In February, optimism is easy. The Cardinals are coming off a 97-win season that fell just two wins shy of a World Series Championship. St. Louis had one glaring hole at the end of the season, and that hole was filled when Jhonny Peralta signed. There were some questions about centerfield, and John Mozeliak traded for a guy who is better than Mike Trout at something baseball-related. Unlike last offseason, the bench has been supplemented with a veteran that has shown the ability to continue contributing. There are internal options with major league success ready to cover the departure of Carlos Beltran, their only notable free agent. One of the best prospects in all of baseball is waiting in the wings. The rotation and bullpen provide more answers than questions. This optimism is what makes it so easy to forget why the Cardinals need Jon Jay.
The Cardinals do not need Jon Jay like they need Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday or about half a dozen other players who are likely to contribute to the Cardinals in 2014. Yet they still need him, not just in case Tavares cannot come up and contribute or Peter Bourjos gets injured, although they will need them in those scenarios. Jon Jay feels like a luxury. He feels expendable with the Cardinals' excess and an arbitration-influenced rising salary, but general perception based on a current, healthy roster construction does not equal reality when the games are played. Jon Jay fills a variety of roles that the rose-colored February view of the Cardinals keeps hidden.
Consider the following:
- Peter Bourjos has not exceeded 200 plate appearances in a season since 2011 and has only one time in his career been worth more than 1.9 fWAR.
- Matt Adams has 410 career plate appearances, can play only one defensive position, and owns a career wOBA against lefthamders more than 50 points lower than Jon Jay.
- Allen Craig has never played in more than 135 games in any professional season, he has been placed on the disabled list three times, and did not make a start in the field after September 4th of last season.
- Matt Holliday is 34 years old. Of the fifty outfielders who qualified for the batting title last season, only seven were 34 or older.
- Oscar Taveras had last season end due to ankle surgery and has yet to take an at bat in the majors.
- Daniel Descalso is a career .243/.310/.346 hitter, good for a .287 wOBA and an 80 wRC+.
- Shane Robinson hit .257/.319/.372 in 914 Triple-A plate appearances to go along with a .246/.316/.327 major league line, matching Descalso's 80 wRC+.
If Taveras is not ready, Jay is the first man in for four of the eight spots in the lineup, and the only left handed bat on the bench with a halfway decent bat. Even if Taveras is ready, Jay is the only decent hitter that can play all three outfield positions if Bourjos goes down. Shane Robinson has a good glove, but is not an average professional hitter, a level Jon Jay has attained in each of the past four seasons. While Bourjos has potential, Jay's low fWAR over the past three years, 1.9, has been beaten by Bourjos just once, back in 2011.
While Jay's defense has been much maligned over the past year, there is reason to believe he will be improved next year. As for his offense, it's been overlooked. It may be easy to say his bat does not profile in a corner should injuries occur. However, he hits pretty well, even using corner outfielders as the standard. Among the 75 corner outfielders with at least 350 plate appearances in 2013, Jay's career-low wRC+ of 104 is a solid 40th out of 75 players.
Depending on the progress of Bourjos, Taveras, and Adams, the Cardinals may be best served exploring a trade of Jay next offseason in much the same way they did for David Freese. For 2014, in even the most optimistic scenarios for the Cardinals, Jay fills too many gaps to consider a trade at any point this season. Hoping for good health and breakout seasons is easy, but as the old adage says, "Hope for the best, prepare for Corey Patterson."