For the 2012 season, the St. Louis Cardinals are positioned to return a roster largely similar to the one that won the 2011 World Series. Obviously, the biggest question of the Hot Stove for St. Louis is free agent first baseman Albert Pujols. The other big question facing the club is the composition of its middle infield. Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch contained insight into general manager John Mozeliak's approach to this question.
Mozeliak projected Daniel Descalso as the primary Cardinals second baseman in 2012. In a statement that seems as much posturing for negotiations with free agents as insight into Mozeliak's thoughts on the position, he indicated that he would be fine with Tyler Greene starting at shortstop next season. These two revelations create questions for the remaining veteran middle infielders employed by the Cardinals in 2012.
The Cardinals will likely attempt to bring back free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal. With the injury-prone and declining Furcal reportedly seeking a guaranteed two-year deal, his return is by no means a sure thing. Likewise the club will explore signing free agent Nick Punto for a second campaign in St. Louis. With a healthy arm, Punto provides plus defense at three infield positions and a very good walk rate. Then there are the two arbitration-eligible middle infielders, Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker.
To his credit, Mozeliak seems intent on allowing Theriot to leave without offering him a contract. Since Theriot has demonstrated himself to be only adequate as the right-handed half of a second base platoon, he is not worth a $3 million chunk of payroll. On the other hand, Mozeliak confounds by expressing an interest in bringing back Schumaker as a "super utility" player with a role "more of an extra outfielder than an infield regular." Since Schumaker is essentially a left-handed version of Theriot, this decision makes no sense. Theriot and Schumaker are virtually indistinguishable in their lackluster skill set and both should be shown the exit.
The greatest baseball skill possessed by both Theriot and Schumaker is the ability to hit for average--and they are not even exceptional at it. Therein lies the problem. Neither draws many walks, hits for power, or plays good defense. They bring nothing to the table except the ability to make contact. If they don't hit .300, both make too many outs. This creates a drag on a lineup while simultaneously unduly taxing the pitching staff due to their defensive shortcomings.
Both Theriot and Schumaker lack the ability to hit for much power. Theriot posted a 2011 Isolated Power (ISO) of 0.072 that was right in line with is career 0.070 ISO. Schumaker's '11 ISO of .068 was below his career .088 mark but continued a markedly downward trend from .124 in '07 to .104 in '08 to .090 in '09 to .074 in '10 to .068 this season. The pair are not much of a threat to do anything besides slap a single.
Neither Schumaker nor Theriot work many walks nowadays, either. As with his Isolated Power, Schumaker's walk rate is declining. A batter who has walked in 7.7% of his career plate appearances, Schumaker's walk rate crested at 8.9% in 2009 and has to 8.1% in '10 and then 6.8% in '11. This is how Schumaker's .333 OBP in '11 was but five points higher than the .328 he posted in '10 despite his batting average increasing by 18 points.
Theriot's walk rate has seen an even steeper decline than Schumaker's. As a leadoff hitter for the Cubs in '08, Theriot posted a robust 11% walk rate. In '09, that fell to 7.5% and then to 6.4% in '10. His 6.0% walk rate last season was the lowest of his career. His OBP has followed a similar path, from a career-high .387 in '08 to a .321 OBP last season that matched his career-low from '10.
Not surprisingly, the advanced offensive stats show below-average offensive production. Schumaker managed a .300 wOBA this past season and Theriot a .292 wOBA. While Tyler Greene saw an extremely small number of plate appearances in '11, his .302 wOBA was better than either of our arbitration-eligible duo. Descalso, another subpar offensive player in 2011, split the difference between Schumaker and Theriot with a .296 wOBA. Of course, Descalso is better in the field than either. Further undercutting the case to keep either Theriot or Schumaker is their lack of skill on defense.
In the Post-Dispatch story, Mozeliak states that the club will shift back toward defense after making moves last offseason that emphasized offense. This is likely why Theriot will be allowed to leave and Schumaker is being eyed for a utility role with an emphasis on the outfield. To the eye, Schumaker the second baseman has the range of a potted plant and the hands of a stonemason. Theriot's range is probably a bit better than Schumaker's. That being said, if Skip's hands are made of your average stone, Theriot's are of marble. Schumaker's lack of range stifles the use of his strong throwing arm while Theriot's noodle arm offsets his somewhat-better-than-Schumaker's-but-still-poor range.
La Russa and Mozeliak recognized their club's weakest link last season by trading for Rafael Furcal. The move at once moved Theriot off shortstop and to second base where he became part of a platoon tag team with Schumaker. Even though Theriot fielded better at the keystone than he had at short, it was not that surprising to see La Russa look to the slick-fielding Nick Punto so often this postseason when filling out second base on his lineup card. After suffering through the Theriot and Schumaker pair in the middle infield, the late-season and postseason duo of Furcal and Punto seemed downright wizardly.
One of the more head-scratching lineup moves employed by La Russa in the postseason was his use of Schumaker in the outfield. While Schumaker's outfield range is a tad better than his infield range, it is still bad enough that he should never play center field. This pigeon-holes him into a corner outfield spot. Left and right field both are offensive-first postiions. As covered above, Schumaker is a poor hitter; given Schumaker's complete lack of power and inability to draw walks, he should probably only ever play a corner outfield spot in an emergency (especially with Allen Craig on the roster). If Schumaker were a utility knife, his knife would be dull, scissors unable to cut, file smooth to the touch, tweezers unable to grasp, and don't even ask about the toothpick. Schumaker is not of much utility.
The components of Theriot and Schumaker's game combine to slot them as slightly above replacement-level and slightly below average in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). By both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs WAR, Schumaker was worth 0.6 WAR in '11. Theriot was worth 0.0 Baseball-Reference WAR and 0.7 Fangraphs WAR. For the Cardinals to pay the market rate for a player likely to post less than one WAR would be an indefensible waste of resources. Their likely low levels of production combined with their likely salaries make Theriot and Schumaker extravagances on which the Cardinals should not waste a roster spot. St. Louis would be wise to non-tender both.