St. Louis Cardinals: Jhonny Peralta, a not-so-cautionary tale

Jun 21, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Jhonny Peralta (27) reacts during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 21, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Jhonny Peralta (27) reacts during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports /

When the news came out last week that Jhonny Peralta had been DFAed, there were reactions galore, but few were advocating his continued tenure with the team. It was fairly well established that his time with the St. Louis Cardinals should be over, both for failure of production and wasting precious roster room.

Some called St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak to task for a four-year deal that produced value only in its first half. The only problem with this last analysis is, that seems precisely what Mo planned for with the contract penned before the 2014 campaign.

I’m not fawning over the Jhonny Peralta deal without critique. For there was a flaw with the contract, though not in its creation but in its execution.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When the Cardinals went all-in with Peralta as a free agent, inking him to a four-year, $53M deal, they had a serious deficiency at shortstop. Despite making it to the (painful) 2013 World Series, the team was near the bottom of the MLB pack with a -2.1 WAR from the position.

You remember that season at short, don’t you? Pete Kozma. Don’t throw things at me, I’m just the messenger. I think we can all agree that outside a handful of timely hits and the longest dropped infield fly in playoff history, he wasn’t the answer to much of anything.

With Peralta, the Cards were taking a chance on a once-punished PED guy.  At least from a performance perspective, though, the potential existed for plugging a middle-of-the-order bat into a group that, despite its absurdly, historically high RISP, only posted a .401 overall team slugging percentage.

They needed help and they needed it badly, and he would shore up the SS spot for at least a couple years, buying time for the next SS iteration (read: Aledmys Diaz).

And for at least the first year and a half, Jhonny did mostly everything the club needed. Not only did he improve the offense production at short by a mile, but he was a capable replacement for the glove-only Kozma in the field.

By the time two full seasons were complete, Peralta had shone through with a rather impressive 7.5 WAR,  a good chunk of that attributable to a fine dWAR in his first season here. He was 14th in MVP voting in ’14 and an All Star in ’15, largely due to his .838 OPS first half.

By ’15 year’s end it was clear that Peralta’s body was worn down, and in ’16 we saw overt injuries play a part the first two months. The only time that he actually provided any real production at all was in September. He ended the year with a negative WAR, hurt by rather anemic play at his newly-minted 3B position.

And this year, there was little to suggest he was on the way back.

But way back is where you have to start to assess his value to the team and Mo’s grade for the signing. Looking at Fangraphs from 2014, you start to see the context in which the contract was created.

At the time, teams were paying what worked out to between $6 and $7 million per WAR for players over the life of their contracts (by 2016, that figure had worked its way up closer to $8 million). There are a lot of ways to analyze dollar per WAR, but suffice it to say that Peralta’s, though slightly on the high side, was a fair value for a shortstop that could fill a major hole for the Cardinals.

And if you divide the total cost of the contract by the 7.5 WAR that Peralta created with his bat and glove in 2014 and 2015, you end up with almost exactly $7 million per WAR.

For two years’ worth of performance, not four.

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So I mean it when I say Mo’s failings in the deal are not from the cost and not from the expectation of early-term performance (as he wisely front-ended the payment to match up with the likely period of highest efficiency). They’re from holding onto the promise too long that Peralta would once again be a productive and contributing member to the team.

The Peralta contract is a good example of a team looking at player investments in a different way that the typical fan does. For what the Cards needed at the time, a slight overpay was fine, and if they could maximize what they got while Peralta was healthy, drug-free and able to play capable shortstop defense, all was copacetic.

That the last half of his contract didn’t pan out only meant that Mo got the value of his deal and nothing more.

That’s what the free agent market generally is for these days. It’s rare to get a super bargain — those are principally reserved for self-raised farmhands through their first six years or via a reasonable extension prior to full free agency.

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A team that can blend a rich stable of its own prospects at a discount with a market-rate handful of free-market guys is likely going to succeed over time. That’s the “Mo Way,” and in the case of Peralta, I’d render the verdict in his favor.