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The Cardinals should sign Jarrod Dyson

The Cardinals don’t need another good-not-great outfielder, but Jarrod Dyson may be a particularly good fit in St. Louis.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two years, the St. Louis Cardinals had six outfielder seasons worth between 1.4 and 2.8 Wins Above Replacement, as measured by FanGraphs. Randal Grichuk (twice), Stephen Piscotty, Dexter Fowler, Brandon Moss, and Jose Martinez have epitomized a recent trend among Cardinals outfielders, which is overwhelming adequacy. And although Tommy Pham bucked this trend in 2017 by being legitimately excellent, with 5.9 fWAR, he too is a candidate to regress and be much closer to the average-ish player he was before 2017 than the MVP candidate he was last season.

The Cardinals have been defined in recent seasons by having a lot of fine players and not having a lot of great players. The MLB hot stove always gravitates towards the biggest names because they make for the most interesting and most impactful signings, but it is particularly relevant to discuss potential major acquisitions for a team like the Cardinals. A mid-to-low tier signing can make a difference for a team with a glaring positional weakness or a team lacking depth, but for a team loaded with competence, acquiring a player such as Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson, or J.D. Martinez is seemingly the only way to make a move worth mentioning.

On the surface, free agent center fielder Jarrod Dyson, previously of the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, would be a redundancy—over the last five seasons, with plate appearance totals ranging from 225 to 390, Dyson’s fWARs were, chronologically, 2.5, 3.0, 1.8, 3.1, and 2.1. Dyson is a perfectly fine player but he’s not in the same stratosphere as Giancarlo Stanton. He would be another in a long line of okayness among Cardinals outfielders.

But Jarrod Dyson is a different type of player from, say, Randal Grichuk. And he would be a sensible acquisition for the St. Louis Cardinals not because he’s substantially better than the incumbents in the outfield rotation, but because he is capable of filling roles that internal options are not.

Randal Grichuk is a well-rounded player who is okay at most things. He’s a pretty good hitter, with a career wRC+ of 108—he strikes out too much and he draws walks too rarely, but he also has too much raw power to simply dismiss him. He’s an above-average base runner by Base Running Runs, but with fifteen stolen bases and 1386 plate appearances in his career, Grichuk isn’t exactly Billy Hamilton (or even Tommy Pham). And while Grichuk was shifted to left field for 2017, he was a decent defensive center fielder who is probably a little bit better playing in a corner. He’s fine. He’s similarly productive to (free agent and) former Cardinal Jon Jay, albeit in different ways—uninspiring as a starter, valuable as a fourth outfielder.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the Cardinals do acquire a big-time right fielder—it doesn’t have to be Stanton, but somebody good enough to clearly merit starting over any current Cardinals outfielders that aren’t Tommy Pham or Dexter Fowler, who both seem assured of starting positions at least to start 2018. But I’m going to refer to this hypothetical right fielder as Stanton anyway because it’s fun to dream.

The outfield would likely be Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Giancarlo Stanton, from left to right. At least one of Grichuk, Piscotty, or Martinez would likely have to leave to accommodate the arrival of Stanton (at least one would probably be sent to the Miami Marlins in the hypothetical trade), but since we don’t know which one it would be, let’s consider the role each would have with this outfield.

Like Grichuk, Piscotty is pretty well-rounded, but would either be more trusted at the plate ahead of one of the starters? Would either be more trusted in the field? On the bases? Maybe Grichuk represents a small improvement over Stanton in the field, but is it by enough that he would ever make sense as a defensive substitution when he is a considerably less lethal bat? While Jose Martinez showed promise at the plate, and could have promise as a pinch-hitter, he probably wouldn’t do it for other outfielders—the lowest 2017 wRC+ among this new starting arrangement was from Dexter Fowler, whose wRC+ stood at 121.

Guys need days off and players wind up on the Disabled List, but on a day-to-day basis, the current collection of average outfielders doesn’t provide much additional benefit. This is how Jarrod Dyson fits.

In an era of sharply declining stolen base numbers, Dyson has stolen 26 or more bases in each of the last six seasons, his only six seasons as a full-time MLB player. Since 2012, Dyson ranks fifth among all MLB players in stolen bases, trailing only Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, Jose Altuve, and Rajai Davis. And at an 84% stolen base rate, his efficiency has been unparalleled among this upper tier of base thieves. By Base Running Runs, despite fewer opportunities on the bases, Dyson trails only Hamilton, Mike Trout, and Davis since 2012. Although Dyson is getting older—he’s currently 33 and will turn 34 in August of next season—his performance hasn’t shown signs of aging, with the outfielder stealing 28 bases while only being caught seven times in 2017.

Also holding steady in 2017 was Dyson’s fielding. In each of his eight seasons with some MLB service time, he was above-average by Fielding Runs. He was so renowned as a defensive center fielder by the Royals that he frequently pushed Lorenzo Cain, himself a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder and an even more highly coveted free agent, to right field. By Ultimate Zone Rating, Dyson ranks 4th among center fielders by Ultimate Zone Rating since 2012.

While putting too much stock into individual seasons of defensive metrics is dangerous, Dyson ranked 7th in 2017 by UZR. At 28.8 feet per second, Dyson had the 31st fastest sprint speed in Major League Baseball in 2017, trailing only Magneuris Sierra among Cardinals. Other than looking at his age, there isn’t much proof that he is declining in the field. While Dexter Fowler resisted moving to a corner spot, it is somewhat understandable that he would feel this way about stepping aside for a less established player. Jarrod Dyson is an established defensive whiz, and he would immediately be the best defensive outfielder on the team.

Admittedly, Jarrod Dyson is not a great hitter (his career wRC+ is 86), but if the Cardinals acquire the big bat they have vowed to acquire this off-season, they won’t need Dyson to be. He can instantly improve any outfield alignment, he can pinch-run in games when he does not start, and the Cardinals can utilize a pinch-hitter when Dyson is forced to face left-handed pitching (against whom he has a 55 career wRC+, compared to 93 versus righties) in late situations. An off-season in which Dyson is the big acquisition would, and should, be considered a failure, but at some of the figures suggested for him (MLB Trade Rumors predicts Dyson will sign for a two-year contract at just $6 million per season), Jarrod Dyson would be an absolute bargain, and can be a very useful piece for a team hoping to contend over the next two seasons.