The Cardinals were rumored to have been at least mildly interested in third baseman Justin Turner before he re-signed with the Dodgers for the discounted price of $64 million over four years. In the wake of the Dexter Fowler signing, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion’s name was also floated around last Friday by Derrick Goold as another possible target. Ben Markham made a very reasonable case as to why the Cardinals should avoid that signing. Others see a potential bargain for a slugger as his free agency drags on, but no matter where you fall nothing substantial has come forward to indicate that the Cardinals have emerged as a serious player for Encarnacion. In fact, Ken Rosenthal reported this morning that the Cardinals are an unlikely destination.
Nevertheless, we can assume that they were curious about both players to some varying degree, and that acquiring either of them would have displaced Jhonny Peralta. Turner plays the same position as Peralta, and adding Encarnacion means shifting Matt Carpenter back to third base even though the club has announced that they are committed to Carpenter at first base.
First thing’s first, Peralta’s been a below average player for the last year and a half and his contract ($52 million over four years) has still been a success. In 2013, the Cardinals tied for the most wins in baseball and came within two games of winning everything even with 620 plate appearances divided mostly between Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso (Ryan Jackson logged two of those PAs) at shortstop. Combined they were worth -0.2 fWAR at at the position.
Peralta came in the following year and was neck and neck with Troy Tulowitzki as the most valuable shortstop in the league. It’s likely the Cardinals don’t fight off the Pirates to win the division had they committed to another season of the Kozma/Descalso combo. Same could be said for 2015, a year where Peralta started where his 2014 left off before (figuratively speaking) crashing into a wall. Here are Peralta’s stats from the beginning of 2014 through the 2015 All-Star Break, and what transpired after that:
That’s a pretty steep drop. Peralta’s batted ball statistics on FanGraphs show his hard contact decreasing slightly from the first half (33.2%) of his tenure with the Cardinals to the second half (32.5%), but his line drive rate slightly increasing (23.8% vs. 24.2%). So the difference in each case isn’t profound enough to move the needle. Peralta pulled the ball a lot more in the first half (47.1% vs. 42.2%), and his home run to fly ball ratio took a dive (13.2% vs. 8.2%) in tandem with slightly fewer fly balls (35.3% vs. 33.2%).
Maybe he was unlucky, or maybe his age dictates that he is no longer a good player, or maybe other things were at play. His slump to close out 2015 was partly blamed on exhaustion. He logged 640 plate appearances, the most in his career since 2009 when he was a spry 27-year old. Last year there was a more obvious culprit: He was hurt. In March, he tore a ligament in his left thumb and was sidelined until early June. Enter Aledmys Diaz (once a few more dominos fell) who claimed shortstop as his own, and Peralta has been relegated to third base in the final year of his contract.
It’s not unfair to want solid production from the third base position even from players who are also battling father time. Peralta is entering his age-35 season, and since 1988 only right field and first base have more individual two-win seasons (by fWAR) from players who are at least 35-years old. He can thank Chipper Jones, Adrian Beltre, Wade Boggs, and Gary Gaetti for driving that number up for third basemen.
Bottom line, third base is not a position where you want to get little value and there are warning signs that it could be a hole in 2017. Throughout his career, Peralta has spent 280 games at third although last season was the first time he’s played the position since 2010. So we lack an adequate defensive sample size and he’s always been a pretty mysterious defensive player anyway, but for various reasons such as the aforementioned age thing, it’s safe to bet that he won’t win a Gold Glove in 2017. His value will need to come from his bat.
While true the numbers from above don’t paint a promising picture of Peralta as he’s aged, they also might not present the proper context. Heading into this year his thumb should be healed. Jedd Gyorko should be bouncing around the infield to ensure that Peralta gets a bit more rest than he did in 2015. It’s entirely fair to think a seasoned hitter like Peralta could still be above average on the offensive side of the ball.
The conservative Steamer as well as FanGraphs are both projecting Peralta to be worth 1.5 wins in a shade over 500 plate appearances. Eclipse that and he’ll be a pretty good value for the final $10 million of his front-loaded contract. The contract will still be worth it if he continues to trend downward, but it’ll be disappointing in hindsight that the Cardinals didn’t go into the season with a better plan at third since there were options.