The St. Louis Cardinals have not received much offensive production from first base this season. Before Matt Adams suffered a quad tear that may cause him to miss the remainder of the season, he hit for a .243 batting average (BA), .281 on-base percentage (OBP), .375 slugging percentage (SLG), .285 weighted on-base average (wOBA), and 80 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). His replacements at first haven't fared much better.
Through play on Thursday, Mark Reynolds is the owner of a .224/.294/.372 (.292 wOBA, 86 wRC+). Xavier Scruggs has hit .268/.286/.317 (.267 wOBA, 68 wRC+). In 2015, St. Louis first basemen have combined to bat .237/.290/.368 (.288 wOBA, 83 wRC+), well below the MLB collective first base line of .256/.330/.438 (.333 wOBA, 113 wRC+). When asked about the Cardinals' poor production at first base before Wednesday's game in Chicago, general manager John Mozeliak replied: :( . Seriously:
Asked about the lack of first-base production since Matt Adams went down, #stlcards GM John Mozeliak frowned, then answered, "sad emoji."— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) July 9, 2015
So it's not particularly surprising that St. Louis called up another first baseman on Wednesday. That first baseman is Dan Johnson, a minor-league free agent the Cardinals signed on May 5. Johnson has some big-league experience. The 35-year-old has notched over 1,600 plate appearances (PA) in MLB and during them hit .236/.337/.409 (.328 wOBA, 101 wRC+). Most of those hits came as a younger man—not on the downward slope of the decline curve, struggling to stay in baseball.
The Cardinals faced a problem when they decided to promote Johnson to the St. Louis 25-man roster. On Wednesday morning, Johnson was not on the 40-man roster. To be on the 25-man roster, a player must also be on the 40-man. The issue stemmed from the fact that the Cardinals did not have an open spot on the 40-man. This meant they had to drop a player from the 40-man in order to create an opening for Johnson.
There were several options. The Cardinals are carrying five catchers on the 40-man, three in addition to Yadier Molina and Tony Cruz. Cody Stanley, Ed Easley, and Mike Ohlman all seem unlikely to be anything more than a bandaid should Molina or even Cruz get hurt. At least one of them and perhaps more than one seem superfluous on the 40-man. Then there are the usual fringe reliever types. First among them is Nick Greenwood, who the club has refused to promote this season despite the rash of pitching injuries at the big-league level. (The other potential candidates—Marcus Hatley, Mitch Harris, and Miguel Socolovich—have been thrust into MLB action due to the aforementioned injuries, so their 40-man roster spots appear secure for at least the time being.)
In order to add the 35-year-old Johnson to the St. Louis roster, the Cardinals decided to gamble by removing Aledmys Diaz from the 40-man.
The move was surprising because Johnson is old and washed up. He is unlikely to help the Cardinals much if at all. Promoting him is part of a spaghetti solution to first base: Throw it at the wall and see what sticks. There's always a chance that Johnson catches fire for a week or two, but there isn't much in his big-league history to suggest that's likely. Throw in the fact that Johnson is in his age-35 season and the odds are even longer that he'll be productive even if he did hit well during 254 PA with Memphis. Nonetheless, the Cardinals felt that adding Johnson merited the risk of losing Diaz. Why?
The Cardinals inked Diaz to a four-year major-league contract worth $8 million over four years last offseason. The indispensable Cot's gives the breakdown of Diaz's annual salaries as: 2014, $500,000; 2015, $1.5 million; 2016: $2 million; and 2016, $2 million. Diaz receiving a major-league deal meant that the Cardinals placed him on the 40-man roster last spring. He has taken up a spot on the 40-man ever since.
Last year, Diaz notched 125 PA with Double-A Springfield and posted a respectable .291/.311/.453 (.344 wOBA, 116 wRC+). Then he landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, causing 2014 to be something of a lost season for him. Before the 2015 season commenced, Diaz was the Cardinals' top prospect by projected WAR. Kily McDaniel provided the following assessment at Fangraphs before the season, where he ranked Diaz as the Cards' No. 16 prospect:
Diaz is a Cuban defector who got four years and $8 million after buzz he would get more than double that, due in part to a depressed market by signing during Spring Training last year. His 2014 was marred by a shoulder injury, which limited him to DH when he played and also affected his swing. Diaz is healthy and will head out as a shortstop this year, with enough tools that there’s a chance it works, though most scouts thought he would be a long-term second baseman when he signed. Diaz is an above average runner with a solid average arm and good hands that allow him to play up the middle and put the ball in play, with a chance to hit 10 homers at maturity. Diaz is 25 and will likely open the season at Double-A, with a chance for a big league look late in the season if the season goes to plan.
Things haven't gone according to plan. Diaz was hitting .235/.292/.344 (.294 wOBA, 77 wRC+) in 268 PA with Double-A Springfield at the time the Cardinals designated him for assignment in order to remove him from the 40-man roster.
The Cardinals' decision to DFA Diaz reflects the fact that he is not close to ready for big-league action. Whether this is due to his shoulder injury of last year, not being as good a player as they thought they had signed, or a combination thereof, the fact that the Cards DFA'd Diaz indicates that if Diaz is big-league material at all, it won't be for some time yet. Certainly not late this season. The Cards wagered $8 million that he would be a major-leaguer sooner than later. Now they are taking a gamble that they will not lose him to another club before he becomes a big-leaguer.
It's important to keep in mind that the Cardinals have not released Diaz and eaten what remains on his contract. Instead, they've DFA'd him. This means the Cardinals have removed Diaz from their 40-man roster. He must now pass through waivers in order for the Cardinals to maintain control of his contract and place him on the minor-league club of their choice. The other MLB clubs will have the opportunity to claim Diaz and take on the remainder of his contract.
The Red Sox did the same thing with Allen Craig earlier this year. After Boston demoted Craig to Triple-A Pawtucket, the club DFA'd Craig in order to remove him from their 40-man roster so that they could add a player more useful to their major-league club. Not surprisingly given the hefty sum of guaranteed money left on Craig's deal, no team claimed him. Craig remained with the Boston organization, playing for Pawtucket.
The risk the Cardinals run is that another team will claim Diaz. Then again, given his professional performance stateside to date and the money left on his deal, maybe I've framed the gamble incorrectly. Perhaps the Cards are hoping that another organization will claim Diaz so they don't have to pay the remaining $4+ million on his contract.
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