I’ve come around on the Cardinals signing a shortstop. I’m not going to make it my offseason goal to promote that idea and I’m not going to be mad if they don’t, but it does make sense. Fangraphs recently posted their top 50 free agents - four of the top eight players are shortstops. Among the non-shortstops, you have a starting pitcher who is 40, a starting pitcher who is 35 and a massive injury risk, a starting pitcher who made 41 total starts from 2017 to 2020, and Aaron Judge. Judge will be a bidding war between the Yankees and Mets and is really just screaming bad contract to me.
So as far as high end talent, shortstop is easily the best bet. And if you have the money and you want high end talent, even if there’s not a need (which there isn’t), you find a way to make it work. And unlike Judge where there is a gulf of difference between him and the next best outfielder, the shortstops aren’t separated by a whole lot. Which means maybe, the Cardinals could actually sneak in and grab one of them. I don’t expect it, but if it’s going to happen, this is the type of circumstance where it would.
But there are differences between the four shortstops. They vary in age, in projection, in how they accumulate their value, and in their expected price. All of these factors could determine who is the best bet. And ultimately, the Cardinals - if they were ever to give out this kind of contract to a free agent - are looking at who the best bet is. I’m not going to determine that myself, but maybe by looking at how they’re different, it’ll be easier to figure out.
Age is not the end-all, be-all of free agents, but if you’re faced with two similar players, but one is younger, the younger player is the more ideal free agent. It’s also the player who will get the higher contract. So, it’s not a straightforward decision necessarily. But Bryce Harper’s age is why he was a particularly desirable free agent. He still has a couple more years where he’s capable of delivering an MVP-level season. You probably couldn’t say that, five years into a deal, for a 30-year-old free agent.
Xander Bogaerts is the oldest of the four, at 30-years-old. He recently had his birthday in October. Carlos Correa is the youngest, at 28-years-old, and whose birthday was in September so he’s going to still be 28 next season. Dansby Swanson is in between, currently being 28-years-old, but who will be 29 by the time the season starts. And then there’s Trea Turner.
Turner is interesting because he will technically be entering his age 30 season next year. His birthday is on June 30th. But if he were born literally a day later, he would be entering his age 29 season. There has to be a cutoff somewhere of course, but for practical purposes, Turner really isn’t a 30-year-old free agent. Or if he is, he’s the youngest 30-year-old free agent possible.
This is a fascinating point for me personally, because the dirty little secret is, no matter which of the four you sign, from a purely statistical-based point of view, all of them should move to second base so Tommy Edman can remain at shortstop.
Wait what? Yeah you heard me. None of them are better defensively than Edman. From the information we have - which is all we can really go on - Edman is most likely a better defender than all of them and in some cases, quite a bit better. I’m not arguing this is what will happen or even should - if you’re trying to draw a top free agent, typically forcing them to move positions is not going to go over well. But the data is unmistakeable.
Although I will say that if the Cardinals decide to sign Bogaerts, he should really move to 2B. He is the worst of the four defensively, clearly. His outs above average, Statcast’s defensive system, has him as a -34 defender since 2016. He was positive for the first time in 2022, but this should not convince you he’s suddenly a good defender. That’s too many years of being a bad defender to trust he’s suddenly above average.
Turner, despite his reputation, is probably a completely dead on average fielder. He was +0 runs above average in 2022, +1 in 2021, -3 in 2020 and +2 in 2019. He is +13 for his career, but that includes his fluky year of 2018 when he was.... +13. He’s an average fielder, maybe slightly above average fielder.
I will say though that the other two shortstops at least have a case for moving Edman to 2B. The difference is not large anyway, and in that case, you put two good fielders at their natural positions (although Edman did come up as a SS). Swanson posted an absurd +20 in 2022, but that is at odds with the rest of his career: +14 in 6 previous seasons. That’s still around a +6 fielder at SS if you also add in his 2022 (which you should, you just shouldn’t treat his +20 as fact).
And just to be clear, I’ll quickly defend my point. Edman has been 14 outs above average per 1,200 innings at 2B, 10 outs above average in just 570 innings at 3B, and 12 outs above average in just 744 innings at SS. The move from 2B or 3B to shortstop is valued at a five run difference, which means his 2B numbers say he’s a +6 shortstop, his 3B numbers say he is a +12 shortstop, and his SS numbers say he’s a +14 shortstop. He’s pretty close to an ideal sample of innings too, it’s just not all been at the same position. These free agents just aren’t touching these numbers.
That leaves me with my last player, Carlos Correa. For people who think OAA is a reliable sample over one season, please explain this dude’s defensive history. It is all over the place, but points to a player who is above average, but who took a weird route to get there. He was a -18 defender, -4, +20, +11, +5, +12, and last year -3. It all adds up to 23 outs above average for his career, but that’s three negative seasons out of seven. These are easy to explain if you think three-year samples of defense are needed, less so if you think one year is sufficient. He’s +6.3 over his last three seasons worth of innings (because of pandemic and his injuries, that’s his last four seasons).
Shape of Offense
Offensively, I think your average fan is going to enjoy Trea Turner the most, though he isn’t the best offensive player of the four. That honor goes to Correa. Who happens to be rather boring from a stat point of view. He walks an above average amount, but nothing crazy, he strikes out a little below average, and has a good amount of power, but the 20 HR variety, not the 30 HR variety (which he’s never done). He’s hit 90 RBIs just once, he’s gotten 80 runs scored just twice, and he hasn’t stolen a base since 2019, when he stole one base. His career .279 average is good in today’s age, but easily worse than two of the other free agents.
Turner meanwhile is probably overrated offensively. It’s not a mystery why that is: he posts high averages, but doesn’t walk much. He has a .302 career average, but Correa has a slightly better career on-base percentage. He had a lot of power between 2020 and 2021, but had a .169 ISO last year, has a career .185 ISO and his projection by Steamer is a .161 ISO. His baserunning is off the charts good though, that’s not overrated. In his last three seasons, he’s stolen 71 bases to 12 caught stealing and has added 42.1 runs via his baserunning according to the BsR stat for his career. Edman and Turner would be quite the duo baserunning-wise.
Bogaerts also posts high averages, though he walks a good amount. It’s been a few seasons since he was posting great power numbers, longer ago than Turner, and he had just 15 HRs and a .149 ISO in 2022. He also picks his spots to steal bases about as well as Turner, he just does it a lot less. He has 21 stolen bases in his last three seasons to 3 caught stealing.
And clearly the odd man out offensively is Swanson. Even in his breakout season, he is a huge step down from the other two. He walks an average amount, actually strikes out more than you’d think (26.1% last year) and has similar power to Bogaerts and Turner (they all three have nearly indentical ISO projections by Steamer). He is good offensively when his BABIP is .350, but he has a .313 career BABIP so probably shouldn’t count on that.
From the Cardinals POV, Swanson is the most desirable candidate because he is by far going to be the cheapest. That’s for a reason, but lack of needing to spend money talks. According to Ben Clemens of Fangraphs and actually the crowdsourced number, he is expected to get 6 years, $144 million.
Correa is the least likely for the Cardinals to sign from a salary perspective, because Clemens sees 10 years, $300 million. The crowdsourced number isn’t buying it. They see 8 years, $256 million. Clemens’ number would kind of surprise actually. A year after not getting that deal so he had to sign a pillow contract, and now he’s a year older, and I’m not sure enough changed to get him that deal.
They have a similar disagreement over Turner. Clemens sees 9 years, $288 million, crowdsourced says 7 years, $210 million. Kind of a big difference. For Clemens, it makes Turner the most expensive free agent, but for the crowdsource, Turner is a year less and a little cheaper. Given age, I feel like the latter should be correct? Turner certainly seems higher valued though.
Lastly, Bogaerts. Clemens foresees 7 years, $217 million while the crowd sees 6 years, $168 million, Sorry I’m going with Ben on this one. I foresee a significant difference between what Swanson will get and what Bogaerts will get.
We only have Steamer and not ZiPS, but that’ll have to do. ZiPS would be preferable, personally speaking. Correa has the highest projected 2023 WAR with 5. That’s followed by Turner with 4.7, then Bogaerts with 4.4. In a distant last place is Swanson with 3.3. I’ll do a quick and dirty projection for the future. 0.3 decline until you turn 32, then 0.5 decline thereafter. Not perfect, but I’m not doing something more in depth right now.
Correa is projected for 32.3 WAR over the next 10 seasons, which I have as worth $306.9 million. So Ben might be onto something with that projected salary. Turner is projected for 27.3 WAR over the next nine seasons - I’m counting Turner as 29 for the purposes of this by the way - and in a weird coincidence, he essentially has the exact same trajectory of Correa, just missing his age 28 season. Both have 4.7 WAR age 29 seasons, 4.4 age 30 seasons, and so on. That’s $260 million over 9 years. I get why Turner was so high for Ben, but if his salary is right, you can’t pay that.
I swear I picked 0.3 at random, but the side effect of this is that Bogaerts also has the same trajectory as the other two - except he’s missing his age 28 and age 29 seasons. Truly bizarre I stumbled onto this. He’s 21.5 WAR over the next seven seasons. A little less than Ben, but more than the crowd with a 7 year, $194 million deal. Then there’s Dansby who is absolutely not following the same trajectory. He’s 14.1 WAR over the next 6 years. That’s $134 million, 6 years. Pretty close to the projected 6 years, $144 million by both.
You could probably guess by my tone, but I am a hard, hard no on Dansby Swanson. It’s entirely possible if the Cardinals do nothing, the second best player of Tommy Edman and middle infield partner is better than Swanson next year. I’d take the odds on Swanson of course, but his projection feels doable for Brendan Donovan or Nolan Gorman or a combo of both.
Turner seems like the name most people want, but he seems kind of overrated actually and thus seems guaranteed to sign a bad deal. He’s listed as Fangraphs #2 prospect while having a worse 2023 projection than Correa and being older. That’s... a little strange. He’d be a very fun pickup just for the baserunning duo of Turner and Edman, so it’s not like I’d be mad at it happening. Just feels like he shouldn’t be considered the best free agent of this four and I think he is.
Correa gives me strong Bryce Harper vibes in a good way. Just steady production, kind of undervalued because of injuries that keep his numbers down and a much better projection than you’d probably assume. He’s also one of the two players where it wouldn’t be statistically dumb to keep him at SS and move Edman to 2B, which I like.
Bogaerts has one downside, and that’s that he should absolutely move to 2B if the Cardinals signed him. Keeping him at SS and moving Edman to 2B would be dumb. I’ve seen Swanson referred to as sort of a bargain bin signing of the shortstops, but actually I think Bogaerts fits that description better. Swanson is noticeably worse as a free agent than these three. Bogaerts is close enough and will probably be cheaper than the other two. So Bogaerts might be more of a Cardinals signing in salary, even though I’ve heard just about nobody clamor for him or any rumors of the sort. That damn defense is getting in the way of my full endorsement because he would stay at SS if they signed him.
So there you have it. The four shortstops and I would argue really, the three shortstops and Dansby Swanson being lucky to have everything go right for him in his contract year. Didn’t think I’d talk myself out of Turner but I kind of did. Also didn’t think I would talk myself into Bogaerts either. Which of the four would you prefer, if Ben Clemens’ projected salaries are correct?