Friday, December 06, 2013

Checking In With The Other Cardinals

I thought I'd look in on what the St. Louis Cardinals had been up to a few times during the offseason, but they may have taken care of all their needs already. There are three moves of note, and I'll take them in turn.

1) Cards make Carlos Beltran a qualifying offer. It was for 1 year, $14 million, and Beltran turned it down. Wisely, since there appear to be teams willing to pay him 14 million for multiple seasons. The Cardinals, wisely, are not one of those teams. Beltran's going to be 37 next year, and his value is entirely tied up in his bat at this point. He's lost the speed that made him a superb base-runner, and good arm or not, he's a real defensive liability in the outfield. I don't forsee either of those problems going away as he gets even older, which puts more pressure on his bat, and well, Carlos' bat shows a tendency to flag as the season progresses. In 2013, his first half OPS was .879; the second half was .758. In 2012 the first half OPS was .924; .742 in the second half. In both seasons, his slugging percentage dropped by over 100 points in the second half. This year, he went from 13 doubles and 19 HRs, to 17 and 5. A Carlos Beltran who posts above or near a .900 OPS, is probably worth committing to for multiple seasons. One who posts a mid-700s OPS is not.

It seems likely Allen Craig will take over in RF next season. I'm not sure how well that will go. I expect he will hit, but historically, his defense numbers in the outfield have been worse than Beltran's. Now that he's had a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, on top of that knee injury from a couple seasons ago, I don't expect that will improve. The Cardinals do have defensive options, though, if they're willing to take them.

2). Trade David Freese, Fernando Salas for Peter Bourjos and Randall Grichuk. A lot of people are touting this as a clear win for the Cardinals, and I certainly hope they're right. But both teams tried trading from a position of strength, to address a weakness, by essentially swapping players with injury-plagued careers. Th Cards figured they didn't need Freese because of Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong, and the Angels needed a 3rd baseman. The Angels don't need Bourjos' spectacular CF defense because they have Mike Trout; the Cards had a horrible outfield defense.

When Mozeliak announced the trade, he made it sound a forgone conclusion that Bourjos is the new starting centerfielder. Matheny was less certain of that, and it sounds like Jay is going to have the chance to earn the job in Spring Training, which is probably the right thing to do for a guy who has been the starter the last 2 seasons, and who you hope will be a valuable bench player if he isn't the starter. Whether they have a Tony LaRussa style "open competition", where the winner is pre-ordained, or an actual competition is yet to be seen.

Of course, even if Bourjos wins the job, he has to stay healthy, and in that regard, he's even worse than Freese. Both have been regulars in the majors for 4 seasons now. Freese has never had less than 270 plate appearances in a season, and has over 500 each of the last 2 years. Bourjos has topped 200 plate appearances exactly once, in 2011 when he collected over 500 PAs. The rest of the time, he's struggled with hamstring issues (bad for a guy banking on defense and speed for most of his value), and injuries to his wrist from being hit with pitches (which hasn't one his offense any good). Bourjos' hitting fluctuates wildly from year to year: his seasonal OPS+ go 69, 116, 72, 102. Overall, he a slightly below average (98) hitter, but that's a lot of variation. He doesn't walk much (about 5.5% of the time), and his power has dropped. In 2011, his ISO was 167, the last two years it's been 95 and 103. That's probably a function of the wrist injuries, but the question is, can he regain some of that power as he distances himself from those injuries, or is it gone forever?

Because if he can get that power back, well, it's worth noting that in 2011, Baseball-Reference has him listed as being worth over 5 wins. The only Cardinals that beat that in 2013 were Matt Carpenter, Wainwright, and Molina. And he only turns 27 this season, so if the injuries haven't killed his swing entirely, he still has some peak years ahead of him. That is one definite edge the Cardinals have, that Bourjos is still in his peak years, while Freese has already entered his 30s.

The reason I like this trade is because it improves the Cardinals defensively at 3 positions. Kolten Wong is better than Carpenter at 2nd, Carpenter beats Freese at 3rd, Bourjos beats Jay in CF. Last year may have been an aberration defensively for Jay and Freese (they've typically been about average, maybe a little better), but even if they returned to those levels, Carp/Bourjos still beats it. Assuming Bourjos stays healthy. And he adds some speed to the mix, along with the defense! These are two of my favorite things!

It might be risky to count on Wong to hold down 2nd, but I'm more encouraged by his impressive hitting in AAA over an entire season, than 60 PAs in the majors. Matt Carpenter got a brief call-up early in 2011 (because Freese was hurt), and had 1 hit in 19 PAs (also 4 BBs and 4 Ks). The Cardinals didn't give up on him, and look where he is now. Matt Adams posted a .669 OPS in 91 PAs in 2012. This year, given 319 PAs, it was .839. If you can really hit in AAA (and Wong posted an .835 OPS in a pitcher's environment there this year), you can probably handle the majors all right.

I hope so, anyway. I would really like St. Louis to start an actual second baseman at 2nd, not an outfielder or 3rd baseman. They haven't done so for an entire season since Adam Kennedy in 2008. The fact Wong's supposed to be above-average defensively, and a smart, if not blazingly fast baserunner, doesn't hurt. Put him and Bourjos in the 7th and 8th spots, see if they can get on and start wreaking havoc before the top of the lineup comes along.

Oh, about Salas and Grichuk. That's fine. Salas was going to be hard-pressed to even make the major league club, with all the young arms, so it's more dealing from a surplus. As for Grichuk, he's most likely a corner outfielder, with a lot of power, but little plate discipline. In 5 seasons in the minors (though he's only 22), he's collected 80 walks and 353 strikeouts. In 1855 PAs, so a 4.3% BB rate, and a 19% K rate. The Cardinals already have several promising corner outfielders, but he could always be a decent throw-in prospect in a trade, or maybe he could turn into something useful, if he can learn to take some walks, stop swinging at everything. His K rate was down below 17% this year in AA, so maybe it's coming together?

3). Sign Jhonny Peralta to a 4 year, $52 million contract. I'm reasonably OK with this answer to the SS problem. The Cardinals wanted to get a new SS without surrendering prospects or a draft pick, and Peralta was the only answer that fit those criteria. Stephen Drew was the only other free agent worth the time, and since Boston made him a qualifying offer, he would have cost them a draft pick. I know Drew's a year younger, but I'm not sure he would have been a significantly better option. Once you adjust for Drew spending almost his entire career in hitters' parks, he's actually a worse hitter than Peralta. While Peralta does run the risk of being gone for 100 games if he gets in PED trouble again, Drew has missed over 200 games the last two seasons. He might not be as injury-prone as his big brother J.D., but it's close. It looks like both are basically average defensively, so either would be a drop off from Kozma, with the glove, while more than making up for it in their edge with the bat. Even so, they look like roughly average players, worth 2-3 wins in a given season.

The nice thing is, that still represents a 2-3 win improvement over what StL got from SS this year. It was the only position the Cardinals could significantly improve relatively easily. They could, for example, find someone 2 wins better than Holliday to man LF, but then you're talking around a 5-win player. Those aren't that plentiful, or cheap.

The Cardinals opted for a front-loaded contract, paying Peralta 30 million the first 2 seasons. I've seen a few theories, that the Cardinals have more payroll space now than they will in a few seasons when all those young pitchers get pricey, or they figure Peralta won't be able to stay at SS in a few years. They know he can also play 2nd and 3rd, but they're hoping they won't need him for that (Carp and Wong), but an average 3rd or 2nd baseman making $10 million might be attractive to other teams as a trade target. But that's for the future.

Peralta's not the exciting choice, like Tulowitzki or Elvis Andrus (I have spent entirely too much time the last few days comparing Andrus' offensive numbers to Ozzie Smith's), but he also doesn't cost them Shelby Miller, Rosenthal, Matt Adams, etc. If he gets hurt (a real possibility for Tulo) then you've got nothing. Not the player, or all the guys you traded to get the player.

It's been a pretty good offseason. They upgraded their weakest position, and even if SS is worse a little defensively, upgrading the defense at the 2 positions on either side should mitigate that. The outfield defense is better, they've added speed, they have a lot of positional versatility. Multiple guys who can play infield positions, 4 solid outfielders you can mix-and-match to keep everybody healthy and rested. And they didn't really sacrifice any significant pitching depth to do any of it.



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