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The Other 15: Middle infield depth edition

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The Cardinals acquired two middle infielders this offseason with the hope of improving the bench of the big league club in 2015.

If you put a goatee on this man, you have the spitting image of Jeff Bagwell.  Well, minus the giant pipes.
If you put a goatee on this man, you have the spitting image of Jeff Bagwell. Well, minus the giant pipes.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

When John Mozeliak was putting together his offseason shopping list back in November, the top two items were likely in bold font, circled, surrounded by a bunch of gold stars leftover from former scouting director Jeff Luhnow's math homework:

  1. Find an upgrade to take 600 plate appearances in RF (R.I.P Oscar)
  2. Improve the middle infield depth by upgrading the bench.

The Cardinals won 90 games in 2014, despite losing 1.6 wins of production from 700 PA's in right field.  Mozeliak packaged Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins and shipped them to Atlanta for Jason Heyward and his ZiPS projected 4.4 wins in 2015.  That is a six win swing all on it's own and among the best upgrades by any team this offseason, but the opportunity cost of Miller and Jenkins is a pretty impressive package of cost controlled assets.

A much less lauded upgrade was what Mozeliak did with the middle infield bench situation, which also produced negative fWAR in 2014.  Daniel Descalso, Mark Ellis, Greg Garcia, and Pete Kozma combined for 428 PA's last season and produced -0.1 fWAR, and while few teams in baseball get much production from their bench in this day and age, this was clearly a place where the Cardinals could improve.

Rather than sign a fairly expensive free agent like Mike Aviles, Mozeliak instead plucked Dean Anna from minor league free agency and traded another surplus minor league arm, Sam Gaviglio, for Ty Kelly.

Dean Anna, 28, 2B/SS

Joe covered Anna's signing back in November with an excellent review of his skill set and minor league numbers. The only thing that surprises me is that somehow Tony La Russa didn't decide to pay him $5 million dollars to play for the Diamondbacks, given this:

Anna has essentially split time between shortstop and second base for the majority of his minor league career. However, "he’s also put in time at third base, the outfield corners, and first base. He’s even tried on catcher’s gear, although he has yet to get into a game behind the plate." With game experience at seven positions on the diamond (yes, I am including pitcher) and the supposed ability to be the team's double-secret emergency catcher, Anna seems like an ideal utility guy to have available off the bench.

I'm half surprised Mozeliak hasn't dangled Anna's rights in front of Tony all offseason in an attempt to pluck a prized prospect from Arizona.  Anna is the type of player La Russa coveted on his bench: Versatile, willing, and able to play at nearly every position and make a ton of contact as a pinch hitter -- basically everything that Daniel Descalso was supposed to be but never really was the last few seasons.

ZiPS projects Anna as a 1.3 zWAR player in 424 PA's next season, which would be slightly more playing time than the entire middle infield bench mob received a year ago.  Given that Descalso and Ellis probably received nearly 200 PA's that should have gone to Kolten Wong (and likely will in 2015), I'd expect Anna to get no more than 300 PA's if the Peralta/Wong combo stays healthy, which equates to roughly 0.7 zWAR or so.  That's a significant improvement over the entire bench from last year with just one player.

Ty Kelly, 26, 2B/3B

The big difference between these two is the ability of Anna to play SS at a moderately acceptable level and Ty Kelly to play SS at a equal-to-Daniel Descalso level. Ty Kelly isn't a SS, but he projects to be at least average at both 2B and 3B and looks to provide a little bit more offense as well.  Joe took a look at Anna at the time of the trade, calling him "The most interesting man in the minors", which was later dissected on a special edition of the Viva El Birdos podcast.

Kelly's skill set is best described to Cardinals prospect hounds as what happens when Mike O'Neill throws right handed, learns to play infield, and gains the ability to hit for power.  In short, Kelly walks a lot (double digit walk rates every year of his professional career) and is adept at working counts while also making lots of contact. These are generally skills that tend to translate pretty well from the minors to the big leagues, unlike the high strikeout, high ISO stylings of someone like Tyler Greene or, to a lesser extent, Greg Garcia who also walks a lot, but strikes out a bit more than Kelly does.  The 15 homers from a year ago are a clear outlier, as is the .147 ISO, so I wouldn't expect a lot in the power department, but getting on base and working counts is a great skill to have as a pinch hitter, and one that can earn you a lot of opportunities at the big league level.

ZiPS projects Kelly at 555 PA's in 2015, which basically would make him a regular at 2B, while projecting him to amass 1.6 zWAR given that much playing time.  Given 200 PA's and the last bench spot on the roster, Kelly would likely be worth less than half a win, but that's still awfully good when you compare him to Mark Ellis from a year ago.

Addendum:

Given the Scherzer signing earlier in the week and the news that Steven Strasburg is likely on the market, what's most interesting about the acquisitions of Kelly and Anna is how Kolten Wong suddenly becomes somewhat dispensable to the team if the right trade were to come along.  The Nationals had as big a hole at 2B as the Cardinals had in RF coming into the offseason and are currently slated to put Yunel Escobar at the keystone -- unless they decide to trade Ian Desmond, which has been rumored all offseason or move Anthony Rendon off of his natural position at 3B, which doesn't seem like a smart move given that they don't have anyone to really play 3B in that instance.

Wong would give the Nats a long term solution at 2B and coupled with one of the Cardinals top pitching prospects (either Carlos Martinez, Rob Kaminsky, or Alex Reyes) might be enough to acquire Strasburg.

Looking at ZiPS, this appears to be a considerable win for the club in 2015 and likely 2016 as well:

* Wong: 552 PA's, 2.4 zWAR

* Kelly: 555 PA's, 1.6 zWAR

* Strasburg: 193.2 IP, 4.9 zWAR

* Martinez: 150 IP, 2.2 zWAR

Doing the math, it's at least a 1.5 win upgrade for the club and might be worth 2.5-3 wins depending on whether you ship Martinez out or put him in what would be a pretty dominant bullpen.  It's also lessens the blow of any starting pitcher missing time due to injury.

Yes, it's a lot to give up, but Strasburg is one of the 5 or 6 best pitchers in baseball.  Kolten Wong isn't one of the five or six best at his position.  Neither is Carlos Martinez.  You generally have to give up something to get something, and if that's enough for the Nationals to part with Strasburg, I think that's something the Cardinals have to strongly consider doing.