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We have an answer, and I'm not Ryan!

Two years ago when Brendan Ryan was first called up, the team was going nowhere quickly and David Eckstein was the starting shortstop. Ryan hit fairly well in sporadic playing time and it was my opinion that we needed to see what he could do. I never really believed that he’d end up being more than a utility player but we were languishing in third place, Eckstein was a free agent-to-be, and I really didn’t see that there was a lot to lose by running Ryan out to short. It was fairly clear to me that Ryan was a solid defensive player – much better than Eckstein – and that he could handle the position defensively. I just didn’t really think he’d ever hit enough to justify full-time status.

Ryan seemed to be in Tony’s doghouse a lot for his eccentricities and the fact that he once missed a take sign on 3-0 and Tony went all Milton Bradley on him in the dugout. This site divided pretty clearly into a group who wanted to see more of Ryan and a group who took the view that Tony’s the manager and he runs the club and it’s the player’s job to do what the manager says…period. More managers should act this way. I wondered then whether Ryan ever would get a chance to see what he could do.

He didn’t get much of a chance last year but his play didn’t exactly inspire a lot of extra chances, either. I’m not sure he hit a loud foul all season and, while Cesar Izturis hardly inspired a lot of confidence at the plate either, his defense was solid. I got the impression that I was right all along about Ryan – that his relatively strong offensive performance in a third of a season in ’07 was somewhat of an aberration considering his minor league track record and that he’d never really end up more than a utility infielder.

Neither Mo nor Tony seemed to be convinced that Ryan was the solution either as the team traded for the declining and mercurial Khalil Greene in the offseason. Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, Greene started 17 of the Cards’ 23 April games, batting .219/.333/.344 w/ 2 homers. More troubling, however, was Greene’s defense. At the end of May, Greene had started 26 of the Cards’ 47 games, was hitting .200/.287/.295 and was on the D.L. w/ anxiety issues related to his poor play. Ryan took over more out of necessity than the team’s intrepid confidence in his ability.

Meanwhile, as May came to a close, Ryan was hitting .280/.345/.387 (in just 86 PAs) and was playing solidly at shortstop. In fact, I don’t think I was alone in noticing that Ryan was even a much better defensive player than I had remembered. He was simply making plays that the Cards hadn’t seen at that position since #1 ran out there every day. I’m not calling him Ozzie, but Renteria never made as many really good plays as Ryan was making. Eckstein and Greene damned sure weren’t that good defensively either.

Now, of course, Ryan’s the every day shortstop on a team that’s 24 games over .500, has the largest lead in the majors, and is tied for the best record in the NL. Who’d a thunk it? Not me, that’s for sure. Ryan’s been solid, offensively. He’ll never be Renteria, Rollins, or Reyes at the plate but neither is he a liability. He’s got a respectable .713 OPS and .309 wOBA. Make no mistake, he’s a below average offensive player, even at the shortstop position, but it’s not like he’s an automatic out either.

It’s his defense that’s made Ryan an everyday player. As I mentioned, he’s been spectacular defensively and it allows the team the ability to tolerate his offense. Let’s face it, if he was playing defense like Greene was, the team just couldn’t abide his offense. But right now his UZR at short is 9.1 runs above average. That’s the 2nd best rate in the majors, behind only Jack Wilson. According to RZR, he’s not quite that good. THT has his UZR as .837, 7th best in the majors. Still, it’s very good. The really interesting thing is that, despite our perceptions, according to UZR, he’s not really a better shortstop than he’s been the previous 2 seasons. We just didn’t notice it b/c of the limited playing time he received. His UZR/150 this season is 11.4 but it was 14.4 in 2008 and 13.7 in 2007. We can point to the limited innings in each of those seasons and say "small sample size" and that’s true, of course, but it’s right in the same range as the 660+ innings he’s garnered there this year.

In terms of his value, he’s been worth 2.2 WAR w/ about a month left in the season, putting him on a pace for about a 2.5 win season. Not too shabby for a guy making the major league minimum. Despite the fact that Ryan played very little in the season’s first 2 months, only 12 major league and 4 NL shortstops have been more valuable this season.

It’s pretty clear to me that the Cards have now found the young shortstop they’ve needed – and not really been searching for. It’s also clear to me that Ryan should get some Gold Glove consideration. Will he? I doubt it. Jimmy Rollins has won the award each of the last 2 seasons but his offense has gone south this season. That should be irrelevant but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Still, he has just 3 errors, the highest fielding percentage, and he’s a big name so he’ll probably get it again. The thing that hurts Ryan the most is the fact that he hardly played the first 2 months of the season and will have played only about 2/3 of the season when it ends next month. Both RZR and UZR have J.J. Hardy and Ryan Theriot above Rollins but it’s unclear how much playing time Hardy will get over the last month and his poor offensive season has gotten as much attention as Rollins’s has. As for Theriot, I’m not sure he’s a big enough name to win the award.

Right now I see Ryan as the best defensive shortstop in the NL. I’m biased, of course, but it’s pretty clear to me that he’s going to be worth 1-1.5 wins defensively, 1.5-2 wins for the replacement level adjustment, and another half a win or so for the positional adjustment. Given 140+ games at short next year, he’s at least a 2.5 – 3 win player for the Cards, earning just a million bucks or so. This is a position for the team that’s appeared to have no long-term solution available, just a perennial series of band-aids but now it seems as though the team has found its solution.