 2005 through 2007.

The Venezuelan native has also changed baseball addresses multiple times, moving from Toronto to Los Angeles (in 2002) to Chicago (in 2006) to Pittsburgh (in 2007) to St. Louis (in 2008).

Coming off a difficult season during which he played only sporadically and didn't deliver offensively, Izturis was a surprise signing, accepting a contract offer from then-new Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak last November 30. If all plate appearance incentives are reached, the one-year deal would max out at $3.5 million, an approximate 20% decrease from his 2007 salary.

That move signaled the departure of the popular incumbent shortstop David Eckstein, but the greatest noise seemed to be over the addition of Izturis. There was considerable fan sentiment was against the signing, with some of the most boisterous asserting that skinflint ownership was essentially waving the white flag in the process.

Others felt Mozeliak simply panicked, signing the first shortstop he could find when it became clear Eckstein would not be back. The primary alternative for the 2008 Cardinals pushed by the second-guessers back in December when the non-tenders became known was ex-Houston Astros and now-injured Minnesota Twins shortstop Adam Everett.

The reality is the two are quite comparable – coming into this season, at least. Considered an above-average defensive shortstop like Izturis, Everett entered 2008 with a lower career batting average of .248 and a slightly-higher OBP of .299 vs. Izturis at .259 and .295, respectively. Everett also signed with Minnesota for 2008 at the same base amount as Cesar, $2.8 million, though incentives are not included.

Even though Izturis committed his third error of the season on Wednesday night, Everett still leads him in regular-season miscues with four.

St. Louis' 2008 infield defense is generally considered one of the strengths of the club, with Izturis at or very near the head of the line, whether using sabermetric or more traditional measures of defensive prowess. That is light years away from where the new Cardinal found himself in spring training.

Izturis struggled mightily at times on the fields of Florida in March, committing seven errors in 20 games, most of any NL shortstop. In other words, he was on a pace to make 57 miscues during the regular season. That would rank in the top ten of most error-plagued years by an MLB shortstop since 1920.

Yet, as spring training neared its end, Izturis had begun to play better defensively and carried that into the regular season.

Unlike Izturis, Everett is not delivering with the bat this regular season, having posted an anemic .189 batting average and an on-base mark of just .235 prior to going onto the disabled list this week with a shoulder injury. I suspect The Cardinal Nation is now glad Everett will be spending his summer swatting mosquitoes up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Truth be known, Izturis began slowly offensively, too. As recently as April 26, the shortstop was actually hitting under Everett's current .189 mark. In his defense, Cesar had suffered a forearm injury earlier that week, yet the hits had been few and far between ever since coming north from Jupiter, Florida.

Come May, everything changed. There was no need for any explanations or excuses. Izturis caught fire offensively. His batting mark for the month is .313 with an OBP of .375.

Hitting in the ninth spot in Manager Tony La Russa's order most games, Cesar's totals for the season overall are .265 and .362. The latter on-base mark is 32 points higher than Izturis' top season to-date.

As another point of comparison, former Cardinals shortstop Eckstein has struggled with injury in Toronto this season, but when in there, his 2008 batting average is .256 with an OBP of .328.

Since having become a major leaguer in 2001, Izturis' strongest month with the bat has traditionally been May, during which he has hit .284 with an on-base mark of .330. Both represent his tops for any calendar period and are certainly respectable.

Now with two months of solid play from their new shortstop in the books, some Cardinals fans are suggesting Mozeliak should re-sign Izturis for 2009 and perhaps beyond. Such a view represents quite a turnaround in the court of public opinion for a player that some didn't even want to make the team.

Time will tell if his best days are ahead of him or not, but at this point of the season, Cesar Izturis has no need to apologize to anyone for his contributions to the equally-surprising and enjoyable 2008 St. Louis Cardinals.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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