In 2013, Matt Carpenter was the seventh-best position player in baseball by Fangraphs WAR. He was not a significantly better hitter than he is now, but because he played second base, a position with less expected offensively, his offense was even more valuable, as the gap between Carpenter and the average second baseman offensively is greater than the gap between Carpenter and the average third baseman.
With Jhonny Peralta set to return to the St. Louis Cardinals for the first time in 2016, the Cardinals are poised to radically change the construction of their everyday lineup, with the team expected to primarily play Peralta at third base, leaving Aledmys Diaz at shortstop and returning Matt Carpenter to second base.
Some, including myself, initially saw first base as a logical landing spot for Carpenter. After all, not only had Carpenter been merely passable as a second baseman in 2013, he has been far from an elite defensive third baseman in 2014, 2015, and the first two months of 2016.
But because of the offensive renaissance of Matt Adams and the resurgent power of Brandon Moss, the Cardinals seem intent to frequently utilize an infield with a second baseman being slid back up the defensive spectrum and playing the position regularly for the first time since three years ago, when he was 27 years old.
The organization's decision to option Kolten Wong, its primary second baseman over the last two-plus seasons, to Memphis on Monday further cemented Matt Carpenter's transition back to second base as something to which the Cardinals are committed.
At shortstop now is Aledmys Diaz, who has been a revelation offensively but has committed 12 errors already on the season. While errors alone are a mediocre judge of a player's defensive ability, his range hasn't been that much better: he ranks 18th among the 21 MLB shortstops with as many innings as he has, by UZR/150. And at third base will be Jhonny Peralta, long underrated defensively at shortstop but somebody whose range declined in 2015, is coming off an injury, and has not played third base at all in the majors since 2010.
While Kolten Wong frustrated some fans with occasional gaffes on routine plays (his most famous MLB play being an example of an egregious fundamental error probably doesn't help his reputation for sound play), he has been a roughly league-average defensive second baseman, and is almost certainly better defensively at the position than Matt Carpenter, who was below-average while three years younger and coming off of a Spring Training preparing for the position.
But while Wong flashes offensive acumen from time to time, assuming Jhonny Peralta is something close to what he was during his first year-and-a-half in St. Louis and assuming Aledmys Diaz can maintain something close to his early offensive returns, Wong is clearly the odd man out at the plate. It is not the first time that the Cardinals have given high priority to offensive prowess over solid defense.
The second base carousel
The initial decision to play Matt Carpenter, primarily a corner infielder until 2013 in both the minors and majors, at second base was an obvious case of prioritizing offense. Not that Daniel Descalso was a great defensive second baseman, but there was little doubt that he could at least hang at the position. But Carpenter, with a 124 wRC+ in 340 plate appearances, was an irresistible bat for the Cardinals and thus the team was willing to take a gamble on his defense.
An even more extreme example of the team making an unconventional decision at second base was in 2009, when utility outfielder Skip Schumaker was converted to second base. Schumaker was slightly above average as a hitter, though his bat looked less appealing going forward at the corner outfield spots (an inevitability with the promotion of Colby Rasmus to the big leagues). So rather than stomach another year of Aaron Miles or Adam Kennedy, the Cardinals moved the career outfielder not only to the infield, but to a significant defensive position in the infield.
The 2011 gamble
The Opening Day lineup for the 2011 Cardinals included three players who had been moved up the defensive spectrum. In addition to the aforementioned Schumaker, who started at second base, the Cardinals started Ryan Theriot at shortstop and Lance Berkman in right field. Theriot had been a shortstop from 2007-2009 but in 2010 played primarily at second base, while Berkman hadn't played the outfield since 2007 (he also logged significant time as a designated hitter after being traded during the 2010 season to the New York Yankees).
Additionally, at the deadline, the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus, a non-elite defensive center fielder but unquestionably a center fielder, and allowed his starting spot to be taken by Jon Jay, who started more minor league games in the corners than in center field in both 2009 and 2010 and was primarily a right fielder in his MLB career to that point. It turned out that Jon Jay was solid in center field. More on him in a minute.
The great center field adventures
Of the 35 men to log 2000+ innings in center field in the majors from 2011 through 2015, Jon Jay ranked 12th in UZR/150. He wasn't a defensive superstar but he turned out to be perfectly fine. But after he had a down 2013, the Cardinals acquired Peter Bourjos from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Although each became something of a caricature reputationally, there was little question that Bourjos derived a much more significant amount of his total value from his defense, ranking among the best in baseball, than Jon Jay.
Some insisted that Jon Jay's eventual emergence as the clear everyday center fielder over Peter Bourjos was the result of a favorable relationship with Mike Matheny. While this may have been a factor, that a Cardinals manager would side with the more offensively-oriented player was hardly a surprise given recent history. It also fit in with recent history when Randal Grichuk, who fielded well in center field in 2015 but had played sparingly in center in the minors before 2014, and even then played in left field more often. But Grichuk was a better hitter, and thus he was able to take the starting spot from Jay and Bourjos.
So...about this defensive shuffle...
It might get ugly. But if everybody involved is able to maintain their expected offensive production, this may only matter so much.
The defensive alternative to Carpenter-Diaz-Peralta is hardly Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith, and Brooks Robinson. Whether it will be worth sacrificing some potential on the defensive end for a presumptive upgrade at the plate remains to be seen, though these types of moves have paid dividends for the Cardinals in the recent past.