The Cardinals were kind enough to make major headlines prior to me having to write something this week but they still haven't quite closed the deal on a new shortstop. There's been some wild numbers about Jhonny Peralta's contractual price being thrown about but a) it's hard to know the how close his ask is to what he'll get, b) that price tag is meaningless without a context of his production and c) it sure seems like free agent prices are on the rise again. I can't really do much to fill in the gaps of a or c but we can put some pretty good parameters around b.
Since becoming a regular in 2003, Peralta played in 140 or more games every season prior to 2013 when he was suspended for PEDs. Peralta emerged as a shortstop for the Indians in 2003 and remained at the position until his last season with Cleveland in 2009. In 2009 with the Indians and 2010 with the Detroit Tigers, Peralta was primarily a third baseman though he saw some time at short still. Then, as Detroit shifted into the "we only have to crush the ball not catch it" phase of their recent roster construction, Peralta found himself back at shortstop for the 2011-2013 seasons.
This is where things start to get confusing regarding Peralta. For years, he looked pretty bad at shortstop and the defensive metrics didn't like him there. Then, after joining the Tigers, he suddenly starts posting average or better defense at shortstop. There are several possible explanations. One option is that the last ~3000 innings of shortstop defensive metrics have been off and this is a blip on the radar. That's an unlikely scenario given the number of innings we're talking about. Alternately, the overall defense of shortstops could have declined over the last several years leaving Peralta looking better. Or, and this seems the most plausible if also unexpected to me, Peralta got some good coaching at Detroit and became a better fielder.
Moving forward, the expectations for Peralta should probably be as an average or slightly below average defensive shortstop -- something like 0 to -5 runs in terms of value. This is probably a downgrade compared to Pete Kozma who was more of an above average defensive shortstop (+5) for projections moving forward. There's substantially less data on Kozma so the metrics we have are less reliable and have to be regressed more significantly toward the mean shortstop. That said, Kozma is generally well regarded as a shortstop and above average isn't an unreasonable assessment of his skills.
If Peralta's defensive improvements are true, then this is a slightly negative tradeoff on defense. Given the Cardinals propensity for shortstops who are capable of fielding the position rather than hitting at that position, it seems to me that they believe the defensive improvements are real and that Peralta won't be a disaster at the position.
Offensively, there's a mixed record on Peralta again but it's not as easily parsed as his defensive one. Where Peralta was nominally bad at defense and then less bad at defense over the last several years, he's been more erratic on a year-to-year basis offensively. He's posted wOBAs of .307, .309, .356, .301 and .356 over the last 5 years. That's three years of below average production mixed with two years of very good above average production.
Steamer projections like Peralta as a league average hitter next season. They also have him as a +5 defender -- though I'm uncertain what position that would be at -- which is plausible but the significant change in defensive skills still troubles me prior around that 2012 time frame. Being more conservative and calling him an average defender at shortstop seems realistic. He'll cost a few runs on the bases as well. Adding that all up (with positional adjustment and replacement level) and Peralta looks like a 3 WAR player to me over a full season. Obviously, pessimism about his PED usage, erratic offense or defense could lead you to think he's more of a 2 WAR player but anything less than average is a stretch.
For the Cardinals, a 3 WAR Peralta is a ... 3 WAR upgrade over Pete Kozma/Daniel Descalso/Greg Garcia. That's probably the single largest upgrade the Cardinals were going to make in the offseason -- short of getting Troy Tulowitzki. That's a huge improvement to a team when that team is already near the top end of the win curve on paper. If the Cardinals are able to land Peralta, other teams should be worried. They will lack an obvious weakness among their position players (assuming Kolten Wong hits) for the first time in a number of years.
What that 3 WAR will cost the Cardinals is probably a four year deal based on rumors to date. If you project Peralta as 3 WAR, you are talking something in the neighborhood of $15 M per year. Market rate seems to be higher than that so a 4 year, $60M deal may seem absurd when we first hear it but it may not be all far off the going rate for players. If the Cardinals are able to get something like a 3 year, $45M deal that would seem like a big win to me. 5 years or 4 years and over $18M per year would seem like too much expense. Something in between there may just be the new normal for signing free agents -- or at least ones at critical defensive positions (shortstop, centerfield, catcher).
For now we wait. Jhonny Peralta seems close and it is reassuring that the Cardinals are aggressively addressing the deficiency at shortstop rather than accepting another season of replacement level performance. But the devil is in the details and the final contract numbers are going to get some scrutiny from Cardinals fans. Just remember that we've been spoiled by not having to go to the free agent pool in recent years for significant deals. Sticker shock is likely but that doesn't mean we didn't buy something at the going rate. I hope ...