In the St. Louis Cardinals' Quest to Upgrade the Middle Infield, Marco Scutaro is a Most Mozeliakian Target

Leon Halip

Given the Cardinals' offensive production at second base and shortstop in 2012, it's unsurprising that the club is focusing on upgrading the middle infield. In their quest to do so, Marco Scutaro makes more sense than you might think.

Good ballplayers are hard to find. Players who can hit for average, draw a walk, and slug are even more difficult. The Cardinals made a run to the National League Championship Series last year because they had a lineup chock-full of these types of players. Sure, the Cardinals hit for average, drew walks, and slugged at different levels, but the St. Louis lineup was quite strong. Its balance makes identifying the weakest links rather easy.

Earlier this offseason, we looked at the Cardinals by sOPS+, a stat that looks at OPS by a certain split. In this case, we looked at sOPS+ by the split of defensive position played. An sOPS+ of 100 is league-average for that position. The further above 100 a position's sOPS+, the more above-average the Cardinals' production at that position. The further below 100 a position's sOPS+, the more below average the production received by St. Louis at that position. The following chart shows the Cardinals' sOPS+ by position for the 2012 season.

2012 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS sOPS+ BY POSITION

C

1B

2B

SS

3B

LF

CF

RF

132

113

92

104

124

129

102

119

This chart shows in color what folks already know in their gut from watching the games. The Cardinals' weakest links offensively were in the middle infield, at second base and shortstop. It comes as no surprise then that the Cardinals have identified bolstering the middle infield as one of their Hot Stove priorities.

The shortstop position has three players already under contract to play for the Cardinals in 2013. Veteran Rafael Furcal is signed at a salary of $7 million. His injured ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is reportedly at 100 percent. The problem is that the UCL is but one health concern for the aging Furcal. Chronic back problems have plagued him over the years, even requiring a microdiscectomy in 2008. Last season, Furcal experienced radiating pain through his lower extremities. A cortisone shot reportedly helped with these symptoms, but Furcal looked like a man with back problems in the field and at the bat, with his hitting line plummeting after a hot start.

With Furcal's elbow receiving a clean bill of health, the pressure to acquire a shortstop has lessened considerably. The long-term need is still present but the immediate need for next season is gone at present. Because of this, the Cardinals need not make a move. They can sit back, let the shortstop market develop, and act only if it behooves them. It is the prudent course, one that is line with general manager John Mozeliak's typical approach.

Even after his prolonged slump, Furcal finished the season with a hitting line that was roughly average for a big-league shortstop. Unlike third base or right field, MLB shortstops don't hit a lot. 2012 was no exception.

2012 MLB AVERAGE SHORTSTOP VS. FURCAL

Shortstop

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

MLB

16.3%

6.7%

.293

.256

.310

.375

.685

.120

.300

86

Furcal

10.7%

8.3%

.289

.264

.325

.346

.671

.082

.298

87

Difference

-5.6%

+1.6%

-.004

+.008

+.015

-.029

-.014

-.038

-.002

+1

In Furcal, the Cardinals have a $7-million shortstop for 2013 who is roughly league-average for his position in terms of offensive production. Because of this, Furcal is a good bet to start at shortstop on Opening Day, with Pete Kozma or Ryan Jackson in the system to back him up. Such an approach would allow the Cardinals to wait and address the shortstop position at the trade deadline if injury or lack of production requires it.

Second base seems to be a more pressing concern for the club entering the 2013 season and, unlike shortstop, a lesser long-term concern with prospect Kolten Wong on the horizon. Daniel Descalso received the plurality of plate appearances at the keystone in 2012 despite posting poor offensive numbers. Skip Schumaker received the next highest total of PAs at second, but hit just .214/.250/.265 and a .515 OPS, from August 1 through season's end. Schumaker's awful defense and average-for-a-second-baseman hitting seem to have punched his ticket out of St. Louis via trade. Descalso's acceptable defense and poor hitting seem to cry out for an upgrade at second base.

2012 MLB AVERAGE SECOND BASEMAN VS. DESCALSO

2nd Base

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

MLB

16.7%

7.6%

.290

.253

.315

.374

.689

.122

.302

88

Descalso

19.5%

8.7%

.279

.227

.303

.324

.627

.096

.278

73

Difference

+2.8%

+1.1%

-.011

-.026

-.012

-.050

-.062

-.026

-.024

-15

With Descalso's poor production and Wong not yet ready to be anointed the primary second baseman, Mozeliak finds himself in a familiar position. Entering 2011, one could have said that Allen Craig was not yet ready to be the Cardinals' primary right fielder. Entering 2012, one could have said that Craig and Matt Adams were not a good Plan B should Albert Pujols leave. Prior to 2011, Mozeliak signed Lance Berkman to a one-year deal to man right field. Prior to 2012, Mozeliak signed Berkman to another one-year deal to play right field and serve as Plan B at first base, should Pujols move on. After Pujols left, Mozeliak signed Carlos Beltran to be the primary right fielder despite having Craig on the big-league roster and Oscar Taveras quickly ascending. Don't be surprised if Mozeliak makes a similar signing for 2013.

With Mozeliak as GM, the Cardinals have yet to hand over a starting spot to a minor-leaguer. Top prospect Colby Rasmus was eased into center field. The same with Jon Jay in the outfield. Allen Craig did not have a starting job entering last season. Descalso and Tyler Greene were in a competition with each other and Schumaker for playing time at second base entering and during last season. Neither Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, nor Trevor Rosenthal is being handed a rotation spot for 2013. Mozeliak signed Jake Westbrook to a one-year deal. Mozeliak seems to prefer spreading around his risk and not counting on an unproven youngster too much.

Given Mozeliak's past dealings, it's unsurprising that the Cardinals met with Marco Scutaro on Monday night at the Winter Meetings. Entering his age 37 season, Scutaro likely won't require a long-term deal. He is reportedly seeking a two-year deal, but would be ideal for St. Louis on a one-year contract. The veteran is an immediate upgrade at second base and has the ability to slide over to shortstop should the club need it. If Scutaro is called upon to man shortstop, the Cardinals can then either play Descalso at second or promote Wong. The Cardinals signing Scutaro makes a lot of sense.

**UPDATE**

ESPN's Buster Olney tweets that the Scutaro bidding is picking up and presumably moving far outside the Cardinals' preferred dollar amount and length in years. Sabey Sabes is apparently driving this crazy bidding war for the aged veteran.

I firmly expect the Cardinals to be tied to Ronny Cedeño by the end of the day.

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