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Can the Cardinals improve on Paul DeJong at short?

A look through the alternative options at short

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I do not think the Cardinals are going to move Paul DeJong off SS. I believe John Mozeliak himself has publicly stated that short is one of the positions he doesn’t think he needs to improve. I agree with him. Paul DeJong is very likely to be the Cardinals starting SS in 2019. However, I’m interested to know the alternatives. I want to definitively know that DeJong is the best the Cardinals can do given the alternative options and that, well, DeJong is very good. Also, the offseason is long so what else am I going to talk about?

To my mind, there are two things that need to happen to move DeJong off SS: the player is better than DeJong and the player is better defensively than DeJong. If only the latter point, the player must better than Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko is essentially an average player, so the player needs to be above average. If you don’t get someone better than Gyorko, it’s like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

First, the free agent options. They are grim, especially if you don’t consider Manny Machado a shortstop. If you consider him a shortstop, he certainly qualifies as a better player than DeJong. I’ve already made my case against him. It looks like Machado is an average defender at short (or worse), and it looks like DeJong is better than that, so I consider him more of a 3B option than a shortstop one.

To go through the Murderer’s Row of free agent shortstops the Cards will definitely not get, there’s Jose Reyes (-0.9 fWAR in 2018), Alcides Escobar (-0.3 fWAR), Adeiny Hechavarria (0.4 fWAR), Jordy Mercer (1 fWAR), Gregorio Petit (-0.2 career fWAR) and Freddy Galvis, who played in literally every single game to get his 1.2 fWAR.

That leaves Jose Iglesias, who had a career high 2.5 fWAR last year in only 125 games played. He is most likely a better defender than DeJong with a +9.7 UZR/150. So he would improve the defense significantly. But he’s a very bad hitter. His 90 wRC+ in 2018 was his highest since 2015. He’s the classic SS: doesn’t strike out, doesn’t walk, has barely any power. His projected Steamer projection for 2019 is 84 wRC+ with 1.6 fWAR in 122 games played. That is not better than Jedd Gyorko.

The conversation gets more interesting when you include potential trades. I went through every team and found eleven potential shortstops that could be traded if the right deal is presented and if the front office is selling, which are rather big ifs. With one notable exception, I ignored any shortstops who were in pre-arbitration for 2019. Anyone good enough to be worth trading for is not getting traded in pre-arb, no matter if the team is selling or not.

Since I don’t want to make this a long post, I’ll quickly go through the shortstops who might be traded, but definitely won’t be traded to the Cardinals. Addison Russell, for about ten reasons, is not going to the Cards. Brandon Crawford is getting paid $15 million for the next three years to be an average player, which would make sense on a team that desperately needed a SS. Elvis Andrus is under contract for five more years, is projected to be below average in 2019 and is 30. Jose Iglesias is an optimistic outcome for Nick Ahmed. Needless to say, that’s a hard pass.

Now onto the options that could make sense given the right circumstances:

JP Crawford, Phillies - It is unclear what the Phillies are doing with JP Crawford. He was supposed to play 2018 as the starting SS, but ended up playing in only 49 games with 138 plate appearances. Injuries were a large reason why. He went on the DL on April 28, returned June 6, and got hurt June 19 again (against the Cards). He started his second rehab stint on July 30, and didn’t get an MLB plate appearance until September 8. His last PA in the minors was the 3rd. He started 5 total games to end his season, with his last start on September 19.

The Phillies were in freefall mode for September. They were not going to make the playoffs. They sat one of their top prospects, the prospect they thought would be their starter all year, in favor of a lesser prospect with negative WAR (Scott Kingery). Crawford had a 156 wRC+ during September. I’m just saying. Maybe there’s something here. Still doesn’t really make sense for the Cards, but he was the #16 overall prospect by Baseball America going into the season and will be 24. A down season in a very small number of PAs which could have been affected by injuries shouldn’t make you change your mind that much.

Didi Gregorious, Yankees - This is one of those “not gonna happen, but maybe it should” kind of trades. Gregorious had Tommy John surgery in early October. He will miss the beginning of the season and might be out until the All-Star break. The Yankees already have Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres to replace him. He is a comparable defender to DeJong and a better hitter. He will likely not be nearly as expensive as he could be because of how much time he might miss. He will also be a free agent after 2019. He’d be an interesting trade deadline move who isn’t actually traded at the trading deadline.

Jurickson Profar, Rangers - Previously the #1 prospect in all of baseball, he finally broke out in 2018. He is inexplicably only 26 next year and also inexplicably has four years of service time already and will be a free agent in 2021. Anyway he was finally healthy and produced 2.9 fWAR. If you believe that he was a top prospect for a reason, you might be convinced he has more potential than DeJong. One unfortunate wrinkle: he’s probably below average at SS. He’d be an interesting guy to throw at SS/3B as a switch hitter though and the Rangers should definitely get on trading him sooner rather later.

Marcus Semien, Athletics - So this one is a long shot. But he’s in arbitration and plays for the Athletics, so pretty much anyone in that scenario is theoretically a trade option. The projections like him a lot. His Steamer projection of 101 wRC+ is literally higher than he has ever posted before. He does not appear to be a better defender than DeJong. Unless you think he is actually a 3.7 fWAR player or that he can improve offensively, he doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to trade for coming off a career high season that will not likely be duplicated.

Andrelton Simmons, Angels - Obligatory reference because people would ask if he wasn’t listed. But no the Angels aren’t selling so he’s not a realistic option. Somehow Cards fans think he’s available every year though!

Troy Tulowitzki, Blue Jays - Another way to get rid of the Fowler contract. He’s getting $20 million and $15 million in 2020 (with $4 million buyout for 2021). So you pay slightly more for two years instead of three years. He would be a good-sized risk. He didn’t play at all in 2018 and was bad in 2017. He’s going into his age 34 season. On the other hand, he’s still projected to be a league average player (on a rate basis). Tulowitzki wouldn’t really be replacing DeJong though. The Cardinals arguably need a backup SS more than a backup OF. You could make the case for it.

Paul DeJong will be the starting SS in 2019 for a reason. This list of alternative options is... not great. Machado should play third base if signed. The other great options are not realistic. Most of the more feasible moves seem more lateral than upgrades at best. The best option in my opinion, is a player who will play just over half a season optimistically. The Cardinals could use upgrades at any position where they find one. They just won’t find one at short.