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Utilizing Jedd Gyorko’s versatility

While his bat rightly gets most of the attention, the infielder’s ability to play multiple positions could make Jedd Gyorko an even more valuable player.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Jedd Gyorko from the San Diego Padres in December 2015, it didn't seem like a franchise-altering acquisition. It seemed partially like the Cardinals were just trying to unload Jon Jay, due to make $6.2 million in 2016 after an abysmal 2015 in which Jay had a 57 wRC+ (to date, the only season in which the outfielder has been a below-average MLB hitter by the metric) and was displaced by Randal Grichuk as the everyday starting center fielder. It seemed partially that the Cardinals wanted a backup infielder not named Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso. But regardless, it was a fairly quiet move which offered but a temporary distraction from following up-to-the-minute updates on Jason Heyward's free agent status.

Jedd Gyorko has surpassed the wildest expectations of just about anybody who follows the Cardinals. Only Khris Davis has hit more home runs in Major League Baseball at a more plentiful rate since the beginning of 2016 than Gyorko. While he entered both 2016 and 2017 officially as a bench player, he managed to lead the 2016 team in home runs without a full-time position, and this year, Gyorko appears to have taken the title of starting third baseman from Jhonny Peralta, even when the latter returns from the Disabled List.

And although he was acquired as the return for a short-term asset, as Jon Jay’s contract only ran through the end of 2016, Jedd Gyorko is under contract through the end of 2019, earning $28 million for the remainder of the deal. In addition, the Cardinals hold a team option for 2020 with an associated marginal cost of $12 million. If Gyorko maintains his current level of performance, barring extreme dollar deflation, the Cardinals will leap at the chance to pick up that option.

Jedd Gyorko is primarily known as a prodigious offensive player, and with good reason: he produced a career-high 111 wRC+ in 438 plate appearances in 2016 and has managed an even more torrid pace in 2017, holding a 156 wRC+ in 128 plate appearances. But outside of at the plate, Gyorko has been a below-average base runner (though, with his two steals so far in 2017, he is on pace to shatter his previous career-high of three, and FanGraphs’s Base Running Runs stat has him above average on the season, so there’s that) and even if he had a full-time position throughout a full season, he probably wouldn’t be a contender for a Gold Glove Award.

But like Matt Carpenter, at least before Matt Carpenter became a first baseman 98% of the time (his current rate for the season), Jedd Gyorko offers an intriguing dose of infield versatility.

Matt Carpenter was never a great defensive infielder at any position. At his most common defensive position—first base in 2012, second base in 2013, third base from 2014 through 2016—Carpenter was a minus fielder by Ultimate Zone Rating each season. He was never an abject disaster, but he was also never a defensive stalwart.

But Carpenter provided value to the Cardinals because, by being serviceable at a variety of positions, he enabled the Cardinals to improve around him. By handling significant time at first base in 2012, the team got Carpenter’s bat in the lineup in the first place, as Carpenter would have otherwise been blocked by their incumbent All-Star at the hot corner, David Freese. In 2013, Carpenter was a better hitter than Freese, but by playing at second base, the Cardinals could play both of them rather than a not-quite-ready Kolten Wong or Daniel Descalso patrolling second base. Carpenter’s cameos at second base in 2015 and 2016 were not great defensively, but they enabled the Cardinals to put more big bats in the lineup than they normally would have.

And Jedd Gyorko offers even more versatility, because unlike Carpenter, he can play shortstop. He’s hardly Ozzie Smith at it, but Gyorko did play the position at the collegiate level, though he was drafted as a third baseman. But his defensive metrics, as well as the eye test, follow the common trajectory: he’s a competent, if unspectacular, second or third baseman (he’s average-ish at first base, but this is going off of just seventy MLB innings) while more of a stretch at shortstop.

The general rule of thumb is that X-level defensive second baseman will be better at third base (although considerations such as arm strength make this far from a hard and fast rule), as reflected by defensive spectrum positional rankings, but even if this is not the case with Gyorko, and he is essentially equal at the two positions, it is currently more beneficial for the Cardinals that he play at third base, because Kolten Wong is, an unfortunately high number of errors notwithstanding, an above-average defensive second baseman with superior range to Gyorko.

It makes sense, given the personnel on the Cardinals, for Gyorko to play third base. Before the season, I was admittedly concerned that moving Matt Carpenter to first base was a waste of his ability to play other positions, as more MLB players can handle first base to a passable degree than any other non-DH position. But at this point, if Matt Carpenter moved back to third base, who would play first base? Before the season, I would have said Matt Adams, but Gyorko has been the superior hitter in 2017. The correct answer would probably be Gyorko, thus rendering the move unnecessary.

Gyorko could play shortstop, as Aledmys Diaz has not been able to replicate his 2016 offensive production, although I doubt such a move has ever been seriously considered. But unless Jhonny Peralta is considerably better coming off the DL than he was before being placed on it, the team would be substituting Diaz for Adams (I imagine that Greg Garcia would play shortstop over Gyorko, as his MLB metrics at the position have been considerably better), and while Adams has been a slightly better hitter, the Cardinals would, even with reasonable concerns about Diaz’s defensive ability, be fielding a materially worse defense.

In their current state, Jedd Gyorko should be playing third base. But the Cardinals would be wise to keep an open mind to playing him at second base, which has been rare in 2017, and shortstop, which has been unprecedented in 2017, when the situation arises. Players like Ben Zobrist have gone from good players to MVP-caliber players by being available outside of their comfort zones, and while Gyorko is probably never going to be a great defensive player at any position, he can provide tremendous value to the Cardinals in the short and long term simply by being able to hold his own across the defensive spectrum.