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Arizona’s other corner infielder

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Paul Goldschmidt may get the most mentions, but Jake Lamb is the better fit.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In early October, Arizona Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen told the Arizona Republic they were feeling out the trade market for some of their players.

Usually, if a GM is willing to be that forward with the media, you can expect them to part ways with a few.

It makes sense, given Arizona’s current position. This offseason features two major team contributors, pitcher Patrick Corbin and center fielder A.J. Pollock, heading to free agency. Next year it’ll be first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and utility Chris Owings (who’s struggled to find his footing recently). After 2020, most of their core of the past few years will be off the books, including former Cardinal farmhand David Peralta and slick-fielding shortstop Nick Ahmed.

It’s not just that several of the Dbacks’ core players are headed to free agency—it’s that they can’t afford to re-sign them.

Arizona has never been a team with a very high payroll. On top of that, Zack Greinke is owed more than $34 million per year for the next three seasons. They’re still paying Yasmany Tomás $32.5 million over the next two seasons.

Corbin accrued 6.3 fWAR in 2018 and is one of the biggest names among free agent arms. Before facing an injury in the middle of 2018, Pollock was headed in the direction of what seemed like an MVP-level season. He’s had a lot of injury woes over the past few years, but he’s going to get paid.

That’s not even looking at the type of contract the consistently-excellent Goldschmidt will command after 2019.

No, Arizona won’t be signing all of their free agents back and trying to contend the way they have. That means it’s time to cash in on some value through trade before players hit the open market.

Perfectly fitting this offseason narrative I’m trying to champion here, Derrick Goold reported Tuesday that the Cardinals were looking at trade candidates at the corner infield positions. That was later confirmed by Ken Rosenthal. Those two puzzle pieces fit pretty well together.

Most people jump to Goldschmidt in this scenario.

I don’t think that’s the place to be looking.

The corner infielder who provides the best fit and the most value to the Cardinals is on the other side of the diamond—Jake Lamb.

The Setup

On the opposite side of this argument against Arizona spending money, they did bring Eduardo Escobar back on a three-year, $21 million deal. Escobar was one of the candidates I listed in my piece about the third base free agent market earlier this offseason.

The reason that makes it tough for Lamb is that Escobar was brought on to be Lamb’s 2018 replacement when Lamb went down with injury and the Dbacks were making a push for a postseason spot. Escobar was extremely solid in 2018, posting a 3.5-WAR season.

Most of his defensive value in Arizona came from a shift in his usage. No longer deployed all around the field, mainly alternating between shortstop and third, Escobar was planted at the hot corner and posted positive value in the prominent batted-ball defensive metrics.

Keep looking around the horn and it’s hard to find an open spot. Nick Ahmed was a lights-out defender at short and his bat improved, even if it was still pretty far below average. Ketel Marte is an exciting young player under team control through 2024 with the ability to play both middle infield positions. Goldschmidt, a former gold glover, isn’t leaving first base until he’s no longer playing in the Valley. If the Dbacks were to make a run financially at any one player, one would expect it to be the franchise face of Goldschmidt.

Theoretically, the Dbacks could say they’ll take their chances shifting Escobar to shortstop, send Ahmed back to a utility role and plug Lamb back in at third base. But Escobar looks like a third baseman and, headed into his age-30 season, his ability to play short is only going to decrease as he ages.

Goldschmidt is an elite player and could command a pretty high price, even as a rental. But given the Dbacks’ recent affinity for the big name, it’s easy to see him staying in Arizona with a cheap core around him. That said, Jake could be the sacrificial lamb at the start of Arizona’s rebuild.

(I don’t regret writing that line, FWIW.)

He’s controllable at a low cost for more than one season and still has tons of potential, even with last year’s early injury.

The Numbers

Lamb went down with a shoulder injury in 2018, having season-ending surgery on his fraying left rotator cuff. It was an injury he struggled with even while he played, resulting in pretty subpar numbers last season. Look back at the previous two seasons and you see a player with some major potential.

After relying on defense to find his footing in his age-23 debut and first full season at age-24, Lamb’s bat woke up and produced two above-average seasons the following years. Lamb put up an OPS of .840 in 2016 and .844 in 2017.

Moreover, there was obvious improvement in his approach from the 2016 season to the 2017 one. His walk rate increased while strikeouts dropped, he boosted his on-base ability while not sacrificing a ton of power, he even increased his defensive value considerably. Lamb broke the 30-homer mark in 2017 and there’s no reason not to believe he couldn’t do it again.

Sure, in an injury-shortened 2018 featuring 238 PA, Lamb struggled at the plate. He’s also a left-handed hitter who was struggling with a shoulder injury on his dominant arm. It’s a pretty good explanation for why his slugging percentage dropped from .487 in 2017 to .348 this past year. In fact, his injury should sound pretty familiar to Cardinals fans, given the struggles of Marcell Ozuna in 2018. Unlike Ozuna’s play-through-the-pain approach, Lamb was shut down and underwent surgery. He’s expected to be completely ready for Spring Training and beyond.

By defensive metrics, Lamb isn’t the best at the hot corner. He put up negative numbers in both UZR and DRS in his best offensive seasons. That said, he presented positive value in 2018, even playing with an injured shoulder on his throwing arm. There’s no argument to be made that acquiring Lamb shores up the defensive side of third, but there’s no clear argument saying it doesn’t, either. Moreover, he’s probably a better fit than an aging Matt Carpenter moving forward. That said...

The Fit

Matt Carpenter most consistently provides his best defensive value from first base. Carpenter has shown struggles with making the throws across the diamond—every attempt looks max effort and still doesn’t seem like a bullet. Heading into his age-33 season, Carpenter’s bat and fielding ability play better at first.

Lamb may not have provided the same MVP-caliber seasons Josh Donaldson has in the past, but he’s also nearly five years younger. Donaldson didn’t even have his breakout year until his age-27 season. Lamb will play all of 2019 at the age of 28. Even though his cost will be in prospects, Lamb offers a much smaller monetary commitment than Donaldson and will be much easier to offload if he proves to be a bust. That said, though, Lamb gives the Cardinals a player still entering his prime as opposed to one potentially exiting his.

Additionally, extra money on the table can go toward a potential superstar free agent. I’m not saying I don’t think the Cardinals could afford Donaldson and a marquee name, but that’s definitely the rhetoric that’s been given out by ownership and the front office over the years.

Lamb is also a left-handed bat. There have been plenty of references to the Cardinals’ struggles against righties in the articles discussing Bryce Harper.

Looking at non-pitcher hitters, St. Louis had the fifth-best offense in the National League in 2018 with 103 wRC+. They were second-best in the NL and fourth-best in the majors against lefties with 109 wRC+. Change that to right-handers? The Cards drop to seventh-best in the senior circuit, 15th overall, with 102 wRC+.

Plate appearances against righties made up 74.6% of the Cardinals’ total chances. It makes sense, there are more right-handers than southpaws. But when you look at those numbers, the Cardinals were a top-five offense overall against left-handers and literally middle-of-the-pack against righties.

What can fix that? An increase in left-handed hitters who excel at taking righties deep. Who fits that profile with an above-average, power bat? Jake Lamb.

Over his career, Lamb has had 116 wRC+ and a .354 wOBA against right-handed pitchers. Look just at his last full season in 2017 and those numbers jump to 133 and .386, respectively.

No offense to Jedd Gyorko, but I’ll take that instead.

The Deal

Trade valuation is not my forte. Guys like Tyler Kinzy and John LaRue work magic with numbers and could probably work out surplus value in the amount of time it took me to write that sacrificial lamb line.

What I do know is that the Dbacks’ farm system ranked 25th in the majors at the start of 2018. Aside from the draft, they didn’t add to it this year.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have a wealth of young pitchers stacked at the top of their farm system. Most of them are now sitting at Memphis waiting to ride the I-55 express up to the bullpen, where most of their peers already reside. Arizona, on the other hand, has very little pitching talent on the horizon and is starting to see their controlled starting rotation dissipate, beginning with Corbin’s near departure.

The Cardinals also have a pile-up in the catcher department. Yadier Molina is showing no signs of slowing down—in a season played mostly at age-35, he took a 102 mph pitch off the groin, missed a month for injury and still posted above-average offense while winning a Gold Glove. Molina provided more value in 2018 than he did the year before, putting up 2.2 fWAR across 123 games.

Because of Molina’s success, extension and apparent access to the fountain of youth, Carson Kelly is a 24-year-old backup who has the potential to be starting for a major league team right now. Behind him is Andrew Knizner, another highly-valued catching prospect with a bat to match the glove. Arizona has an interesting catching prospect in Daulton Varsho, but he’s still a few years off from contributing.

The front office loves to deal from areas of depth to acquire other young, cost-controlled players who fill areas of need. John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have made no effort to hide that fact. Arizona needs to start a rebuild and doesn’t have much room to be making heavy demands like the Marlins did for their outfield an offseason ago.

With needs matching up and similar payroll ideologies, a deal between Arizona and St. Louis makes a lot of sense. Jake Lamb seems like the perfect focus for that deal.