|© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.|
Faces on the Field: Kevin Kouzmanoff06/06/2006 3:00 PM ET
By Andrew Bare / MLB.com
AKRON, Ohio -- Baseball can be a fickle mistress, especially for Minor Leaguers.
In 2004, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff spent 123 games at Class A Lake County. He hit .330 with a .394 on-base percentage and 56 extra-base hits, and was rewarded with a spot in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .314.
In 2005, Kouzmanoff moved up to the Class A Advanced Kinston Indians, and when he played, he raked, hitting better than .330 with a slugging percentage of .591.
When he played.
Ah, there's the rub.
While in the Fall League in 2004, Kouzmanoff sustained a serious back injury when he slipped down the dugout steps in pursuit of a foul ball. It was an injury that limited him to 68 games with Kinston in 2005.
Then this past winter, the Indians dealt center fielder and fan favorite Coco Crisp to the Boston Red Sox. And in return? The Tribe received Andy Marte, a slugging third baseman who had earned top-prospect status in the Atlanta Braves' system before being traded to Boston during the Winter Meetings.
Just like that, Kouzmanoff was staring at a massive obstacle in his road to the big leagues. At the time of the Marte deal, he was a career .315 hitter in three Minor League seasons. It would have been easy for him to whine about the apparent injustice of it all.
"No, it doesn't bother me one bit," Kouzmanoff says. "You know, Marte is a good ballplayer; he's a top prospect. He's in front of me right now, but that's not keeping me from doing what I want to do.
"We had a meeting in Spring Training with Eric Wedge, and he said, 'Whatever club you're with, that's your big leagues.' I like that phrase, and that's how I treat it."
And this year, Kouzmanoff has hit as if he's playing in the Majors. "Koozy Bear," as teammate Andy Larkin calls him, has torched the ball for Double-A Akron. He's leading the Aeros with a .416 BA and a 1.092 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
His attitude and perseverance have impressed Indians farm director John Farrell.
"I think it says a lot about his ability to remain focused and concentrate on the things he can control," Farrell says. "I think it should be a very tangible and live example for other players around him."
And in an unexpected twist of fate, Marte has struggled at Triple-A Buffalo.
"Baseball's a weird game," Kouzmanoff says. "You can have a great year one year and a poor year the next year. It's just a mystery to me. You know, what changes that?"
The paradox for the 24-year-old third baseman is that he's widely regarded as a "dirt dog," a player who'll go all-out on every play. But while that feeds his game, it might also feed some of the injury problems he's had in his career.
"Kevin's the kind of guy who gives 100 percent effort every time out there," Aeros manager Tim Bogar says. "It doesn't matter if he's going well or bad, he's still going to play hard. I've just enjoyed the effort he gives. "We've actually had to back him down sometimes from working too hard. But you know what, that's his style. You try to back a guy down from that, and he might end up hurting himself."
For Kouzmanoff, the question is this: Does he try to pull back from the style that has propelled him to this level? And if he doesn't, is he doomed to a baseball career filled with injuries?
"It's my nature to go 100 percent every pitch," he says. "And it's hard to cut back, and it's hard to save my bullets, save my energy, because I'm in that mindset of going hard, hard, hard every time. I need to know when I can take it easy and when I don't have to go hard every time."
Farrell considers such talk premature. "That's one of those situations, you can speculate all you want," he says. "For him to change that approach might affect his production and performance. Would changing his style of play prolong his career? It might do the opposite, because the production might not be there."
What makes Kouzmanoff intriguing is not just his perpetually running motor. Unlike a lot of players who have earned the "dirtball" moniker, "Kouz" can also fall back on natural talent.
"I wouldn't say that he's not one of the most talented guys," Bogar says. "Honestly, I think he's one of the best right-handed hitters I've seen in a long time. He adjusts very quickly. He doesn't swing at two bad pitches in a row."
Part of Kouzmanoff's talent lies in his head. A cage rat who is constantly analyzing his swing, Kouzmanoff has been able to maintain a smooth, level stroke, and yet also hit for power.
"He's got tremendous hand-eye coordination," Farrell says. "That's apparent by how often he hits balls hard. Second, he's got a very compact and efficient swing, one that we would consider low maintenance."
At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, the bald-headed Kouzmanoff hardly strikes an imposing figure. But baseball history is full of players who have outplayed expectations dictated by their stature.
"He might look ugly doing some things, but he's an athlete," Bogar says. "The kid knows what he needs to do to get the job done."
Bogar, who played for nine years in the big leagues, compares Kouzmanoff to another bald-headed third baseman familiar to diehard Indians fans.
"Not just by the way he plays, but his overall demeanor and the way he goes about things, [he's like] Matt Williams," Bogar says. "I really think he's got the ability to do the things Matt did."
For the moment, Kouzmanoff remains behind Marte on the depth chart.
But baseball can be a fickle mistress.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.