In 2014 and 2015, his first two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Jhonny Peralta was the third best shortstop in Major League Baseball, as measured by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind only Troy Tulowitzki, initially of the Colorado Rockies and later of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants. Limiting the sample size to 2014, Peralta’s first season in St. Louis, and the first half of 2015, Peralta was the best shortstop in baseball.
While the Cardinals presumably expected Jhonny Peralta to be good when they signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract in November 2013, there was no precedent for him being “best shortstop in baseball” good. In his best season prior to his Cardinals tenure, Peralta was worth 4.7 fWAR, with the 2011 Detroit Tigers, which made him the #3 shortstop in baseball that year (behind Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and the aforementioned Tulowitzki). In his second-best season, Peralta ranked sixth (I’ll let you see for yourself which three ex-Cardinals ranked ahead of him on the list).
But Peralta was great. Legitimately great. For a year and a half, he was the rare multi-year free agent who was not only worth the money, but was a tremendous bargain. And that’s a very good thing for the overall perception of his contract, because Jhonny Peralta has been nothing short of a disaster in the season and a half since.
In the last 1 1⁄2 seasons, Jhonny Peralta has been worth -0.9 fWAR. In the early portion of his Cardinals career, Peralta was a very poor baserunner—a toxic combination of Yadier Molina-like speed and absolutely none of Yadier Molina’s instincts—but a very good hitter and a deceptively solid fielder (his lack of speed and relatively girthy infielder frame created a perception that Jhonny Peralta was a defensive liability, but in 2014, in a continuation of a trend of an above-average glove, he trailed only Andrelton Simmons and J.J. Hardy in Defensive Runs Saved).
But since then, he has remained a poor baserunner while declining at the plate and sliding down the defensive spectrum from an above-average defensive shortstop to a poor defensive third baseman.
Peralta’s fate as the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop was sealed after Aledmys Diaz, younger and superior defensively, emerged as an All-Star following Jhonny Peralta’s Spring Training thumb injury. Not only did Peralta not reclaim his starting spot at shortstop, but he finished behind Diaz, Jedd Gyorko, and Greg Garcia in shortstop innings logged. He barely finished ahead of Ruben Tejada, who was designated for assignment on May 28.
Jhonny Peralta’s role with the St. Louis Cardinals is no longer clearly defined, but he remains under contract with the team through the 2017 season. So...what should the Cardinals do with him? There are several options available.
Option 1: Just release him
This is a bad idea.
While Jhonny Peralta is not likely to bounce back to anywhere near his 2014 level of production, he does not need to do that in order to justify his $10 million salary for next season. And even if the production he does reach does not justify his $10 million salary for next season, this does not let the Cardinals off the hook from paying it. Peralta’s contract is guaranteed and whether he is a league MVP or somebody who is released before the season begins, his contract will remain the same.
And Peralta has value. It may not be as much value as one might hope he would have, but even in what was a down offensive season (during which, mind you, he was coming back from injury), he still managed a 90 wRC+. It’s not a great number, but for a 25th man on a roster, it is more appealing.
Even if Peralta is unable to bounce back beyond being a 90 wRC+ hitter and he slides all the way down the defensive spectrum to a point of being relegated to first base and pinch-hitting duty, this still surpasses the 2016 wRC+ of four qualified first basemen: Travis Shaw, Mitch Moreland, Marwin Gonzalez, and Yonder Alonso. While these names may not be too exciting, they are still MLB-level players, and while Peralta may now lack the defensive ability to justify making him an everyday starter, guys who hit like Peralta are not readily available to take his spot.
Option 2: Trade him
In theory, this is fine. At last season’s trade deadline, there was clamoring among some fans for the Cardinals to move Jhonny Peralta. There is, however, the little problem where all the reasons that make Peralta so expendable to the Cardinals also act as marks against Peralta to other teams—he is, after all, a very flawed package.
If the only way the Cardinals could trade Jhonny Peralta would be to agree to pay most, if not all, of his $10 million salary this year, and the only return would be a non-prospect throw-in, this would defeat most of the point of trading him in the first place. This is still a preferable return to the nothing that releasing him would procure, but not by a lot. And unless the team finds a potential suitor (in this new Golden Age of Third Basemen, finding somebody more than superficially interested in Jhonny Peralta is going to be a challenge), this route may not be worth the trouble.
Option 3: Salvage him as a bench player
Is paying $10 million (not an exorbitant amount, per se, but not immaterial either) for a bench player who starts erratically ideal? No. But having a bench player who is capable of playing third base (while his defensive results were not great—only Ryon Healy, Jake Lamb, and Danny Valencia cost their teams more Defensive Runs at third base than Peralta—this is hardly a representative sample and it’s entirely plausible that Peralta is at least a serviceable defensive third baseman) and can be a potent pinch hitting option is worth something.
The primary concern that the Cardinals may have is that manager Mike Matheny was so reliant on Peralta down the stretch in 2016 despite subpar results. But if the Cardinals are, in the sixth year of Mike Matheny’s tenure, constructing a roster to prevent him from making egregious managerial decisions, the team has a much larger problem than whether or not it has a decent spare part like Jhonny Peralta at its disposal. But if indeed Mike Matheny can be trusted to utilize him properly, Peralta could be a solid if very unspectacular contributor for the 2017 Cardinals.