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Who should start at second base for the Cardinals?

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When Matt Carpenter returns, the Cardinals will have three second basemen for one spot. Whose spot should it be?

When Jhonny Peralta returned from his season-opening stint on the Disabled List, the St. Louis Cardinals responded by shifting their infield around a little bit. Breakout future All-Star Aledmys Diaz retained the starting shortstop role he had earned in the first half of 2016, third baseman Matt Carpenter moved back to the second base position he occupied so admirably in 2013, and Peralta took over at the third base position many expected he would eventually overtake when he signed with the Cardinals before the 2014 season.

When Peralta and Carpenter went to the DL, this version of the infield was replaced by makeshift alternatives, but with Peralta back and Carpenter expected to return soon, the Carpenter-Diaz-Peralta alignment seemingly became a possibility again. But with Aledmys Diaz now injured, the Cardinals’ options now appear to be...rather familiar, actually.

The Cardinals had every intention of beginning 2016 with Jhonny Peralta as their shortstop and Matt Carpenter as their third baseman, and that will probably be the typical arrangement going forward. Yes, Peralta has had his struggles, and yes, Carpenter could play second base when it allows the Cardinals to have a more potent batting order, but the Cardinals will almost certainly opt for the safe option and continue to implement their left side of the infield from each of the previous two seasons.

Which leads to a question about second base that barely existed at the beginning of the season. It was a foregone conclusion that Kolten Wong, fresh off of signing an extension in the off-season, would get the majority of the starts at second base, while Jedd Gyorko would get something between occasional starts and full platoon duty while also serving as a backup around the infield. Also, Greg Garcia would exist.

While any 2016-based conclusions should include the “small sample size” caveat, none of the realistic second base options are particularly old, so there are also arguments about player development and general improvement to be made.

(Yes, Jedd Gyorko is younger than he seems. It doesn’t seem like Jedd Gyorko is 6 1/2 months younger than Tommy Pham, but he is.)

Anyway, while Wong was certainly the preferred choice entering 2016, he has been easily the least productive of the trio of realistic second base options.

Greg Garcia, 2016: 151 PA, .285 BA, .411 OBP, .415 SLG, 127 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR, 1.5 bWAR

Jedd Gyorko, 2016: 240 PA, .248 BA, .304 OBP, .477 SLG, 107 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR, 2.1 bWAR

Kolten Wong, 2016: 256 PA, .240 BA, .324 OBP, .316 SLG, 75 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR, 0.1 bWAR

Greg Garcia has been the best overall hitter of the group in 2016; he has walked at a Matt Carpenter-esque clip and he has shown a surprising level of power (granted, in limited action). Jedd Gyorko has been impressive as well, albeit in a much more one-dimensional way: while his on-base skills leave something to be desired, he has hit for more raw power, as measured by isolated power, than Mike Trout this season.

Kolten Wong, on the other hand, has combined the worst offensive characteristics of Garcia and Gyorko: he hasn’t hit for much contact, and while his on-base percentage might be acceptable (if not great) for a power hitter, he currently has half as many home runs in 2016 as Adam Wainwright.

Wong is an interesting player to evaluate in that opinions among fans and analysts differ wildly regarding him. Some see the player ranked the #50 prospect in baseball by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo before the 2013 season (for reference, probable NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager ranked #48). Others see the guy who hasn’t lived up to that hype, and thus they see a disappointment.

The truth about Kolten Wong is that he is...I’m not sure. Okay? Yeah, let’s go with okay. In 2014, in his in-earnest rookie season (he managed a -2 wRC+ in his brief MLB stint in 2013, somehow 20 points lower than eternal running joke Ty Wigginton managed), Wong produced a 90 wRC+, and he produced a 96 wRC+ in 2015. Statistically he was in the vicinity of perfectly serviceable but past their prime veterans Brandon Phillips and Chase Utley.

Seemingly, the Cardinals have more invested, emotionally and monetarily, in Wong than anybody else, but it also would seem that if they were sold on him as the no-doubt second baseman of the present and future, he would not have wound up in Memphis this season, nor would he have played in center field.

Unless multiple of the three need to be used at once, Jedd Gyorko should start against left-handed pitchers. He is the only righty of the group, and while Greg Garcia does sport a higher career wRC+ against lefties, it is in 31 career plate appearances. And since Gyorko has over double Wong’s plate appearances on the season against lefties, while Wong more than doubles Garcia’s, it seems this platoon decision has been settled.

As for righties, Gyorko has actually handled them the best by wRC+ for the season. Throughout their careers, it is Garcia leading the pack, though with far fewer plate appearances. Wong and Gyorko are in a virtual dead heat.

How much to weigh “the hot hand” in player evaluation is somewhat murky: some live by it, others ignore it completely, and others give it some limited consideration as a de facto tiebreaker (I consider myself part of the third group). But if it is your thing, Jedd Gyorko has been the best hitter of the group by a mile since the All-Star Break.

Defensively, the three seem to be a relative push at second base. By UZR, Wong has been the best fielder; while he is more susceptible to errors than Garcia or Gyorko, he has easily the best range.

Each option has strengths and weaknesses, though once the dust has settled and Matt Carpenter has returned to the lineup, assuming Aledmys Diaz is still out, my first choice against righties would be Jedd Gyorko. Which is not to suggest that Kolten Wong nor Greg Garcia should be left completely out to dry; Gyorko is not such a substantial upgrade, particularly against righties, that Wong should not get a start once a week or so, with Greg Garcia being allowed to continue to thrive in the super-utility role in which he has so thrived this season.

But as I said earlier, Jedd Gyorko is 27. He is under contract through 2020. The size of his contract is a sunk cost and should be mostly irrelevant in evaluating his future playing time, but it is a helpful reminder that the San Diego Padres saw something fairly special in him. Gyorko is just three years removed from a rookie season in which he hit 23 home runs (while playing home games at Petco Park, no less) and was worth 2.4 fWAR and 2.2 bWAR.

And in 2016, Gyorko is hitting home runs at a faster rate than 2013, he is walking more and striking out less and he is doing all of this while hitting for a lower batting average on balls in play. He may have turned a corner. And even if he hasn’t, Jedd Gyorko has shown enough that the Cardinals would be wise to start him regularly at second base going forward.