The St. Louis Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year, $5 million contract, ostensibly to be the third-string third baseman and a left-handed pinch hitter.
On SB Nation St. Louis's offseason rumors coverage I've written a few times about how hard it is to see just where Scott Hairston would fit in the St. Louis Cardinals' depth, as it's currently constituted--and how hard it was, as a result, to imagine Hairston choosing them from among his multiple options. Wigginton is like that, only it's hard to imagine he had any other options.
Which is to say that the Cardinals' decision to sign him to a two-year, $5 million contract doesn't make me mad so much as it confuses me. And I think it's confusing for two reasons that are worth disentangling:
Ty Wigginton is not worth $2.5 million, or any million
We use the words "replacement level" so frequently on the internet that the phrase itself has become a bit of a dead idiom, a single word in which "replacement" is just the first few syllables. But Wigginton, or maybe the weird dissonance occasioned by his signing, reminds us just how revolutionary (and now foundational) the concept of a replaceable player is.
Ty Wigginton does things that have value, but once you read your first explanation of "replacement level" as a concept it becomes clear that there is no reason to pay much for the value he provides. Wigginton--the not-especially-valuable current model--hit 22 home runs and drove in 76 runs in 2010. Rate stats--.248/.312/.415--get us part of the way toward why that's so much less valuable than it looks, but what really makes that worthless isn't how far it is below a league average but how close it is to what, say, Mark Hamilton, who was hitting a combined .291/.385/.494 in Memphis during Wigginton's replacement-level phase, would do for half-a-million bucks.
Obviously John Mozeliak knows what replacement level is; he almost certainly understands it much better than I do. That's what makes the contract so confounding. Wigginton is a very good hitter and fielder--good enough that he is in the major leagues, etc. etc. But he is a replaceable hitter and a replaceable fielder, and the Cardinals are paying him as though he's something several times as valuable as that.
Ty Wigginton makes particularly little sense on the St. Louis Cardinals
The thing Ty Wigginton is best at is a thing the Cardinals could use--despite a severe offensive decline, he can still hit left-handers well enough, if well-enough for that kind of role is a little above the league average. Over his career the split isn't nearly as wide, so that's probably not the secret reason the Cardinals are paying him five times as much as they'd pay Steven Hill.
All the other things he does replaceably, though, the things that make him employable with baseball's five-man benches, are covered by much better players in St. Louis. Matt Carpenter hit .294/.365/.463 last year and is a real third baseman; Matt Adams, in his MLB debut, ended up with an OPS+ three points lower than Wigginton's, but also hit .329/.362/.624 while he was in Memphis.
Ty Wigginton isn't as good a third baseman as Matt Carpenter, he isn't as good a first baseman as Matt Adams, and the enormous and theoretically exploitable gap between his hitting against left- and right-handed hitters is likely to close unless he's had one bad contact lens in this whole time.
So he's replacement level, and the things he does at replacement level are things the Cardinals are already doing better, and the thing he does well is not a skill he's shown himself to have over the course of his career. If he's a lefty-masher the Cardinals could have done better or cheaper, or probably both, and If he's the precursor to a trade--the backstop in all those roles--the Cardinals have only acquired the appearance of depth.
One silver lining:
Ty Wigginton's Lahman Database ID is more likely than any other player's to have also been his high school AOL screen name