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His defense is a problem but Aledmys Diaz should be a mainstay in the lineup

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Aledmys Diaz's defense needs work but he's hitting better than anyone on the team, and since no current alternatives represent an obvious upgrade he's the clear choice for the Cardinals' everyday shortstop.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Just over ten percent of this season is in the books and this is not the Cardinals team a lot of us were expecting. Replicating the run prevention numbers from 2015 was never going to happen but on paper there was a solid argument that this year's pitching staff from the starters to the bullpen was actually better. Frankly, I was expecting a lot of 2-1 wins. Instead they've given up one run or less only twice - both against Milwaukee. Through 18 games last year they had done that seven times. So far they've allowed five or more runs seven times, something that didn't happen last year until May 4th. The Cardinals, thankfully, are offsetting this with their own crooked numbers. They've scored seven or more runs nine times (last year it took them until May 19th to do that) and they're second in the National League to the vaunted Chicago Cubs in total runs scored and run differential.

Your 2016 St. Louis Cardinals have hit 28 home runs - tied for first in all of baseball with the Colorado Rockies, the team who plays in Coors Field where home runs are a way of life. Last year the Cardinals finished 11th in home runs in the NL. In 2014 they were dead last with just 105. And now? They're more than a quarter of their way to that number by way of seven players who have already hit three home runs or more and only two of them (Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk) were on the roster at this time last year. Basically no one was writing this script for the 2016 Cardinals.

The biggest of these surprises has been rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz who's hitting an absurd .480/.509/.860 in 53 plate appearances. Measuring by bWAR and fWAR (1.2 for both), Diaz is second only to Dexter Fowler in total wins in the NL in the early going. What's more, he'd possibly still be in Memphis had it not been for three separate injuries to Jhonny Peralta, Ruben Tejada, and Tommy Pham. Part of me wants to scream that it took a series of random and unfortunate events for the organization to even find it necessary to call up Diaz but mostly I'm thankful this player development staff is on our side.

The drawback has been Diaz's glove. He's a minus defender with five errors in just 14 games in which he's played, and yesterday he allowed a ball to sneak through into the outfield which allowed the Padres to take a momentary lead. Only a true optimist would not be concerned about his defense. That Diaz tied up the game with the encore of back-to-back home runs with Jedd Gyorko the very next half-inning perfectly captured the Diaz paradox. What do you do with a player who is hitting like this but hasn't proven he can handle the shortstop position at the MLB level?

The answer: When there's no obvious upgrade you play him.

I might be arguing with myself. Mike Matheny made it clear in a recent interview that those who are playing well will continue to see the field (that often in the early going this seemed to be based on a sample size of one game is a legitimate issue for another day), and going forward Diaz might very well be the everyday shortstop. Yet Ruben Tejada has gotten the start in two of the six games since his return last Monday which could seem like an ominous sign for the "Mike's guys" meme - the appearance of playing a veteran at the expense of a more promising talent. Tejada is likely the better fielder but as Ben Markham pointed out last month, he had his worst season in the field in 2015 and overall his defense is hardly good enough to supplant someone with so much more upside with the bat.

We are, of course, currently working with the only sample size that's available for Diaz at the MLB level and that slash line is going to naturally and quite mightily regress (his BABIP is currently 100 points higher than it was at any other level), but his approach at the plate suggests not even a hint of doubt that he's ready to hit at this level. Pitchers are rarely missing his bat. He has as many home runs and walks as he does strikeouts, and he's making above-average contact across the board.

2016

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Contact%

Zone%

F-STrike%

SwStr%

Diaz

23.5%

68.2%

45.9%

75.0%

89.7%

85.9%

50.0%

66.7%

6.3%

League Average

27.7%

66.0%

46.3%

60.0%

85.4%

77.6%

48.6%

60.2%

10.2%

And I don't only mean Diaz needs to keep playing ahead of Tejada, I mean when Peralta returns from his injury midseason the Cardinals need to figure out a way to get Diaz into the lineup if not much has changed. This infield does not excel defensively and it's not just Diaz - they lead the NL in errors and FanGraphs has the team overall as minus defensively.

But the Cardinals' infield has the luxury - if you want to call it that - of versatility once Peralta returns because no one on that field has an indispensable glove - there are no Ozzie Smiths or Scott Rolens. Third baseman Matt Carpenter has played 187 combined games at first and second base for his career. While most of it happened several years ago, Peralta has 200+ games experience at third base. Gyorko has played all over the infield in 2016 save for first base. Diaz probably wouldn't be a Gold Glove second baseman but is there a compelling reason to not shoehorn in there from time to time if it means getting his bat in the lineup? Let's get creative - shift players around, bring in Tejada as a late defensive replacement if need be, but get Diaz as many plate appearances as possible. And to that end, stop batting him eighth.

The 2016 Cardinals are wholly imperfect but full of unexpected promise. In the hyper-competitive NL Central, they would be best suited sticking with Aledmys Diaz as a mainstay in the lineup - he's been the most valuable player on the team and until the Cardinals have an obvious alternative it should be considered a no-brainer.