With yesterday's news that Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta is expected to miss 2-3 months with a potential ligament tear in his left thumb, a logical first reaction from Cardinals fans was to examine the free agent market. And after looking at the available options, the next move is to look internally. Hence yesterday's Peralta news certainly led to a sudden uptick in the local Q ratings of Aledmys Diaz, Greg Garcia, and Jedd Gyorko.
And because the news of Peralta's injury came on March 7 rather than the seventh of November, December, January, or even February, the remaining external options are, to put it generously, sparse. Of the top 50 available players at the beginning of free agency on CBS Sports, all but David Freese have signed. And although I have gone on the record of being intrigued by the idea of Freese as a Cardinal, this is an entirely unrelated matter to how the Cardinals should handle their shortstop situation.
However, the top shortstop on the free agent market lasted until just a week before Peralta's injury. Certainly, when Ian Desmond declined the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer extended to him after the season by the Washington Nationals, he did not foresee signing a one-year, $8 million contract to play left field for the Texas Rangers, but so is the nature of the current qualifying offer system.
At the time, the Cardinals had very little reason to consider Desmond. The Cardinals already had Peralta, who in spite of a lackluster second half of the 2015 season was still projected to outperform Ian Desmond in 2016. And even if the Rangers' belief that Desmond can play a serviceable left field proves true, he ranks behind the five Cardinals (Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty) expected to play at all in the outfield in 2016 by ZiPS-projected wOBA.
And while more depth is a good thing, the Cardinals probably would have been surrendering a first-round pick, not to mention several million dollars in salary, for what would have amounted to a glorified bench player.
But with Jhonny Peralta out of commission until perhaps early June, Ian Desmond would serve a very clear role for the 2016 Cardinals: an established, known commodity at shortstop for the first two months of the season, and a safe insurance policy once Peralta returns from injury (Desmond could also surpass Peralta on the depth chart, in which case Peralta becomes the insurance policy). But if the Cardinals could bring in Desmond for the same price the Rangers did, at one year and $8 million, would that be worth the cost?
A quick look at Desmond's WAR projections is deceiving, since he now projects in left field, and his transition from being a roughly league-average defender at a premium defensive position like shortstop to being a wild card at a position which ranks fairly low on the defensive spectrum inevitably will diminish his value.
But in this hypothetical, we are assuming that Desmond is a shortstop. Since Desmond will be 30 for a majority of 2016 (he turns 31 on September 20), and this is around the point where players typically decline defensively, particularly at premium positions, it would be reasonable to expect that Desmond might be a slightly below-average defender.
But none of the Cardinals' internal options are exactly safe bets at shortstop, either: Jedd Gyorko's playing time at the position has been irregular in the majors, Greg Garcia has alternated between shortstop and second base in the minors, and doubts have been cast about whether Aledmys Diaz can hang as a MLB shortstop.
ZiPS, however, is fairly optimistic about Diaz's defense. In 2016, Aledmys Diaz is projected for 5.7 Fielding Runs Above Average. While he is hardly Andrelton Simmons with the glove, this could put him defensively in the territory of, say, an Elvis Andrus. But instead of making $14-15 million a year through 2022 like Andrus, Diaz makes $2 million for the next two seasons (not that this sunk cost should figure into decision-making: just a fun fact to alleviate any concerns that the team has yet to receive any return on Diaz's contract).
Ian Desmond is projected for a 90 wRC+ by ZiPS, and Aledmys Diaz is projected for an 84 wRC+, surpassing Desmond's actual 2015 wRC+ of 83. Last year marked a significant performance drop from Desmond's previous three seasons, and although this might simply be a blip on the radar with Desmond rebounding to turn into his 2012-2014 self, any team signing Desmond to a one-year deal is gambling.
Also, it is important to note what significance two fewer months of Jhonny Peralta would mean. If you (optimistically) believe Peralta is a three-win player and (pessimistically) believe Diaz is a replacement-level player, over the course of a third of the season, this amounts to one win. While an additional win is positive, it probably does not justify breaking the bank, especially when the Cardinals may receive a consolation prize of Peralta not wearing down over the course of 155 games, as he did in 2015.
The loss of a first-round pick, if Desmond turns into old and terrific Ian Desmond, would not matter much, because the team could simply recoup the pick for 2017. Although Desmond would likely be hesitant to decline the qualifying offer again, he almost certainly would if his performance exceeds that of 2015, but if 2015 represented genuine deterioration of Desmond's skills, signing him would mean losing a top pick.
Today, Aledmys Diaz was 4-for-4 with two doubles. Although one game, particularly one game in Spring Training, is hardly enough of a data sample from which to draw major conclusions, it was a refreshing performance which demonstrates the potential the Cardinals saw when they signed Diaz out of Cuba and which demonstrates that even had they known Peralta would not be available, an internal option may have already been the best option.