In the post-Giancarlo Stanton weeks of the St. Louis Cardinals off-season, the splashiest transaction rumors have surrounded two top-tier third basemen, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, whose teams seem to have incentive to trade them. The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles appear to be clearly in the second tier of American League East teams behind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and each will be a free agent following the 2018 season. And from a Cardinals perspective, well, they’re both really good players, and teams that hope to make the postseason generally want to acquire really good players.
The excellence of Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado is not a reflection on the abilities of Jedd Gyorko, the incumbent third baseman in St. Louis who, despite opening 2017 as the second option at the position behind Jhonny Peralta, started the majority of the team’s games at the hot corner. Gyorko, who was just 28 throughout most of the 2017 season, had his best season by each of the three major value over replacement player metrics—Baseball Reference WAR, FanGraphs WAR, and Baseball Prospectus WARP. Gyorko’s 112 wRC+ matched his career high, and in his first extended experience playing third base, he was an above-average fielder both by the metrics and eye-test evaluations.
Matthew Ludwig paid tribute to the oft-overlooked infielder on Tuesday, noting that the Cardinals do not have nearly the problem at third base that this year’s hot stove rumors might imply, and this is absolutely correct. A large part of this is availability of resources—if the first base equivalents to Donaldson and Machado (say, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo) were available, replacing Matt Carpenter would be the vogue personnel stance of the moment.
But non-elite third baseman have been suggested as fits for the Cardinals, as well—players who present little upgrade over Gyorko at third base. One such option is free agent Mike Moustakas, formerly of the Kansas City Royals. Twelve days older than Jedd Gyorko, Moustakas is coming off a season which was pretty similar to Gyorko’s—Moustakas was the slightly better hitter (114 wRC+ vs. 112 wRC+, though admittedly he had a larger edge in triple-crown stats if that’s your kind of thing), but Gyorko was the better fielder and despite playing less, he had a 0.3 fWAR and 1.8 bWAR edge. Early projections systems have Moustakas as the better player, but on the surface, not by such an extent that the Cardinals signing him in free agency when MLB Trade Rumors has him making $17 million per year for the next half-decade makes much sense.
Donaldson and Machado are considerable upgrades. Moustakas is not. But if the Cardinals were to acquire Moustakas, the team would be looking at more than a small upgrade at third base—they would be looking at a potentially enormous upgrade on the team’s overall bench depth.
Based on 2017, Jedd Gyorko is a capable defensive third baseman with enough of a bat to justify playing at the position, but when the Cardinals first acquired him from the San Diego Padres, he was intended as a utility infielder. Gyorko is one of 35 players this decade to have played in at least 50 games each at second base, third base, and shortstop, and one of just four to do so while performing above league average by OPS+, a fraternal twin statistic of wRC+ (the other three are Jose Ramirez, Jed Lowrie (the only other Jed/Jedd to have MLB plate appearances this decade), and Marwin Gonzalez).
As it currently stands, the Cardinals have four infielders who are projected by ZiPS as above-average, though none overwhelmingly so—first baseman Matt Carpenter projects for 3.0 WAR, Gyorko is just behind him at 2.9, second baseman Kolten Wong projects for 2.3 wins, and shortstop Paul DeJong projects at 2.1.
But while the infield has the potential to be solid, it also comes with some risk. Most notably is Paul DeJong, who entered 2017 as a second (or perhaps even third) tier prospect and ended it in second place in National League Rookie of the Year voting. Each of DeJong’s triple-slash statistics in MLB in 2017 was higher than in AA Springfield in 2016. He hit more home runs in over 100 fewer plate appearances from the year before, all while posting a batting average on balls in play (a chief indicator of luck) higher than his minor league precedent suggests is normal for him. And all of this came after primarily playing third base in the minors before 2017—while DeJong’s potential is high, if he becomes an out-of-position fielder whose bat put him far from top prospect lists, the Cardinals run a major risk at shortstop.
Kolten Wong had a solid 2017, improving his walk rate for his most effective offensive season yet, but remains noticeably weaker batting against left-handed pitching. While he posted a .360 OBP against lefties (.376 overall), he exhibited very little power, with just two doubles and one home run in 86 plate appearances. One-year splits are a bit small upon which to draw major conclusions, and the career ones are even more ominous—while Wong has a 97 wRC+ against righties (slightly below league average, and perfectly acceptable for a good defensive second baseman), it is 75 against lefties.
The right-handed Gyorko, whose 120 wRC+ against lefties is 26 points higher than what he posts against righties, would be a perfect platoon partner for Kolten Wong, in addition to being a safeguard for Paul DeJong, as well as backup third baseman for a prospective new acquisition. He could, and would deserve to, play pretty regularly in a variety of positions, in a Rays-era Ben Zobrist super-utility role, while allowing players days off and serving as a backup in case of injury at multiple positions.
By adding a new starting third baseman, the Cardinals have the potential for a very strong five-man bench (while they utilized a four-man bench for much of 2017, this was at least partially due to lack of organizational depth among position players). A backup catcher is a given—likely Carson Kelly, though if the team decided they wanted to develop his bat a bit more in AAA, they could afford to give a spot to a catcher whose sole job is spell Yadier Molina every 30th game or whenever he decides he wants a day off. In addition to Gyorko to play the infield, the Cardinals have Greg Garcia—Garcia is projected as a materially worse hitter (ZiPS has him at an 81 OPS+), though his results at the MLB level have been much better than that. As a sixth infielder, the OBP virtuoso could be quite the asset himself. Randal Grichuk, who can play all three outfield positions, has more pop than your average fourth outfielder. And then there’s Jose Martinez, whose 2017 was a pleasant surprise and included underlying statistics that suggest he may be even better than his already-excellent statistics.
Acquiring a third baseman, even if it not a truly excellent one, improves the team’s upside thanks to bench depth and whatever improvement comes directly from the starter at third, but it increases the team’s floor even more. The Cardinals are already positioned well to make a run at a Wild Card spot—last year’s Wild Card teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, are, respectively, shopping ace Zack Greinke to the Texas Rangers, and a team which finished 4 1/2 games back of the Cardinals by third-order winning percentage last year. While dethroning the Chicago Cubs as NL Central champions remains the ultimate regular season goal for the Cardinals, earning their first postseason appearance in three years is itself a desirable goal, one which becomes a much safer bet by providing insurance at their riskier positions.