Several times this season following a costly Cardinals fielding error, the announcer would quip something along the lines of “The Cardinals have not been a good fielding team in 2016, which is not something the locals here are used to.” Chalk it up to a standard throwaway line but there’s a lot of evidence that by now Cardinals fans are actually quite used to mediocre defense. In fact, five times over the last ten season the Cardinals have finished in the bottom half of the National League defensively as ranked by FanGraphs even though they were the best team in the league by 14 wins during this span.
That this sterling defensive reputation sometimes precedes the Cardinals might be a byproduct of the Whiteyball era and the large shadow it still casts over the organization. From 1982 to 1989, the Cardinals won 15 Gold Gloves and the 1986 team by most standards was one of the best defensive teams in the NL since the league was integrated. Possibly no team in recent memory has been associated with a style of play like the 80s Cardinals were with defense and speed.
But the 2016 Cardinals, to put it mildly, did not play Whiteyball. Instead they cranked home runs (no complaints there), but they were lousy on the base paths and ranked near the bottom of the NL in defense. Unless Yadier Molina’s reputation is enough to earn him his ninth straight Gold Glove (always possible), the squad will go home empty handed for just the second time since 1999.
John Mozeliak has already given a sound bite or two indicating that improving the defense in center field will be a priority this offseason. He should focus on the infield as well and take a look at Andrelton Simmons. The Red Baron already made his case for kicking the tires on Simmons in his GM for a Day column last week. Specifically, he wrote:
I’m going to contact the Angels about Andrelton Simmons, and what picking him up would cost. He’s a year older than when the Angels dealt Sean Newcombe+ for him, so he should be a bit more reasonable, and is still every bit the elite defender we’ve seen in the past. The strange spike of power Simmons showed in 2013 has disappeared, but he’s made himself into one of the toughest hitters in baseball to strike out, and was something close to an average hitter this year for the Angels. Add that to all-world defense and you have a very productive player. Picking up Simmons would be the biggest single boon I can imagine for a groundball-heavy staff of the sort the Cardinals feature. He’s also under contract for four more years, which would be almost perfect for a franchise who just drafted Delvin Perez.
Elite shortstop. Not much power but one of the toughest hitters in baseball to strikeout. Simmons doesn’t have the same base running value or ability to draw walks, but it’s hard to look at his profile and not have your mind drift toward Ozzie Smith.
Simmons is entering his age-27 season, the same age the Wizard was when he joined the Redbirds in 1982. So he still has a big chunk of his career ahead of him, although comparing any 27-year old to a 27-year old Ozzie Smith is never a good idea. A bit lost in his legacy is that Smith was an athletic freak of nature. Since the league integrated, only ten position players in MLB have a higher fWAR after the age of 30 than Smith’s 42.4. They are as follows: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Edgar Martinez, Stan Musial, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, and Roberto Clemente. That puts Smith ahead of Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Ichiro Suzuki, Rafael Palmeiro, and Carl Yastrzemski - all of whom had at least 600 more plate appearances than Smith after the age of 30.
Anyway, Simmons is owed $47 million through 2020, a relative bargain for a player who’s been worth an average of 3.2 wins by fWAR since 2013, and who has also been the highest rated defensive player during that span. As the Red Baron noted, in St. Louis he’d be playing behind a pitching staff that had the highest ground ball rate (49.5) in MLB in 2016.
It’s a fair guess that the Angels have no inclination of rebuilding without Mike Trout. He’s vital to the organization even if he alone can’t turn them into a winner. The Angels only won 74 games in 2016 yet ranked 7th in attendance - the only losing team in the top ten. That’s what a generational talent can do for a lousy organization.
What’s definitively known is that the Angels have a farm system that’s consistently rated last by prognosticators so they aren’t blessed with the most bargaining power if they do plan to rebuild the organization in an effort to salvage Trout’s prime. Again, as the Red Baron noted, it didn’t take a massive haul for the Angels to snag Simmons from Atlanta, and with him now being a year older and taking the Angels’ current predicament into consideration, Simmons could very well be a bargain for a team like the Cardinals who aren’t loaded like they were in 2013, but still certainly have pieces to spare.
Acquiring Simmons certainly assumes a lot. It assumes the Angels are even open to shopping him around. And it assumes the Cardinals can reconfigure the rest of the infield with all of their remaining moving parts. To top it off, it would likely create a new thing for everyone to scream at when Mike Matheny pencils in Simmons and his career .308 OBP at leadoff.
Nevertheless, forgetting about what’s actually possible for a second and focusing on what would be fun, a regular Cardinals infield with Aledmys Diaz at third, Matt Carpenter at first, and Simmons and Kolten Wong turning slick double plays up the middle turns what had been one of the more lethargic infields in baseball into one of the more athletic. Jedd Gyorko, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Adams would be left over to plug in the holes when needed, which, if recent history is any guide, would be sooner rather than later.
Again, there are a lot of assumptions at play here. Can Diaz play third? Can Matt Carpenter handle a full season at first? Would Kolten Wong, who has only eclipsed 500 plate appearances once in his career, be even granted the opportunity to be the full-time second baseman? Who knows. What we do know is that: (1) the Cardinals employ a ground ball-heavy pitching staff; (2) they need to improve their defense; and (3) quite possibly the most valuable infielder in baseball from a defensive standpoint is languishing on a team of should-be sellers. Time to do something fun.