Some players rarely find the headlines, but they can still make key contributions. Andrew Romine  dazzles with the glove, which is something the Cardinals really need right now.

The Cardinals just pushed their most qualified third baseman to first, which leaves somewhat of a puzzle at the hot corner. It’s not really a hole, since Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko, and Greg Garcia still exist, but none of those options are great. The first two can’t play the position, while the Cardinals refuse to give Garcia a full-time job. While looking at who outside the organization can help, I settled on a name that may surprise you: Andrew Romine.

State of the Infield Defense

The Cardinals were soooooo close to making the playoffs this year. One of the things holding them back? Those darn infielders. Sure, they weren’t all bad, but the infield defense created many problems. In total, their infield UZR was -19.5 and their DRS was -6 (0 is average for both). When looking around the infield, third base seems like the most logical place to upgrade that defense.

Kolten Wong was the only plus fielder for the Cardinals, saving the team five runs. And while Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz aren’t great fielders, they aren’t going anywhere. Simple subtraction tells us that third base is the only spot left that needs help.

Jedd Gyorko seems like the obvious choice to start here right now, but there are some red flags. Fellow Cardsblog writer Adam Kaufman convinced me that the Cardinals should be selling high on Gyorko all the way back in September. Seriously, if you haven’t checked his article out, you definitely should. Among other things, Adam noted that Gyorko’s HR/FB rate is well above sustainable and that a high percentage of his homers just barely reached the other side of the fence. In other words, 30 homers aren’t happening again.

Without the power, I am not sure what Gyorko brings. His OBP is subpar and last year was the only year in which he graded positively on defense. Peralta was once a key piece of the team, but he now brings next to nothing. He was between 8 and 10 runs below average in the field last year in half of a season. His WAR was also below 0. In other words, picking up the first available free agent should have been a better option. The top available replacement theoretically has a WAR of 0, but an average player has a WAR of 1.

The Cardinals don’t settle for average, and shouldn’t settle for Peralta, either. In theory, Garcia might be a nice option, but if he couldn’t hold a starting job after his hot start to 2016, he never will hold a starting job. That leaves us with two options: throw caution to the wind with Gyorko or search for upgrades. I like option B.

What Should the Cardinals do About Their Infield?

Again, the Cardinals infield defense was 1-2 wins below average last year. They need to improve that a lot. Luckily for the Redbirds, Andrew Romine happens to be one of the game’s best and most undervalued fielders. Romine doesn’t play much, but he consistently gets more than 10 UZR/150 at both second and third base. At shortstop he has had some success, too, albeit not as much. Playing Romine every game at third would likely be about a two-win improvement from what the Cardinals would otherwise do.

Cardinals’ Ground Ball Tendencies

Of course, certain defensive improvements matter more than others. With the Cardinals, the infield matters more than it does for any other team. In 2016, the Cardinals led MLB in pitcher ground ball rate, at 49.5 percent. In other words, infield defense should be of the utmost priority for this team.

I mentioned how much Mike Leake can benefit from pitching behind a better defense a couple of weeks ago, and that argument can apply to many more pitchers. Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez, and many Cardinals relievers also generate grounders more than half the time. Imagine if the Cardinals could actually turn those grounders into outs at a high clip!

Not every pitcher on the Cardinals is an extreme ground ball guy. Thus, I recommend that the Cardinals start Romine on days when their ground ball guys are throwing (Martinez, Leake, and Garcia) and use Gyorko on days when more fly balls are likely to come. Regardless of how they decide to handle the situation, a guy with Romine’s glove capabilities is exactly what the Cardinals need to eke out a couple more wins next season.

Third base free agents

Take a quick glance at the third base free agent pool, and one name will stick out. There is Justin Turner and then there is everybody else. I actually think Turner would make a great fit for the Cardinals. He has posted at least 5 DRS at third base in each of the past three seasons, he doesn’t strike out much, he makes hard contact often, and his ground ball rate is very low. However, I expect his price to go way up this offseason.

Dan Szymborski and his ZiPS projection system value Turner as the top free agent this offseason. According to ZiPS, he is worth $21.5 million per year over the next five seasons. Does anyone really believe that the top free agent will get paid $21.5 million in AAV? MLB teams have collectively surpassed that mark every offseason since 2010.

Being the only third baseman worth a starting role will also inflate Turner’s value. Anyone looking for someone to man the hot corner will give him a call. My point is that someone will likely pay Turner much more than he is worth. Maybe he is worth an overpay to some extent. However, the Cardinals are among the best in the business at not overpaying. I don’t see any way in which the Cardinals can go against that philosophy and get Turner at the same time.

Cardinals Position in Review: Third Base

Romine will cost very little in a trade (one midlevel prospect should be enough), and can provide a huge boost. Also, the Cardinals will have more money to spend elsewhere. Mark Melancon can work wonders for a team with a good infield defense (which the Cardinals would have with Romine). Maybe you think Cespedes is in play. Going after Romine plugs one hole without taking away money to sign someone like him (although he may get much more than he should, too).

Romine brings little at the plate, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t useful. He can clean up one of the Cardinals’ biggest messes of 2016 and, given the state of the rotation and the third base free agent market, he makes a lot of sense. He alone can improve the defense by more than one win, and the pitchers’ ERAs will reflect that. Remember, one win was the difference between an early exit and postseason baseball this year. Trading for Andrew Romine is a small move that can make a big difference.

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson – USA TODAY Sports