The Cardinals made some big splashes this offseason, but third base is a position they neglected. That could come back to haunt them.
Dexter Fowler. Brett Cecil. Less Matt Adams. More Aledmys Diaz. More Alex Reyes. Better Adam Wainwright. All of those are reasons for optimism heading into 2017 for the St. Louis Cardinals. And with good reason! The Cardinals finished just one game out of the playoffs in 2016, and appear to have improved over the course of the offseason. On the other hand, the offseason did not go perfectly. Namely, they could have gotten a third baseman.
In 2016, the Cardinals got above average production from their third basemen. Cardinals’ third basemen recorded a 109 wRC+ while playing the position. On the other hand, the fielding was subpar. As a team, the Cardinals recorded the sixth worst mark in terms of defensive value at the third sack, according to FanGraphs.
Plus, the better part of that 109 wRC+ came from Matt Carpenter, who is currently the team’s first baseman. Carpenter recorded a WRC+ of 146 while at the position. Nobody else with more than 100 PAs at third base got above 100, including Jedd Gyorko.
Gyorko’s 30 home runs were great, but he didn’t bring much else. Gyorko’s fielding was surprisingly good last year, a huge credit to the coaching staff, but he didn’t get on base much. Despite the 30 homers, his OBP sat at just .306, well below the league average of .322. Some of this is cheating; Gyorko did achieve a 111 wRC+ on the year, but only 76 while playing third base. At the same time, most of that 111 comes from the 30 homers, and those just aren’t happening again.
Despite such a large number of homers, Gyorko only averaged 395 feet on his dingers. That is right in the middle of the pack, which is not good for someone who hits a lot of fly balls. Line drive hitters can get away with that, as the ball has a lower flight path. A fly ball hitter with that number indicates that regression is coming. As Adam Kaufman noted back in September, Gyorko’s homers landed just beyond the fence all season. A player rarely gets that lucky for a full season; don’t bank on it happening again.
With Gyorko due for regression, the Cardinals are left with Jhonny Peralta at third base. Unfortunately for the Red Birds, Peralta’s days as an everyday player are likely over. Peralta recorded both a negative bWAR and a negative fWAR.
Even if you don’t like using WAR for much of anything, that low a number should send up a red flag. The 34 year-old Cardinal didn’t hit a lick last year, and was lost in the field. His .307 OBP rivaled Gyorko’s in a bad way, while he cost the team over 7 runs at third in limited time last year.
Before you say that Peralta’s struggles were due to injury, realize his 2015 wasn’t very good. He was trending down before getting hurt, and the injury only gave him an excuse. Peralta should be slightly better in 2017, but expect him to hang around replacement level. Anything more than that is unlikely for the 13 year veteran.
The Cardinals had some golden opportunities to improve their hot corner for 2017. Justin Turner made for a pretty good fit, the White Sox may still be trying to trade Todd Frazier, and Luis Valbuena just recently signed a contract with the Angels. Turner and Valbuena signed for contracts below market value, and the Frazier offers were pretty weak.
All of those things happened because third base is incredibly deep in Major League Baseball. I said the Cardinals had a 109 wRC+ from their third basemen in 2016. That is 9 percent above league average, but just 14th among all teams at third base.
In total, 19 teams got at least league average production from the hot corner. MLB was 7 percent above league average at the position on offense. The mere fact that Carpenter now plays first base means that the Cardinals are likely headed for the bottom third at the position on offense. Steamer has both Peralta and Gyorko pegged for a wRC+ between 95 and 100.
That’s only slightly below average, but well below average at third base. In the field, Gyorko can hold his own. However, Peralta will cause the Cardinals to drop in the rankings at this position. The more Peralta plays, the further down they will go.
— Redbird Rants (@FSRedbirdRants) January 25, 2017
Ultimately, there isn’t much upside to this pairing at third. It is safe to expect a low OBP, some power, and poor baserunning. On the defensive side, they will do no better than average and can do much worse, depending on who plays most. On the flip side, if Peralta continues his downward trend, the floor remains very low for this team at third base.
Gyorko was only above average last year, despite 30 homers that he can’t replicate. Nevertheless, he was terrible during his time in San Diego, and thus possesses a low floor as well. Without Matt Carpenter holding down the hot corner, third base could be a problem position for St. Louis in 2017.
Is there a backup plan?
It is feasible that both Peralta and Gyorko do nothing in 2017. However, I don’t see a reasonable backup plan for the Cardinals at third base. Perhaps moving Carpenter back counts, but that entails starting Matt Adams again, until he gets hurt. There are valid reasons for not going after a big name like Turner or Frazier, but a smart move would have been to sign a solid utility man.
There are plenty of guys who bring a higher floor than Peralta and Gyorko, and if neither of those two pans out, then the Cardinals will be wishing that they had one. I made the case for Andrew Romine a couple months ago, and at least that kind of player brings something. It is possible that neither Peralta nor Gyorko brings anything next year.
Is what I am describing the most likely scenario? No. More likely is that Gyorko stays slightly below league average at the plate, with Peralta providing a little less there. Gyorko might be a serviceable option, but at third base, “serviceable” is as good as he gets. He won’t be in the top 20 if the projection systems are correct. This may all work out for the Cardinals come Opening Day, but right now, they are sticking with a dangerous plan, one with a very low floor and little upside.
Photo Credit: Eric Hartline – USA TODAY Sports