(Ed. Note: this post orginally estimated Aledmys Diaz at four million dollars per year. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting a four-year, eight million dollar deal. Link is at the bottom of the post. This post has been updated with those figures.)
The Cardinals confirmed Matt Carpenter's importance to the team by locking him up to an extension that could keep him in St. Louis through 2020. The team followed that move by signing Cuban free agent Aledmys Diaz to a four-year contract
believed to be valued between fifteen and twenty million dollars for eight million dollars. While that amount is not significant compared to other free agent salaries, it appears unlikely the Cardinals would have made such a commitment if they did not believe Diaz could be a major league starter somewhere. The Cardinals, already the envy of the league for their major league pitching depth, are now accumulating major league-ready assets on the hitting side as well. "Problems" like more players than starting positions generally work themselves out through injuries and ineffectiveness, but there is the possibility the Cardinals will have a roster crunch that may necessitate a trade in order to avoid wasting valuable assets.
The Cardinals now have five, potentially six if Diaz is a starter, of the eight starting spots in the field locked up for the next four years. In signing Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Holliday to long term deals, they have obtained cost-certainty for nearly their entire lineup. Holliday is only guaranteed to be with the team for the next three years as the team holds an option for 2017. Adding in young cost-controlled players like Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Oscar Taveras, and potentially Aledmys Diaz leaves a surplus of starting talent that begins this season and continues through 2017.
The chart below demonstrates the tightening of the roster at the major league level. Players are listed at potential positions with decreased certainty as more years pass. I only included consensus top 100 hitting prospects. Players like James Ramsey, Charlie Tilson, etc. could emerge as candidates to take over centerfield, but projecting them into the chart below presumes more than we know about their current abilities. The number next to the player is their salary for that year, estimated for
Diaz as well as arbitration eligible players. The arbitration figures could move up or down depending on production, but provide a ballpark for what players will earn. The figure next to the year is the total cost of all the players, if kept. Salary figures are from Cot's, available at Baseball Prospectus. Any player listed more than once for a given year only counted once for salary purposes. The bolded players are those potentially crunched out of a starting role.
Already in 2014, there are four potential starters who are likely to be in a reserve role. There are three more in 2015, although that number could be four if Stephen Piscotty were included. The number does move to four in 2016 before dropping down to three in 2017.
The three main areas where someone is likely to be squeezed out of a starting spot deal with Matt Adams, Aledmys Diaz, and centerfield. With Oscar Taveras emerging this season, Allen Craig may move back to first base leaving Adams with fewer plate appearances. The Cardinals could choose to keep him in a bench role. He makes the minimum this season and next, and if he remains in a bench role, his arbitration figures should be less than the estimates above. However, if he continues to hit as well as he did last season, he could become an attractive trading chip if the Cardinals need help elsewhere.
The centerfield logjam will likely be decided on the field. Both candidates are already into arbitration and will only get more expensive in the coming years. Keeping both players past 2015 is highly unlikely, and may not be possible past 2014. The Cardinals have prospects who could emerge as starting centerfielders, but the position is definitely one without a surefire long-term solution. This is an area St. Louis could address through free-agency or trade if nobody steps up to take the position.
Aledmys Diaz adds to a series of potentially moving parts between second base, shortstop and third base. The Cardinals hope Kolten Wong establishes himself as the regular second baseman this season. Making the league minimum for the next three seasons, Wong is the ideal solution for the Cardinals. For this season, Mark Ellis was signed as the backup plan. Diaz now offers another potential solution along with a return to the position for Matt Carpenter. Jhonny Peralta was signed as the everyday shortstop, but with a front-loaded salary, he could be a candidate to be traded while also offering the flexibility to move to third base should Diaz or another opportunity present itself at shortstop.
Diaz is a wild-card for the Cardinals. He could prove to be an expensive utility infielder, or he could force his way into the starting lineup setting of a chain of position moves and potential trades. The Cardinals have spent the last half dozen years stockpiling assets. Matt Carpenter and his contract and Aledmys Diaz are the latest additions to the pile. While the additions might appear to limit opportunities at the major league level, they have greatly increased the flexibility John Mozeliak and the Cardinals have, ensuring competition and maximizing the outcomes when it comes to putting the best team on the field. Predicting success for Diaz cannot be done with great confidence. Predicting success for the Cardinals is the much easier bet.