If you’re starting to get bored with the offseason, fear not. The Winter Meetings are almost here.
The annual poorly entitled (it’s still fall, folks) GM swap meet will start this coming Sunday in sunny San Diego (the least wintery place in America). Baseball is flush with cash. And confidence since the new CBA was ratified last spring. There’s labor peace. For now, at least. The league reaped the monetary benefits of a new playoff system and the television contracts that come with it. Yes, the global economy might be in a bit of a hiccup, but baseball’s finances look relatively strong.
Teams are ready to spend.
That includes the Cardinals, who have made it clear that they’re ready to raise payroll back to pre-pandemic levels.
I fully expect them to get started adding to that payroll next week. I think it’s likely that the club will leave the Winter Meetings with a catcher locked up. That’s the priority and possibly the easiest for them to fill.
I’ve narrowed my “most likely” list down to three players (in this order): Christian Vazquez, Danny Jansen, and Sean Murphy. (Willson Contreras is a distant fourth.) I would give 50%, 30%, and 10% odds on those three, with another 10% to the remaining field. One of those four seems destined to be sitting down with John Mozeliak by the end of next week.
But I’m not here to talk catchers. I’m here to talk about something the Cardinals won’t do at the Winter Meetings, even though fans are begging it of them. What is that? Why, sign an impact shortstop, of course!
Shortstop has long been a position where defense was king and any offensive contribution was a golden goose. This is a reality Cardinals fans should well understand. StL can claim the greatest defensive shortstop of all time in Ozzie Smith. He fit this defense-first model perfectly. In 19 seasons in the league, Smith produced a wRC+ of 100 or higher (100 is average) just 7 times. He had 9 seasons below 90 and several well below.
I intend no slight here. Smith is an elite Hall of Famer. We should acknowledge, though, that while his offense improved over his career, he was never much more than an average hitter.
Average is about as good as it gets from Cardinals hitting shortstops in the club’s long history.
The Cardinals have just seven qualified shortstops with a career offensive performance that’s above average. The leader? Solly Hemus at 118. The highest-rated player you might know? Jhonny “the h goes before the o” Peralta at 106. Edgar Renteria was one of the better-hitting shortstops I’ve seen play in Cardinal red. He slides in at just 99. David Eckstein? 97. Paul DeJong? We don’t talk about Bru… I mean, Paul-o, no, no, no. He’s also at 97 and falling fast.
Cardinals’ history doesn’t match what’s been happening around the league. Shortstop has become more and more a position where offense is not just a luxury but an attainable commodity. The shortstop revolution – that probably started back with historic oddities in Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter – has become much more commonplace. The number of impact hitters who play the position has increased exponentially over the last two decades as teams have gotten better at drafting and developing hitting talent with the athleticism to handle the position defensively.
In the last two offseasons, the free agent shortstop market has been flooded with offensive talent. Just look at these names from the ’21 and ’22 free agent lists:
2021/22 – career wRC+, fWAR (at time of free agency)
Carlos Correa – 128, 6.2
Trevor Story – 111, 2.8
Corey Seager – 132, 3.6
Javier Baez – 104, 4.0
2022/23 – career wRC+, fWAR (at time of free agency)
Trea Turner – 124, 6.3
Carlos Correa – 130, 4.4
Xander Bogaerts – 118, 6.1
Dansby Swanson – 94, 6.4
That’s eight opportunities to nab a player whose career performances would sit at or near the top of the Cardinals’ all-time offensive shortstop leaderboard. Even the worst of the lot – Baez and Swanson – would still be among the better shortstops in club history. These are good players. They are players that can transform a roster and lineup without sacrificing much on the field.
It’s hard to overestimate just how much it means to get consistently above-average offensive production from a position where even contending clubs frequently have to settle for below-average hitters just to survive defensively.
You would think it would be a place where the Cardinals, a perennial contending team, would be apt to invest their resources.
The Cardinals, though, have observed the shortstop market in the same way I used to observe the chimp exhibit at the Springfield Zoo.
From a safe distance. While keeping an eye out for flying poo.
Part of their hesitancy to enter the SS free agent fling stems from past poo trauma. Paul DeJong started his career looking like a player who might belong on those lists above. He had 123 wRC+ and a 2.1 fWAR in a partial season as an age-23 rookie. They believed they had what they had long missed and the team quickly bought out DeJong’s arbitration years and locked up through 2023 with option years for ’24 and ’25.
I don’t need to detail what’s happened since, do I? DeJong has steadily declined in both wRC+ and overall fWAR to 55 and .1 this past season.
The Cardinals have, technically, committed over $9M to an offensive-oriented, roster-finishing shortstop in 2023. They’re just not going to get that kind of production from him.
(That’s no guarantee, by the way, that DeJong even makes the roster. In his chat last week, Derrick Goold made it clear that DeJong’s rope is extremely short. If he remains with the team this offseason – which is no lock if a “change of scenery” trade is available – he’ll have to compete for his spot on the roster in the spring.)
One would think that the failure of DeJong to maintain his early-career production would only motivate the club to invest in proven talent at what is arguably the second most important position on the field.
It hasn’t. And it’s not.
Short of agent-fueled speculation from national rumor mongers, there’s been no indication at all that the Cardinals are even interested in participating in the shortstop market. Sure, they’ll do “due diligence” – the team beat writers’ favorite phrase when it comes to questions like this – so they’re prepared in the impossibly unlikely scenario that Carlos Correa or Trea Turner slip down to their spending range. Don’t count on that.
So, why won’t the Cardinals sign a short stop at this week’s Winter Meetings? Why do I say in the title that they don’t need one?
Because of Tommy Edman.
Tommy Edman is very clearly the team’s starting shortstop.
He’s not a second baseman who admirably but temporarily filled a gap on the other side of the infield to make up for DeJong’s collapse.
He’s also not a do-it-all utility player who can play around the infield or outfield as needed on a semi-everyday basis.
He’s the Cardinals’ starting shortstop this season and going forward. And that’s not a bad thing.
Because Tommy Edman is shockingly good at the position.
Last season, Edman had a 5.6 fWAR and a 108 wRC+. Slide him in there with that list above and he fits pretty darn well. A 108 wRC+ from the shortstop position is nothing to sneeze at. 5.4 fWAR is just downright incredible for a player of Edman’s reputation.
And it’s something that might just hold up.
Let’s start by looking at that historic priority for the position: defense.
We already knew that Edman was among the best second basemen in the league. He more than earned the Gold Glove that he won last season at the position.
This year he should have been in line for the Platinum Glove award. He finished with 19 OAA between 2b and SS. That’s just behind the aforementioned Dansby Swanson and Jonathan Schoop in the statistic. It’s 4 OAA higher than Platinum Glove winner Nolan Arenado.
Most of that production came not from 2b, where we knew he was elite, but from short.
He had 11 OAA as a shortstop in 303 attempts. He had 7 as a 2b’man in 264 attempts.
DRS and UZR confirm what OAA asserts. He was +7 in DRS at SS and +5.8 in UZR. His UZR/150 – the defensive production he would have had at the position if he played 150 games there – was 8.1. 8.1 UZR would lead have led the National League by a Lot.
How meaningful is a half-season of elite defensive numbers at SS?
Usually, it’s a bad idea to project forward using such a relatively small defensive sample size. In this case, however, I think we’re on pretty safe ground. Edman already has multiple seasons of elite defensive production at 2b. He came up as a shortstop with a very strong defensive reputation and was moved to second base by team need, not lack of ability.
I have no qualms about suggesting that he should be among the best defensive shortstops in the National League in 2023.
Based on the club’s historic priorities, that alone is enough to lock him into the starting role in 2023. But his offensive profile does allow us to go a bit further.
Edman now has 1897 PAs in the Major Leagues. That’s three full seasons spread over four years in the majors. His wRC+ goes 124, 90, 90, 108. Add it together and that’s a 102 wRC+ from Edman in more than enough plate appearances to be reliable and predictive.
Steamer, the only projection system that’s out so far, agrees. They have him at a very pleasant and reasonable 105 wRC+ next season with a .263/.318/.397 slash line.
There’s no reason to believe that he can’t hit that mark. Edman has a solid contact ability. He doesn’t K very much. He has a little bit of power. Probably the biggest variable in his game – and the reason why he’s likely to tick up from his 90 wRC+ floor – is his improved walk rate. He walked 7% of the time in the COVID-shortened ’20 season. That slipped back to 5.5% in ’21. Last year he peaked at 7.3%. That number is more in line with his minor-league performance.
Yes, a 7.3% walk rate still isn’t exciting. It’s not what a contending team wants at the top of its lineup. But if he can hold it steady – and I don’t see any reason why he can’t – it’s a stabilizing base of offensive contribution to counter the volatility that he’s likely to have in his batted ball profile, which is overly dependent on speed to beat out grounders and line drives finding gaps and short fences.
Oh, and Edman’s baserunning is elite, too. Consistently among the best baserunners in the game.
All of those things – elite defense and baserunning and solidly average offense – factor into Edman’s impressive fWAR total that so many people want to ignore.
It’s understandable. After 2020 and 2021, it did look like Edman might have settled in at as a 2.5-3.5 fWAR player.
That might remain the case if Edman was remaining a second baseman or a play-everywhere utility guy.
He’s not though. He’s the team’s starting shortstop. And that gives a nice positional bump to his production.
Here we can play a little game: what would Edman’s fWAR have been if he had played SS for a full season?
Thankfully we have a comp that makes that math easy. The Braves’ Dansby Swanson had a similar OAA in ’22. His offensive production is better than Edman’s – 116 to 108 – but Edman makes up for at least some of that with better baserunning & UZR.
It’s not perfect, but the difference between Swanson and Edman boils down to half a season of defensive innings at 2b vs. SS and some PAs, which adds up to about .8 fWAR of value in favor of the full-time SS.
If Tommy Edman had played the entire season in ’22 as a shortstop he likely would have produced something very close to Swanson’s 6.4 fWAR.
Let’s just take that as a loose template and apply similar logic to Tommy Edman’s entire career. If we just keep everything about Edman’s career the same – including some pretty bad defensive performances in the outfield – how would that change his career production?
I tried to do the actual math but quickly gave up because Edman just has too many different positions played. Instead, I’ll adjust all of Edman’s seasons up to at least 600 PAs – since that’s what he’s consistently provided when healthy and baseball wasn’t in COVID. Then we’ll add a range of .5 to 1.0 fWAR from playing SS. (It could be higher than that early in his career because he played OF but we’re not going for accuracy here, just example.)
Year – actual fWAR, fWAR per 600 PA, fWAR range at SS per 600 PA.
2019 – 3.8, 6.5, 7.0 - 7.5
2020 – 1.0, 2.6, 3.1 - 3.6
2021 – 2.8, n/a, 3.3 - 3.8
2022 – 5.6, n/a, 6.1 - 6.6
Actual Career fWAR: 13.2
Projected Career fWAR at 600 PA per season: 17.5
Average Career fWAR at 600 PA per season: 4.4
Projected Career fWAR range per 600 at SS: 19.5 – 21.5
Average Projected fWAR range per 600 at SS: 4.9 – 5.4
If all we do is adjust Edman’s playing time up to 600 PAs per season, factoring in his partial rookie season and COVID, Edman’s average production per season becomes a very good 4.4 fWAR. That’s hard to ignore. It also comes while playing some positions that cut deeply into his primary contribution of defense.
If we adjust all of those stats to SS, even with the outfield stats included, we end up with a range of 4.9 - 5.4 fWAR per season. That’s extremely hard to ignore.
Ozzie Smith only eclipsed that fWAR range three times.
The point here is not to say that Tommy Edman is a lock for 5-6 fWAR seasons annually as a shortstop. All kinds of things will get in the way of that happening.
The point is that pretty much any way you slice it, Tommy Edman is already quite productive as a major league player and that production is only going to increase as he settles in at his best defensive position.
The Cardinals already have their highly productive shortstop. Yes, he does it primarily through defense. But league-average offense from that position is still better than what the Cardinals have had consistently in the past.
In other words, the Cardinals won’t sign a shortstop. And don’t need to.