A lot of teams run out of options in the infield, but the Cardinals have too many.
If you read our positional reviews of the infield, you probably noticed that a lot of the same infielders played multiple positions throughout the year. The Cardinals have a lot of versatility in the infield, but no solid locks for any position except shortstop (thank you Diaz).
As a result, the Cardinals infield situation is cloudy at best heading into 2017. Jhonny Peralta was out for most of the 2016 season, but it looks like third base is his to claim. Aledmys Diaz is most definitely the shortstop of the future but first and second are left pretty open. Kolten Wong is the starting 2nd baseman but his lack of development in the past couple of season is concerning. Matt Adams and Brandon Moss were subpar at first which means Matt Carpenter will probably spend the majority of his time there. Jedd Gyorko is also lurking on the bench, but it seems more and more unlikely that he will repeat his 30 homer season next year.
An infield of Carpenter-Wong-Diaz-Peralta doesn’t sound too bad, until you compare it to an infield of Rizzo-Baez-Russell-Bryant, or Gonzalez-Utley-Seager-Turner, or Santana-Dozier-Lindor-Ramirez. It’s no coincidence that every team playing in their league championship series had an elite infield in terms of offensive production. No, if the Cardinals want to truly contend next season they’re going to have to explore some different outfield scenarios. So, what are their options?
(Side note: I am ignoring catcher in this infield because Yadier Molina is going nowhere anytime soon)
Trade Jhonny Peralta
Peralta is 34 and coming off of two separate thumb injuries. Sure, he showed some life down the stretch in September, but it was pretty clear he had lost a step and a lot of his power thanks to his age and ailments. I’m not so sure that Peralta will be the long term solution at third, especially for a team that has to compete with the monster infields mentioned above.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, Peralta’s deal is a lot more team friendly in the last year, with the Cardinals only owing him 10 million in 2017. It does seem unlikely that the Cardinals will trade Peralta before the beginning of the season. Matheny sounded impressed by his showing down the stretch despite his lack of power and range. However, if the Cardinals are selling at the deadline and Peralta is hitting, Peralta could be a trade target for a lot of contending teams looking for a veteran rental player.
If Peralta was traded during the offseason, third base would be open for a possible free agent. There aren’t a lot of free agent third baseman, but the most obvious solution would be Justin Turner. He’s 32 and coming off a solid year where he hit .275/.339/.493 with above average defense. Turner would definitely be an upgrade from Peralta and would also take a piece away from a National League rival.
Of course, if the Cardinals do not sign Turner or another third baseman, there is going to be some shuffling around in the infield. Carpenter would probably move from first to his natural position at third. This would probably cost the Cardinals defensively but definitely give them a lot more offensively. At first base, the Cardinals would have to start either Gyorko, Moss, or Adams. Gyorko could continue to hit for power and Moss could have a bounceback year (if they resign him), but barring those two it’s more likely that the Cardinals would sign a first baseman in the offseason.
The first baseman available aren’t exactly enticing. Edwin Encarnacion is the big name, but that seems unlikely. Next down the list are names like Logan Morrison and James Loney, not exactly the caliber player the Cardinals need to compete for a ring. The Cardinals have always been able to find hidden gems, but the first base free agent market isn’t exactly stellar.
Move Kolten Wong
The Cardinals don’t have an amazing infield, but it is definitely better than their outfield situation. As John wrote about earlier this month, the Cardinals had very few productive options in center this season. They experimented with putting Wong in the outfield a few times this year, and he actually wasn’t horrible. His UZR wasn’t abysmal and he actually managed to save one run while playing center field. Given time, I think it’s possible that Wong could improve to a slightly above average outfielder. With Holliday probably on his way out, there is a spot open in the outfield. Perhaps the solution to the Cardinals outfield problems could be internal.
With Kolten Wong gone from the infield, it opens a spot for another potential free agent. Ian Desmond seems like a classic Cardinals signing. Although shortstop is his main position, he also has experience at second and in the outfield. Desmond had a solid year hitting .285/.335/.446 with an OPS+ of 104. He’s also relatively young, entering his age 31 season. Another option is Neil Walker, who hit .282./.347/.476 with the Mets. Walker had a very solid season and he is also only entering his age 31 season. Both Walker and Desmond would be solid options to replace Wong at second.
On the other hand, if the Cardinals do not sign an infielder, they would be stuck with the same problem as the first scenario. Carpenter would move from first to second and that would leave a hole at first that could be filled by a mediocre free agent, or a mediocre bench player. Neither option would provide a lot of improvement to the infield overall.
Ultimately, the Cardinals have four options:
- Trade Peralta and sign a third baseman
- Move Wong and sign a second baseman
- Do either 1 or 2 and rotate the infield, promoting either Gyorko, Moss or Adams
- Do nothing
If I were a betting man, I’d say the Cardinals do nothing. From the sound of it, the front office and Matheny are content with letting Prealta try out third and letting Wong develop at second.
Personally, I think they should take option number 2. There are only two players in the infield the Cardinals can count on to produce next year, Diaz and Carpenter. And even those players are pretty subpar on the defensive side of the ball. Every other player is a complete question mark. In order to have a solid infield the Cardinals have to count on Peralta coming back at near full strength and Wong having his breakout year. Even if those are true, a bench of Moss, Adams and Gyroko is reliant on a Moss resurgence and a Gyorko repeat of a pretty spectacular year. The odds of all of these pieces falling into place seems pretty slim.
Moving Wong to the outfield kills two birds with one stone. The infield free agent market is a lot stronger than the outfield free agent market. Getting external help in the infield and then moving Wong could have a multitude of benefits.
Photo Credit- Charles LeClaire USA Today