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The Market for Shortstops

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Trades to fill the Paul DeJong-shaped hole in my heart

Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

As we approach a third of the way through the season, I’ve been taking stock of how I feel about this year’s iteration of the Cardinals. There is both a lot to like and a lot to be frustrated with. On the negative side of the ledger, there’s whatever Greg Holland did to my soul. There’s Jordan Hicks’ comically low strikeout rate, Dominic Leone’s adventures in dingerland, and the maddening Matheny move where he has backups hit in the same lineup spot as the regular they’re replacing. I’m not saying that these are dealbreakers- just that they’re little things that make me enjoy the season a little less. The positive side of the ledger has been much longer so far this year. There’s the multitude of exciting young starters, watching batters struggle to comprehend Bud Norris, Jordan Hicks’ comically fast fastball, and the overall joy of watching Tommy Pham scowl his way to a 6-7 WAR pace.

If I had to name the one thing I like most about this season, though, I’d pick Paul DeJong. He’s provided a little bit of everything, and I mean that in the best possible way. I thought with him and the team through an interesting offseason extension. I despaired at his initial atrocious plate discipline, then got increasingly excited as he miraculously changed from a free-swinging walking strikeout into a well-rounded hitter. Across the whole journey, I’ve truly felt like I’m rooting for a good guy to win, and like he’s rewarding me for my fandom by continuing to improve. In this context, the broken pinky he suffered last week has been truly saddening for me, even beyond the immediate competitive impact on the Cardinals. That said, I’d like to focus on the competitive impact to the team today. Broken pinkies just aren’t an injury that baseball players deal with in a predictable way. Josh Harrison broke his pinky last September and was fine this year. Maybe he wasn’t fine, though- he broke the same pinky again last month. Alex Rios broke his pinky in 2015 and never played baseball again. David Wright broke his pinky and hit a home run the next day. Michael Morse broke a pinky and stopped hitting. Melky Cabrera broke a pinky and didn’t really miss a beat when he came back the next season, although you never want to rule out PED’s playing a role with Melky.

The point of my incoherent rambling on broken pinkies is that the Cardinals have a lot of uncertainty to deal with in the middle infield for the rest of the season. The easiest thing to do would be to go out and get help. This is a competitive Cardinals team, one with serious designs on the NL Central title or at least the first Wild Card slot, and losing 2-3 wins at shortstop if DeJong can’t come back in a timely and effective fashion is a great way to sabotage those designs. Mozeliak has never been shy about trading for in-season help when he’s needed it (though admittedly a lot of that help comes in the form of mediocre relievers), so I expect he’s already shopping around actively. I’d like to take a look at that shopping list.

Here are a few ground rules for the guys I’m going to look at today. First, two games of the Great Gyorko Shortstop Experiment have convinced me that the plan of playing him at short for the year is not in the Cardinals’ best interests. With that option out of the question, there’s no reason to go acquire a third baseman. As such, we’ll limit our search to shortstops. Second, I’m not going to analyze the case for acquiring Manny Machado. First, I think other writers here have done a very good job analyzing the costs and benefits of a Machado rental. Second, I just can’t bring myself to believe a Machado swap is happening. The Orioles ownership is too weird, the Cardinals front office is too conservative, and there simply aren’t enough examples of superstars being traded this early in the season for me to have much hope of a move there. With these ground rules in place, let’s look at some candidates for a trade.

It feels like there should be plenty of trades to make this year. There are a surfeit of uncompetitive teams across the majors, with nine teams at least six games under .500 as of Wednesday. We’re also in something of a golden age for shortstops. You can’t throw a stick over at Fangraphs without running into an article about how there’s a new shortstop putting up absurd numbers. There’s a guy named Daniel Robertson, who I had literally not heard of before researching this article, putting up a pretty sustainable-looking 150 wRC+ for the Rays at the moment. There’s just one problem with this gaggle of good shortstops: they’re all on good teams. At some level, this makes sense. Good teams are, you know, good. They get good by having good players, and good shortstops are good players. Nothing too fancy here. The degree to which the top shortstops play on the top teams is pretty staggering. Of the top 15 shortstops so far this year (using Fangraphs WAR), only three- Machado, Jose Iglesias, and Miguel Rojas- play for teams that don’t consider themselves contenders. Maybe the A’s fall out of the race and Marcus Semien becomes available. The pickings are pretty slim.. Greg Garcia and Yairo Munoz project to be around replacement level for the rest of the year, though, so a few WAR here and there could really help. Let’s take an A.E. Schafer-style run through a few possible trade candidates.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Jose Iglesias, Detroit Tigers

Bats/Throws: R/R
Notable Career Stats: .268/.314/.357, 10.4 UZR/150 for his career (compare to Francisco Lindor at 11.1)
This year: .245/.295/.362, 77 wRC+, 1.1 WAR

So, why him?

Jose Iglesias is the platonic ideal of a good-glove, no-hit shortstop. He’s always profiled as an excellent defender; though he once could only move one way, Derek Zoolander-style, he’s kicked that habit in recent years. Seriously, though- he can’t hit. Fangraphs projects him for a 77 wRC+ the rest of the way and a little over 1 WAR. He would immediately be the best defender in the Cardinals’ regular lineup, and also probably the worst hitter. I know I like talking about how our lineup isn’t that bad, but adding Jose Iglesias certainly wouldn’t help.

Why am I mentioning him, then? Well, his glove really is magical. A weak-hitting shortstop is a reality at this point if the Cardinals don’t make a move, and if I’m going to watch that kind of guy, I want him making beautiful defensive music to cheer me up. He can likely play second and third as needed as well, serving as a valuable defensive replacement and backup in a pinch. Finally, his contract is exactly what you would want in a one-year fill-in. He’s owed roughly 4 million dollars for the rest of the year and is a free agent after this year. He’s not the kind of player a team with a healthy Paul DeJong needs, so the fact that the Cardinals can move on from him after this year is enticing.

What’s a sample trade that would net him?

This one is pretty easy. Iglesias has around 6mm in projected excess value. The Cardinals would need to marginally overpay to convince the Tigers to trade him now rather than waiting to see if better offers came up. This looks to me like a straight-up swap of either Austin Gomber or Edmundo Sosa. As an added potential wrinkle that made me happy, imagine the Cardinals sending Greg Holland and all but 2 million dollars of his remaining deal as a sweetener. The Tigers try to either flip Holland at the deadline if they can fix him or use him to lose enough games to improve their draft stock. The Cardinals, meanwhile, no longer have Greg Holland. This won’t happen, but a man can dream.

Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Miguel Rojas, Miami Marlins

Bats/Throws: R/R
Notable Career Stats: .258/.316/.347, 12.3 K%, .090 ISO
This year: .265/.324/.424, 107 wRC+, 1.1 WAR

So, why him?

Miguel Rojas was a nice little player for the Marlins last year, a league-average hitter at shortstop who put up 1.3 wins in half a season. He’s been a nice little player for them so far this year, too- 1.1 wins in 190 PA. Before that, he was a mostly replacement level player whose glove made up for a complete lack of power. Recently, though, he’s joined the air ball revolution, dropping his ground ball percentage from 55% in 2015 to 46% this year and putting a little thump in his bat. He’s up to 7 home runs this year after 4 in his career prior to that. His average launch angle and average exit velocity are both trending up, and he even hit a home run off of Clayton Kershaw for emphasis. Rojas is the prototypical middle infielder who is muscling up, and if he can harness that talent he’ll continue to be a respectable hitter at a premium defensive spot.

In the field, Rojas is average to above-average at 2B, SS, and 3B, with excellent range and soft hands. He looks to me to be a defensive shortstop in the Addison Russell mold, though with all the tools toned down a notch. He’s also controllable and affordable, thanks to his poor offensive stats earlier in his career. He’s playing his Arb 1 year right now with a $1.18 million salary, and his future arbitration years are likely to top out around $5 million given his background and comparables. He’s a free agent after 2020. Rojas would fit right in with the Cardinals’ merry band of average and cost-controlled infielders, pushing positional flexibility higher like a young Matt Carpenter in reverse- his bat rather than his glove will be the weaker link, but he’ll likely be able to plug in serviceably across the infield.

What’s a sample trade that would net him?

Rojas would cost more than Iglesias if they were being dealt by the same team. He’s cheaper and has a chance to be better, and the two extra years of team control for a guy in his prime (he’s 29 right now) definitely have value. Luckily, though, the Marlins are in the market for toolsy prospects- maybe they’re interested in Conner Greene’s fastball or Junior Fernandez’s two plus pitches. Would Oscar Mercado be of interest? Maybe we throw in Alvaro Seijas if they want a reliever, or free Patrick Wisdom to get some at-bats in the majors for once in his life. I really have no idea what the market for Miguel Rojas looks like, but I think either one of the two good pitchers above gets the Marlins to the table. If I have faith in anything, it’s in Mo fleecing Derek Jeter in a negotiation.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Semien, Oakland Athletics

Bats/Throws: R/R
Notable Career Stats: .250/.309/.408, 96 wRC+, 118 wRC+ vs. lefties
This Year: .279/.325/.404, 100 wRC+, 1.3 WAR in 228 PA

So, why him?

Marcus Semien is essentially variations on a theme of Miguel Rojas. He hits better but fields worse to arrive at a similar value, and he hits better in a different way. Where Rojas has avoided whiffs and recently started hunting power, Semien has turned a solid batting eye and league-average power into acceptable batting lines year after year. He’s a frustrating defender, with enough speed and arm to get by but a propensity for rushing throws or bobbling transfers. He’s a lefty-killer who can shift around the infield in a pinch, which gives the Cardinals more roster flexibility even after DeJong returns.

To me, Semien just feels wrong for the Cardinals. Their defensive hallmark on the left side of the infield has recently been slow-footed but sure-handed; the Jhonny Peralta defensive legacy at work. Semien represents at best an odd fit in that mix. He’s probably a just-above-median outcome for Yairo Munoz, and while there’s value in realizing that median outcome now rather than waiting to see what Yairo becomes, Semien might be an awkward fit in the team’s plans going forward. His contract is nice, though- he’s in Arb 1 this year with a $3 million salary, and isn’t a free agent until after the 2020 season. Overall, I’m not in love with Semien on the Cardinals. He feels like paying up for a brand name without really getting enough intriguing stuff in return. Still, he’s an available shortstop, and is the right amount of available for the right price for the Cardinals to kick the tires.

What’s a sample trade that would net him?

Honestly, you’ve got me here. The A’s are contending this year, and while they have a great shortstop prospect in Franklin Barreto, he’s not exactly knocking down the door to the majors with his performance in AAA so far. The A’s are also likely to want to trade major-league talent rather than prospects, and their biggest weakness is probably in the starting rotation. I don’t see a really obvious fit for the two teams. Michael Wacha straight up might interest the A’s, and they’ve been similarly valuable when you account for the fact that Semien has an extra year of team control, so maybe a DeJong setback leads to that swap. Unless the Cards know DeJong is going to be severely limited this year, though, I can’t imagine them trading from starting pitching depth with so many young and innings-limited pitchers in the rotation.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers

Bats/Throws: S/R
Notable Career Stats: .229/.308/.343, somehow never topped 325 PA, former #1 prospect
This Year: .230/.304/.401, 87 wRC+, .3 WAR in 171 PA

So, why him?

What a bizarre career Jurickson Profar has had. His all-around graceful game and hitting potential made him a prized prospect, and it just hasn’t worked out for him at all. Whether it’s injuries, ineffectiveness, or Elvis Andrus, something has always stood in the way of his making a lasting impression in the majors. He was always a bit miscast as a top prospect- he was an above-average hitter at every level of the minors but never remarkably so. He’s not particularly fast, doesn’t hit for a ton of power, and probably tops out at about average defensively. He makes up for these shortcomings with an advanced approach at the plate- he doesn’t chase very often and is well-above average at making contact.

I’ve listed Profar here not because he’s the best name the Cardinals could get but because I’ve always been intrigued by him. He was a prospect who became elite without elite tools, but he seemed like the kind of player who would adapt at the major league level and provide value for a long time. It’s somewhat fascinating to look at someone who once carried so much promise attempt to get by on scraps. To his credit, he’s been totally serviceable for the Rangers this year. A .258 BABIP is disguising a reasonable offensive line, and if you consider him an average defender (he’s been awful in a small sample size so far this year) he would be something like a 1 WAR player so far. Mostly, though, he can probably be had for a song. He’s on a $1 million contract in his last controllable year and the Rangers would probably be happy to ship him off for almost anything after some drama last year when he wasn’t dealt at the trading deadline.

What’s a sample trade that would net him?

This one kind of depends on the Rangers. On the merits, he’s not worth very much at all. A lottery ticket arm is most likely a fair price for a year of a marginally above-replacement-level hitter, but it all comes down to whether the Rangers are motivated sellers. If they decide they want to hold on to him to show their fan base they aren’t just selling former great prospects for nothing, there’s probably nothing to be done here.

These Shortstops are All Kind of Bad

Well yes, dear reader, they absolutely are. Paul DeJong’s don’t grow on trees, except apparently for the Cardinals, who have spun Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz, and DeJong into at least fleeting gold year after year. The options here are decidedly middling- there isn’t a name on this list I’d consider a must-watch at-bat. The good news is that there really aren’t many contenders in the market for a shortstop. To the extent that the above teams are sellers, they’ll be peddling players to essentially the Cardinals and Blue Jays only. The Phillies might be on the fringes sniffing around, but between Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford they won’t be looking to take on any multi-year deals- they’re probably more players for Machado if anything. If I were Mozeliak, I’d take a long look at Miguel Rojas out of these options. He would immediately make the lineup more dynamic and would still have value to the team even after DeJong is back. If you think he’s a 1 WAR player the rest of the way between filling in at short for a month or two and playing a utility role after that, that’s a valuable thing to go after. Still, though. This mix of shortstops is telling me only one thing- pray for Paul DeJong’s pinky. That or trade for Machado, I suppose, but that is a story for a different day.