St. Louis Cardinals: Three shortstop options for 2018

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 26: Paul DeJong #11 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated by his teammates after hitting a two-run home run against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 26, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 26: Paul DeJong #11 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated by his teammates after hitting a two-run home run against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 26, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

With the release of Jhonny Peralta and the demotion of Aledmys Diaz, the St. Louis Cardinals will need to weigh their internal and external options at shortstop going into the 2017/2018 hot stove season.

Not so long ago, the Twitterverse was abuzz with chatter about Busch Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals‘ home stadium ranked as one of the toughest places to hit in the major leagues. The Cardinals have one of the top pitching staffs in the league. That’s a good thing when you play in a pitcher’s park. The mediocre defense behind great pitching is a bad thing.

The backbone of a strong defense is shortstop, second base and center field, AKA “up the middle.” It seems like it has been a long time since the St. Louis Cardinals had a truly elite shortstop.

I took a look at the top performing St. Louis Cardinals’ shortstops since the 2000 season as measured by WAR. It was no surprise the number two spot on the list belongs to Edgar Renteria, with a 5.6 WAR season in 2003. However, I didn’t expect to see Jhonny Peralta’s name in the top slot, with his 5.7 WAR season in 2014. Aledmys Diaz’s 3.5 WAR in 2016 ranks 7th.

From a purely defensive standpoint, Brendan Ryan occupies the top two spots for his 2009 and 2010 seasons. Peralta once again surprised me, with a fourth place 2.6 dWar in his 2014 season. Diaz, by contrast, turned in a 25th best .2 dWar in 2016.

Depending on how much stock you put in WAR as a measure of player value, an argument could be made that 2014 Jhonny Peralta had the best all-around performance at shortstop the Cardinals have had since Y2K was a thing.

Unfortunately for Peralta and the St. Louis Cardinals, that 2014 season would be Peralta’s best in a Cardinal uniform. Diaz replaced him in 2016 and got off to a promising start, but his sophomore slump landed him back in Memphis and opened the door for the club’s current starting shortstop, Paul DeJong.

There are three paths the St. Louis Cardinals can take to securing their starting shortstop for 2018.

Option 1: Stick with a player already in the organization.

Much like Diaz in 2016, DeJong is off to a promising start in 2017. He is currently slashing .283/.306/.556, with a team-leading sixteen HR and a wRC+ of 119. On the defensive side, he has a Rdrs/yr (defensive runs saved above average per year) of 0 and has committed 2 errors at shortstop.

If DeJong can maintain his current pace, he should be the St. Louis Cardinals’ leading internal candidate for the starting shortstop job in 2018. Aledmys Diaz, the man who held the starting shortstop job at the beginning of 2017, remains the club’s likely second choice.

Diaz was slashing .260/.293/.396 with a wRC+ of 78 before being sent down to AAA Memphis on June 28th. His -20 Rdrs/yr and 6 errors likely contributed to his demotion. After getting off to a slow start in Memphis, Diaz has rebounded to a .287/.315/.471 slash line with a 98 wRC+.

Diaz’s recent improvement at the plate bodes well for his chances to return to the major leagues. However, his defensive performance suggests if Diaz hopes to stick in the majors, it may have to be at a position other than shortstop.

Alex Mejia is a dark horse candidate for the job. Meija, long considered to be a glove man, with little offensive potential, did not impress at the plate in his limited stint in the majors. He slashed .214/.214/.429 with a wRC+ of 61 in 14 PA.

However, Mejia has shown some intriguing improvement in AAA Memphis. Mejia has slashed .320/.370/.456 with a wRC+ of 115 in 136 PA. Those numbers would seem to justify a September call up, where he should get a second chance to prove he can produce at the major league level.

With Diaz’s defensive woes and Mejia still unproven at the major league level, Dejong seems like the clear favorite. If he doesn’t succumb to the sophomore slump, the way Diaz has, he is poised to be one of the club’s top performing hitters in 2018. His current 119 wRC+ is 4th best on the team behind Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez and Matt Carpenter.

Those numbers may not be good enough to keep him in the 3-hole, but I agree with my Redbird Rants colleague, Tito, that DeJong could slot into the 5th or 6th spot in the lineup in 2018.

Defensively, DeJong appears to be a league average shortstop. There is hope that with more repetitions at the position, he might improve. However, it seems unlikely DeJong would ever be considered an elite defender.

Option 2: Sign a free agent.

Barring a contract extension, Zack Cozart will be the top shortstop to hit the free agent market at the end of the 2017 season.

Cozart is having a good year at the plate, slashing .318/.404/.573 with a wRC+ of 151. His 8 Rdrs/yr is a bit below his career average of 11. His 3.8 WAR is 6th best among shortstops. Those numbers all look pretty good.

However, Cozart’s career offensive numbers aren’t quite as impressive. He has slashed .254/.302/.405 with a wRC+ of 88 since his debut in 2011.

Cozart’s defensive numbers are better than DeJong’s. If both players were to repeat their 2017 offensive performance in 2018, Cozart would come out ahead there too.

However, if DeJong were to meet or exceed his 2017 numbers and Cozart were to regress towards his career stats, DeJong would be the better offensive player.

Option 3: Trade for an established star.

Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angels is having a breakout season. Simmons has accumulated an impressive 6 WAR and slashed .301/.359/.458 with a wRC+ of 124. His Rdrs/yr is 25, which is a shade below his career 28.

Aside from having to pry him away from the Angels, Simmons greatest drawback is, like Cozart, his career offensive numbers are less impressive. His career slash line is .267/.316/.377 with a wRC+ of 91. However, his 2016 numbers of .281/.324/.366 with a wRC+ of 91 at least demonstrates a multi-season upward trend.

Other top performers include Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros and Corey Seager of the L.A. Dodgers. Correa has slashed .320/400/.566 with 20 HR and wRC+ of 158. He is currently on the DL with a thumb injury. Seager has posted a .308/.400/.533 with 19 HR and a wRC+ of 147. Seager has the better Rdrs/yr at 6, while Correa has logged a 2 in 2017.

I’d be pretty happy to see the St. Louis Cardinals land any of those three guys, but would their respective teams part with them?

The Angels rank 25th in team batting average at .246. Their team ERA of 4.22 places them 14th. They could use some offensive help across the board.  The St. Louis Cardinals have a surplus of outfielders.

The Angels have Mike Trout in centerfield, but the rest of their outfield is fairly unimpressive. Cameron Maybin has been the best of the rest, with a 1.7 WAR and a 99 wRC+. He is set to be a free agent at the end of the season.

First base has been a gaping hole for the Angels, with the playing time being split between several players who are all producing below league average in 2017. Stephen Piscotty would be an interesting trade chip who could offer some flexibility to the Angels.

Piscotty has played both 1B and RF with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Angels could be a good landing spot for him, if there is still interest in moving him to a west coast team. However, with Piscotty’s struggles in 2017 landing him back in the minors, it seems unlikely the Angels would make the deal without significant incentive.

The St. Louis Cardinals could shop first baseman Matt Carpenter. The Cardinals have other options at first base. Carpenter has had something of a down year in 2017, but he has shown signs of improvement in the second half and has been an elite hitter in the past.

Another potential trading chip could be the St. Louis Cardinals’ current backup catcher, Carson Kelly. Kelly has seen little playing time since being called up. Yadier Molina‘s desire to play every day has already created some friction between himself and manager Mike Matheny.

With Molina signed through 2020, the St. Louis Cardinals may decide the timing isn’t going to work out for Kelly to be Molina’s heir apparent. The Angel’s current catcher, Martin Maldonado has one more year of arbitration before becoming a free agent. He has struggled at the plate in 2017.

The St. Louis Cardinals other area of strength is young pitching. Their top 30 prospects include a number of pitchers who are MLB ready or close to it. Alex Reyes (#1), Jack Flaherty (#3), Dakota Hudson (#8), Sandy Alcantara (#9) and Luke Weaver are all likely to draw interest in the off-season.

The St. Louis Cardinals could put together an attractive package for Simmons. I doubt the Angels really want to turn loose of their star shortstop. However, the Angels have a lot of holes to fill and they don’t have a great farm system to draw from, so if they want to make some moves, they may be forced to deal some major league talent.

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The Houston Astros and LA Dodgers are both having great seasons. The Astros are leading the league in hitting but could stand to improve their pitching.

The Dodgers don’t have many current weaknesses, though their pitching is currently outperforming their offense.

The Astros might be a better trading partner for the St. Louis Cardinals than the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have plenty of money to go along with their major league talent and robust farm system. It’s hard to imagine they’d let go of a guy like Seager, without someone making an overwhelming offer.

The Astros also have a good farm system, but they could really use some pitching and they don’t quite have the resources to throw around that the Dodgers have. They also do have a couple of holes in the lineup the St. Louis Cardinals could fill.

First, the Astros have been using a tandem of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis behind the plate, so should the Cardinals be willing to deal Kelly, he could be of interest to the Astros. 40- year-old Carlos Beltran has been the Astros primary DH.

Matt Carpenter could be a potential DH candidate, who could also fill in at other positions on the field. His bat generally plays better than his glove, so the American League could be a good career move for him.

The final verdict.

Of all of the external options, Zack Cozart is likely the easiest to pull off. All it will take to get him is money. Cozart is not the elite defender Simmons is, but he would probably be something of a defensive upgrade over DeJong. The danger in going after Cozart is that his bat may regress to his career numbers.

I would only suggest the St. Louis Cardinals go after Cozart if they end up dealing DeJong, Wong or Gyorko and need to fill a void on the infield. I think there is too much risk that Cozart could end up not being enough better than DeJong to be worth signing him to a multi-year deal.

If the Cardinals can get Simmons, Correa or Seager without making an offer that will prevent them from addressing their other needs, then I say go for it. If not, I feel pretty good about giving DeJong another season to prove he’s the real deal.

The club could instead go after an above average, but not elite type shortstop. With all the other needs the St. Louis Cardinals need to address, a shortstop that projects to be just a marginal improvement over DeJong probably isn’t worth the investment.

Next: Matt Carpenter continues to roll in KC

I would love to have Simmons’ defense at short or the offensive production of Correa or Seager at the plate. If their clubs aren’t selling or the price is too high, The St. Louis Cardinals may be best served by sticking with DeJong and spending their assets to address other needs.