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Please, Mo, Don’t Trade for Mike Moustakas

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The Cardinals have been linked with the Royals slugger. I think it would be a mistake.

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It’s trading season. John LaRue is writing a comprehensive series of trade possibilities and needs. I can’t recommend it highly enough- if you want to see who the Cardinals should target and what that might cost, John has you covered. That’s not why I’m here today. I’m here to tell you who the Cardinals don’t need, and why any amount that it would cost is too much. I’m talking, of course, about Mike Moustakas. Ken Rosenthal reported that the Cardinals have ‘renewed interest’ in Mike Moustakas last Friday. He’s the kind of reporter you should listen to. Ken Rosenthal doesn’t get fed false stories. He doesn’t get tricked. If he reports it, it’s real. Just this one time, though, I hope someone pulled a fast one on him. I think this trade would be a small-scale disaster for the Cardinals.

Let’s talk, first, about what it would cost. It’s hard to have a view on the trade without knowing what the Cardinals are giving up. Here, again, it’s John LaRue to the rescue. He dug through the past transactions that have netted a player of Moustakas’ caliber and contract situation, and came away with the opinion that he’ll cost some organizational depth. To quote John: “the best you can hope for with a rental is one return piece at the back of the BA Top 100, and it took a player like Zobrist (6.2 fWAR for the previous 1.6 seasons) to get it.” Realistically, we’re talking more like one of the AAA outfielders- Jose Adolis Garcia maybe, or Randy Arozarena. Maybe the Royals are really high on Oscar Mercado, or Conner Greene. We’re talking someone of that caliber, though. A guy you’ve heard of, but not your favorite prospect (unless you are A.E. Schafer- sorry baron, I know you love Arozarena). I have no insight whatsoever into the Royals’ player evaluation process, so there are no specific baseball reasons behind these trades. They’re just the rough caliber of prospect you’d expect to see traded. Moustakas is on a pretty reasonable salary (6.5 million for the whole year), so the Cards can’t eat salary to trade back lesser prospects.

Okay, so we know what they’d be sending out, roughly. What would the Cardinals be getting back in exchange for their youngsters? A slow-footed corner infielder, basically. Why have only Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko when you can add Mike Moustakas to the bargain to make a trifecta? Seriously, Moustakas is SLOWWWWW. Statcast has a sprint speed leaderboard that measures how fast players run in full-effort situations. As you might expect, Gyorko is more or less at the bottom of this list for third basemen. He picks them up and puts them down to the tune of 24.8 feet per second, faster only than Luis Valbuena and a very injured Adrian Beltre. Carpenter’s a little better. He’s managed to top out at 26.2 feet per second this year, still incredibly slow but not at the very bottom of the list. Where’s Moustakas? Halfway between the two of them, at 25.6. This isn’t a one-year fluke, either. He topped out at 24 fps last year. Moustakas was never fleet of foot to begin with, but a season-ending knee surgery in 2016 really did a number on his speed.

Now, being slow isn’t the end of the world. As I mentioned, the Cardinals already play guys like this. It does affect defense, however. It’s hard to be an outstanding defender with that little range, though not impossible. It’s also tremendously hard to be a good baserunner, and Moustakas wasn’t even a good baserunner before his injury, so that’s probably a lost cause. Let’s talk about the defense, though. Defensive metrics are always a bit hard to take at face value, but for his career Moustakas has been a marginally above-average defensive third baseman. He’s been a little worse since his injury, but he’s still under 30, so I’m willing to accept these numbers as is. That puts him more or less right in the middle of the Cards’ two options at third- Gyorko is solidly above average, and Carpenter is probably a little worse than average, this year’s numbers notwithstanding. Either way, Moustakas isn’t offering anything groundbreaking here.

Let’s be realistic, though; the Cardinals wouldn’t be acquiring Mike Moustakas for his glove. The man hit 38 dingers last season. He has 15 this season already. They’d be acquiring him for his bat. Even more specifically, they’d be acquiring him for his lefty bat. Let’s get one thing out of the way first- Moustakas wouldn’t start against opposing lefties. That’s just not his game. If they want to, the Cards can trot out an infield of Gyorko, DeJong (when healthy), Carpenter, and Jose Martinez. Carpenter is the worst of those four against lefties in his career, and he’s hit them to the tune of a 111 wRC+. Moustakas is a career 85 wRC+ hitter against lefties, and there’s nothing fluky about it. There’s also nothing wrong with it- that’s just not his job. With that out of the way, let’s touch on Moustakas’ strengths as a hitter. He’s an above-average hitter, after all, and there’s a reason he’s a moderately hot commodity on the trade market this year. He really does crush right-handed pitching.

Mike Moustakas is running a pretty big platoon split this year, but he has done it in an interesting way throughout the course of his career. You basically know the way most hitters get their platoon splits, even if you haven’t thought about it much. That’s because it’s pretty intuitive. Hitters with the platoon advantage strike out less and walk more. That’s pretty straightforward. For some data, I took a sample of every lefty hitter who had 150 PA’s against right-handed pitching and 50 PA against left-handed pitching last year, a group of semi-regular left-handed hitters. This cohort struck out 3% less against righties and walked 2% more often. They had the same BABIP against both sides- also pretty reasonable, though if anything I would have predicted a higher BABIP with the platoon advantage. Lastly, they absolutely crush the ball, recording a 70 point higher ISO. Mike Moustakas- well, see for yourself:

Platoon Advantage, LHH vs. RHP

Player BB% Gain K% Gain BABIP Gain ISO Gain wRC+ Gain
Player BB% Gain K% Gain BABIP Gain ISO Gain wRC+ Gain
MLB, 2017 2.30% -2.80% 0.002 0.067 28.6
Moustakas, 2018 5.30% 0% 0.01 0.072 38
Moustakas, Career 1.30% -0.30% 0.011 0.029 17

Mike Moustakas hasn’t been a prototypical lefty throughout his career. He’s run a lower than normal platoon split, and his peripherals all more or less agree. Those career numbers also include this year, so he hasn’t run even this good of a platoon split in the past. Moustakas certainly looks the part of a platoon bat, a monster who crushes home runs against right-handed pitching. This year, he’s even been one. It’s easy to see why he’d do well at it- he’s got great plate discipline, and he’s the kind of guy who has always seemed close to tapping into his power. Here’s the thing about splits like this, though: they’re nowhere near reliable. Fortunately enough, I just read through the section about regressing platoon splits in The Book, and there’s an easy rule of thumb you can follow. Take your relevant platoon sample, and add 1000 PA of league-average platoon splits (in this case, you add 1000 PA of plate appearances of lefty-on-lefty matchups to make the math work). That gives you an approximation of true skill. Let’s look at the above table again, but this time with 1000 PA of league-average splits added in for seasoning:

Regressed Platoon Advantage, LHH vs. RHP

Player BB% Gain K% Gain BABIP Gain ISO Gain wRC+ Gain
Player BB% Gain K% Gain BABIP Gain ISO Gain wRC+ Gain
MLB, 2017 2.30% -2.80% 0.002 0.067 28.6
Moustakas, 2018 2.60% -2.52% 0.003 0.068 29.5
Moustakas, Career 1.79% -1.53% 0.007 0.048 22.7

This is less exciting, but it’s a better guess at what Moustakas is going to look like the rest of the year. Is this the lefty bat the Cardinals have been looking for? I mean, not really. Imagine a hypothetical infield after a Moustakas acquisition. Across the diamond, you’re looking at Carpenter, Wong, DeJong, and Moustakas. There’s really nowhere to put Jose Martinez in this configuration. Maybe you can throw him in the outfield, but the Cardinals seem likely to use Dexter Fowler there as long as he’s on the team. Jose’s stats merit some regressing of their own, but he projects to be somewhere around a 100 wRC+ hitter against righties. That’s not bad, obviously, but with his defense (is butcherous a word?) I wouldn’t mind plugging Moustakas in there, upgrading third base defense and first base defense in one shot.

So, case closed, right? Acquire Moustakas, play him against righties, end of story. Well, not so fast. The Cardinals already have another lefty infielder who gets most of his at-bats against righties. Greg Garcia would like a word. On the surface, it would be hard to find a player less like Moustakas. Moustakas was the second overall pick in the draft, one of the cornerstones of the Royals’ golden generation of minor league talent. Greg Garcia was a seventh-round pick who was considered organizational depth at best. Mike Moustakas hit 38 home runs last year. Greg Garcia has nine career home runs. The differences go on and on. And yet, here’s the thing. Greg Garcia has actually run a higher wRC+ against righties for his career than Mike Moustakas has. Will that happen in the future? I doubt it! Moustakas is a better hitter than Garcia is, and he has a lot more margin for error. He’s a huge dude who has some pop and doesn’t strike out much, and that’s a recipe for success more so than whatever Garcia is getting by on. In terms of their actual production, though, picking between them is splitting hairs.

If picking between Moustakas and Garcia isn’t a landslide decision to Moustakas, the cracks in this trade hypothetical really start to show. Moustakas upgrades the Cardinals against righties a little, that much is true. That’s not where the story ends, though. Moustakas needs to take someone’s roster spot. That’s a big problem. The roster (after DeJong returns) will break down something like this:

13 pitchers

4 outfielders

2 catchers

Matt Carpenter

Jose Martinez

Kolten Wong

Paul DeJong

Jedd Gyorko

Greg Garcia

The Cardinals are pretty unlikely to mess with the top nineteen roster spots. That leaves six infield slots to play around with. Someone needs to get traded to fit Moustakas in. Let’s imagine the possible trades:

Trade Matt Carpenter: I’d rather not, thanks

Trade Paul DeJong: Hard pass

Trade Kolten Wong: Well, this is at least a consideration. If the Cardinals trade Wong, their lineup against righties subs in Garcia at second base and their lineup against lefties is unaffected. At this point, though, you’re choosing Mike Moustakas against righties over Kolten Wong against righties, and that feels like merely rearranging the furniture. Wong’s defense is really valuable if he can be hidden against lefties, so I’m just not sure what you’re getting with this switch. Let’s move on.

Trade Jose Martinez: Tyler Kinzy took a look at this last week. To paraphrase, there aren’t really a lot of AL teams in the market for a DH, and Jose would be best served as a DH. There’s another problem here, too. If the Cardinals trade Martinez, they’re left with a lineup against lefties of Carpenter/Gyorko/DeJong/someone who can’t hit lefties. Now, is that person Moustakas? I mean, it could be. He’s probably better against lefties than Greg Garcia or Kolten Wong. That’s a HUGE offensive downgrade though, from an absolutely elite hitter to a lefty who can’t hit lefties. The Moustakas trade should be solving problems, not creating them. Pass.

Trade Jedd Gyorko: Another popular trade candidate of late, Gyorko presents basically the same problem as Martinez. If you trade Gyorko, you’re looking at playing two left-handed hitters (Carpenter and your choice of someone who shouldn’t face lefties) against lefty pitchers. In this particular permutation, though, you should probably play Wong, because a defensive infield of Martinez/Carpenter/DeJong/Moustakas is an affront to the gods of defense. Now you’re somehow going out and making a trade so that you can play Kolten Wong against lefties. Yikes.

Trade Greg Garcia: Let’s try this again, with more realism.

Release Greg Garcia: This is essentially what you’d be looking at. Garcia is out of options, and you better believe teams would claim him on waivers. He wouldn’t command very much in a trade because he’s a backup platoon infielder. Someone would still take a shot on him if he were free, though, which means that you’re looking at losing him for very little. The math on this is pretty abysmal, even before you start thinking about how lineups would work. You’re giving up a lefty bat that can play every infield position but shouldn’t be started against lefties for nothing, and going out to acquire a lefty bat that can only play the corners. Even if you’re okay paying for Mike Moustakas and losing Greg Garcia for nothing, who backs up DeJong? It can’t be Yairo Munoz, or we’re back in the same loop we started with. Is it Jedd Gyorko? The Cards tried him for all of two games at short when DeJong first got hurt, and their hesitation to put him back there speaks volumes. So now we’re looking at giving away a lefty bat for nothing to go acquire a similar, albeit better, lefty bat, only now it hurts the team’s depth and rest schedules as well. Enticing!

Here’s the bottom line. Mike Moustakas is the exact kind of player that the Cardinals are flush with. He’s a piece of a puzzle, with a few situations he’s perfect for and many where he’s miscast. One of the tropes of Cardinals trade rumors over the past few years is that it’s very hard to upgrade a team full of average players. It’s a trope because it’s true. Time and time again, there just isn’t anyone to acquire who moves the needle. It’s why the Marcell Ozuna trade was so exciting. When I wrote about potential trades for shortstops earlier this year, it was only because DeJong was out. It was pretty clear looking at the roster that anyone the Cards acquired to fill in for DeJong would be squeezed out as soon as he returned. That’s the same deal here. Mike Moustakas is the kind of player the Cardinals can’t trade for, because their existing team is too deep. Somehow, though, the rumors are swirling. I sure hope the rumors are wrong.