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Is free agent Ben Zobrist a fit for the St. Louis Cardinals?

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Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

For years I wanted the St. Louis Cardinals to acquire Ben Zobrist. When the Cardinals were managed by Tony La Russa, I felt it was a match made in baseball heaven. Zobrist was the ultimate utility player, a perfect fit for La Russa's season-as-a-marathon roster deployment that saw him find over 400 plate appearances in three consecutive seasons. If La Russa could find that much playing time for a player like Miles, who had no business playing any defensive position but second base, imagine what he could do with Zobrist, a player who could legitimately play shortstop as well as the outfield.

Alas, it wasn't to be. Zobrist signed a club-friendly extension that kept him in Tampa through the end of La Russa's managerial career. It was only before the contract's ultimate year that the Rays shipped Zobrist to Oakland, who in turn traded him to Kansas City. Now Zobrist is a free agent and there's a long list of clubs interested in him.

On Thursday, ESPN's Buster Olney reported that one of Zobrist's suitors is St. Louis:

First, let's state the obvious. Any team interested in signing Zobrist to a one-year deal is not actually all that interested in signing Zobrist because it will take a multi-year deal to land the veteran, for whom 2016 will be his age-35 season. And that alone might be enough to make such a pursuit uncomfortable for you if you're a Cardinals fan.

The run-scoring falloff has gotten a lot of headlines in the years since MLB began testing big-leaguers for performance-enhancing drugs, but the falloff in production among veterans in their 30s is perhaps even more striking. Ben looked at aging curves earlier in the offseason, through the Jason Heyward prism (which is to say the Cardinals Hot Stove prism). That analysis is just as applicable to Zobrist, who is unlikely to ever again reach the heights of his five-to-six WAR levels of production again during the twilight of his career—which is what the multi-year contract Zobrist is likely to sign this Hot Stove season will cover.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold chimed in after seeing Olney's Twitter report with the following:

What role exactly are the Cardinals attempting to sell Zobrist on?

Going back to the press conference that general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny held after the Cardinals ended their fourth consecutive postseason under Matheny's leadership with three consecutive losses, the need for middle-infield help came up. Mozeliak identified fatigue as a factor impacting multiple players, including shortstop Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Kolten Wong.

Some have posited that fatigue was an issue for Peralta and Wong last year. Each player had a very good first half of the year. Peralta made the All-Star team and Wong probably should have. But both infielders saw their batting production dip in July and their low levels of hitting continue through the end of the year. Whether this was due to fatigue or something else remains to be seen. For now, let's assume that Mozeliak and Matheny are correct and the issue was in fact fatigue caused by Matheny's failure to give either player much time off. In addition to Peralta and Wong's offensive cold spells, there was Matt Carpenter's early-season bout with extreme fatigue.

Is Zobrist the solution?

In recent years, Zobrist hasn't played much shortstop. He's been more of a right fielder/second baseman than anything else. Zobrist hasn't played much third base at all. Consider the following line graph.

Zobrist Defensive Innings Played by Position: 2009-2015

This doesn't mean that Zobrist can't play shortstop every whipstitch to give Peralta the day off here and there. Heaven knows Peralta could use it. In 2014, Peralta took 619 of El Birdos' 671 shortstop plate appearances, which equaled 92.2% of the team's total.  Peralta tallied 626 of the Cards' 694 shortstop plate appearances; or, 90.2%. Having a proven veteran utility man as opposed to Daniel Descalso or Pete Kozma might make Matheny more amenable to giving Peralta a day off here and there over the course of the season.

On the other side of the second sack, Wong accounted for 606 of the Cardinals' 692 plate appearances; or, 87.5%. Carpenter dug in for 622 of the 718 plate appearances that St. Louis third basemen took in 2015 (as well as 34 of the club's keystone plate appearances). It's easy to see how Matheny could cobble together 300 plate appearances or so just between second, third, and shortstop. In theory, doing so would keep Peralta, Carpenter, and Wong fresh throughout the year and ready for October, should the Cardinals qualify. It would be a strategy straight out of La Russa's managing philosophy.

Of course, Zobrist doesn't just play the infield. He's played a lot of outfield in his career. Not that the Cardinals need another outfielder. Even without Heyward, they have Matt Holliday in left, Jay and Grichuk in center, and some combination of Grichuk and Piscotty in right. Oh, and Tommy Pham and Peter Bourjos (if they don't trade Bourjos and tender him a contract). If the Cards are unable to entice Heyward to sign with them, Zobrist might join the outfield mix as well. Thus, he might serve as an insurance policy of sorts for the outfield and infield, against injury as well as production falloff.

The problem is that, here in November, the Cardinals' primary offseason target is Heyward. They've made no bones about it. He's the Redbirds' man and they want to sign him.

With Heyward as their priority and an already stuffed outfield and infield, the Cardinals are unable to guarantee Zobrist the type of playing time other teams can. And that's why the Cardinals aren't sure if they'll be able to get Zobrist to sign a multi-year deal to wear the birds on the bat. He's a free agent who understandably wants to play everyday and is good enough to do so. He might not be able to do that in St. Louis, as the Cardinals' roster is currently composed. So Zobrist might not accept the role the Cardinals have envisioned for him in 2016 and beyond.