For half a decade, Jon Jay was a useful piece for the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first two seasons in St. Louis, he began as a fourth outfielder capable of handling all three outfield spots and he later inherited starting spots following July trades of Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus.
For the next three seasons, he was a starting center fielder who ranged somewhere between firmly above-average and probably better used as a backup. In 2015, however, Jay’s performance dropped dramatically—while FanGraphs tracked him as above replacement level, this was largely the byproduct of far and away his best defensive numbers of his career (these numbers over the course of one season tend to be misleading—going by the eye test, Jay appeared to be the average-ish defensive outfielder he had always been).
Jay’s 57 wRC+ was completely unacceptable for a regular player, and while very few people expected that the formerly above league-average hitter was suddenly that terrible at the plate, Randal Grichuk supplanted Jay as the preferred center fielder during the 2015 season and appeared to have the 2016 job mostly locked up even before the December trade which sent Jon Jay to the San Diego Padres for utility infielder Jedd Gyorko and cash considerations.
The Cardinals had more than their share of outfielders (and this was while they were still making an effort to re-sign Jason Heyward) and, with their increasingly extensive bullpen, a player such as Gyorko capable of playing multiple positions was more useful than ever to the Cardinals. The biggest obstacle which could have kept the Cardinals from making the trade was cost.
Jon Jay had been signed to a two-year extension before 2015, buying out his arbitration seasons, and he had $6.2 million remaining on his contract when he was dealt to the Padres. While Jay’s struggles in 2015 perhaps made this salary look a bit less desirable than it had looked before the extension, it still amounted to a fairly small expenditure compared to Gyorko, whom the Cardinals now owed $25.5 million through 2020 (his contract totaled $32 million, plus a $1 million 2021 buyout if necessary, less the $7.5 million contributed by the Padres).
While Jon Jay rose back to the level of competent offensively in 2016, and for the first few months was outpacing the Cardinal for whom he was traded, by the end of the season, it was clear that Jedd Gyorko had been the more productive player. Jay ended 2016 with 1.1 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, which by the site’s measure made him worth $9.1 million. He then departed in free agency, and while Jay’s 2016 season wasn’t particularly exciting, he did produce a surplus value of $2.9 million. Not that this made the Cardinals regret the trade—with a team-leading 30 home runs and 2.3 fWAR, Gyorko’s open market value per FanGraphs was $18.3 million.
With Jedd Gyorko now injured, it feels like an appropriate time to remember that Gyorko’s contract remains a liability (in the literal accounting sense, not in the “it’s necessarily a bad contract” sense) for the Cardinals. And while the Jay-for-Gyorko trade has been widely celebrated for over a year now, there was always the possibility that the team acquiring a long-term investment could be hurt by the length of contract on the back end of it.
By FanGraphs dollars per WAR estimates, Jedd Gyorko has already been worth his contract. As a Cardinal, Gyorko has been worth $34.7 million, a surplus value of $9.2 million. Jon Jay was worth his cost in 2016, but Jedd Gyorko was so impressive over less than two years that he seemingly justified the cost of five years worth of contract.
Measuring the value of the players relative to their contracts in this manner and declaring that the Cardinals have already won the trade, however, seems a bit hasty. The gap in value amounts to $6.3 million, which amounts to less than a win above replacement in open market terms. It’s still pretty close, and no team’s actual waiting-in-the-wings replacements are all actually exactly replacement level, so the possibility that Gyorko hasn’t yet made the trade a win for the Cardinals still exists.
But examining the exact circumstances of the Cardinals’ roster, if anything, make the move look even more favorable. While Gyorko was generally viewed more as a utility player, capable of playing second base (perhaps working as part of a platoon with Kolten Wong), third base, or occasionally shortstop, he began to fill a more important role with the Cardinals, partially because he performed well but also largely because of the rapid decline of Jhonny Peralta.
In this sense, it makes sense to consider not how much better Gyorko is than replacement level, but how much better he is than Jhonny Peralta, who was worth -0.9 fWAR in just 371 plate appearances in 2016 and 2017. Yes, the Cardinals could have played Greg Garcia (2.3 fWAR in 483 PA; perhaps this was an aberration but all signs point to Garcia being no worse than replacement level), but they probably wouldn’t have, at least not until the point that Peralta’s performance bottomed out so badly that the Cardinals designated him for assignment.
Meanwhile, Jon Jay was mostly redundant for the 2016 Cardinals. While Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty made memorable cameos, 82% of center field innings were logged by Randal Grichuk or Tommy Pham, with another 9% handled by Jeremy Hazelbaker. Perhaps an additional, steady utility outfielder such as Jon Jay would have helped a team that missed the postseason by one game would have helped, but had the Cardinals not had Jedd Gyorko, the deficit would have been more than one game.
My official verdict is as follows: $/WAR modeling underestimates the degree to which the Cardinals benefited by having Jedd Gyorko over Jon Jay for the last two seasons, and that while WAR isn’t a fool-proof statistic, the Cardinals have probably already won the trade even if Gyorko never plays another game for the team. At this point, it’s a somewhat minor win for the Cardinals, but assuming that Jedd Gyorko is able to return to basically the same level at which he has played with the Cardinals since 2016, there is very realistic potential that the trade will be viewed as one of the best of the John Mozeliak era.