When the St. Louis Cardinals, starved for improvement at the shortstop position following The Great Pete Kozma Experiment of 2013, signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract, they probably expected the 31 year-old to age along a familiar trajectory. First, he would be worth more than his $13.25 million average annual value. Next, he would be serviceable but not quite as good as he was at the beginning of the contract. Finally, he would be an overpaid thirty-five year-old, but that would be fine, because the contract would have already more or less paid for itself.
What the Cardinals got in Peralta was basically this, but a very extreme version of it. In 2014, when Jhonny Peralta was worth a career-high 5.3 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, combining solid offense (a .263/.336/.443 triple-slash line, good for an above league average 120 wRC+) and the best defense he played in his life, his open market value, according to FanGraphs, was $40.1 million. This may seem high, but if you could assure 5.3 WAR of value, this would not be an unreasonable cost.
Peralta was worse in 2015, which was pretty inevitable—few players have their best year in their age-32 season and continue to improve. But even with his regression, particularly in the second half of the season, FanGraphs pegged his value at $13.5 million.
At this point, Jhonny Peralta, at a price tag of $53 million for four years, was worth $53.6 million over two years. That’s it. That’s all. Game over. Peralta was expected to be worth over 50% of the contract at the midpoint, because most players are worse at 34 and 35 than they are at 32 and 33, particularly when all signs point to a player who would have to slide down the defensive spectrum at some point. But he was worth 101% of his contract after two years.
And in theory, it is even more advantageous for the Cardinals for Peralta to have highs and lows rather than to be consistently the league average-ish player he would need to be over the course of four years to justify his contract: the Cardinals can take his excellent peak year-and-a-half of the contract and enjoy that while allowing players whose true talent rates somewhere between replacement level and 2014 Jhonny Peralta (say, Jedd Gyorko or Greg Garcia, to invent two completely made up names at random) to render Peralta a part-time player. Sure, Peralta wouldn’t be worth his 2017 pay. But it wouldn’t matter—it’s a sunk cost for the Cardinals, in that they have to pay Peralta no matter how much he produces or doesn’t produce this year, and even so, the first two years were so wonderful that the team could easily forgive his latter-year shortcomings.
But Jhonny Peralta has aged even less gracefully than the normal aging curve would suggest. Formerly a very good, near-elite defensive shortstop—Peralta has never been known for his athleticism but his outstanding positioning allowed the Cardinals to not miss a beat defensively from Pete Kozma—he is now a third baseman whose fielding statistics have been poor at the position. It takes more fielding data than what we have to draw reasonable conclusions about Peralta’s third base defense, but anecdotally, it seems unlikely that he is much better than average at the position. And this defensive decline is nothing compared to his offense—his wRC+ over the course of the contract went from 120 to 104 to 90 to its current, paltry level of -12.
And yet, early in 2017, Peralta garnered a significant chunk of the playing time at third base. It wasn’t a completely unreasonable stance, I don’t think, that Peralta could bounce back in 2017, if not to elite levels to adequate, worthwhile starter levels, but this has not been the case this season to an extreme degree.
Yesterday brought the announcement that Jhonny Peralta will be going on the 10-day Disabled List, retroactive to April 16, with an upper respiratory problem. Any time a struggling player goes to the DL, there comes a host of conspiracy theories about the team just trying to get him some time off, but even if this is not the case, a DL stint could easily be the impetus for Peralta’s role being greatly scaled back. And if Peralta comes back and continues to play poorly while receiving the regular playing time he garnered in the first couple weeks of 2017, this would be an ominous foreshadowing of several future free agent contract endings.
His contract was not ending, but the Cardinals and Matheny had a similar situation in 2014 with Allen Craig, whose performance rapidly declined. And Matheny never adjusted to Craig no longer being a viable MLB regular—Craig was a beyond-disastrous hitter in his final month and a half with the Cardinals, and despite a 41 wRC+ over his final 111 plate appearances with a consensus top five prospect in MLB waiting in the wings to take over right field in Oscar Taveras, it took a trade to the Boston Red Sox to force Allen Craig out of the lineup.
The closest thing the Cardinals have had during the Mike Matheny era to a past-his-prime veteran on the final year of his free agent contract was Matt Holliday—Kyle Lohse and Carlos Beltran were each too efficient for a reasonable manager, or even Matheny, to sit them. And last season, in the final year of Holliday’s (guaranteed) contract, he was still a full-time player when healthy. His performance had declined, but he was still a viable starter, and his playing time so far in 2017 with the New York Yankees has reflected this.
Mike Leake is a somewhat tame case of a future aging veteran, as he will only be 32 when his Cardinals contract ends, but if the young starters coming up through the Cardinals system flourish, and Mike Leake isn’t actually the second coming of Bob Gibson he has been so far in 2017, would the Cardinals be willing to put a pitcher earning $15 million in the bullpen? If this would benefit the team, they certainly should—they’re on the hook for the same amount of salary regardless, so it behooves them to pick the best possible personnel.
Perhaps even more pertinent will be the case of Dexter Fowler, the already 31 year-old center fielder with half a decade remaining on his contract. He is a player with above-average speed at an age when speed declines quickly, a player with an average recent track record defensively but with prior history which indicated that he was a considerably below-average defender. How quickly will the Cardinals pull the plug on Fowler as a center fielder if he reverts back to his old defensive ways? How quickly would they put him on the bench if he no longer is viable as an outfielder of any persuasion?
What happens with Peralta once he returns could be an interesting litmus test for if Mike Matheny has learned from the Allen Craig fiasco. Before the DL announcement, it looked like Matheny had made progress, even if it was insufficiently large for some fans, but until Peralta is healthy, this remains an open question. Giving a once-great veteran a longer leash is defensible, if not always the correct move, but to continue to accept the status of a high paycheck as necessarily reflecting a player’s current value would be a dramatic mistake.