The St. Louis Cardinals, owners of arguably the deepest roster in Major League Baseball, have made themselves stronger heading into 2014 by upgrading the one position that was an offensive dead zone last year.
According to various reports, first by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com and confirmed by Jim Bowden of ESPN, the Cardinals have come to terms with shortstop Jhonny Peralta on a four-year, $52 million contract.
Free agent Jhonny Peralta closing in on a deal with #STLcards, source confirms.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) November 24, 2013
confirming Jhonny Peralta 4-year $52m deal as $ first reported by @jonmorosi— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) November 24, 2013
This move gives the Cardinals, to my mind, the deepest lineup in baseball heading into 2014.
There is some risk with this deal because Peralta has already served a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. He would be on the hook for a 100-game suspension for another offense related to performance-enhancing drugs.
Another potential dilemma is age and defense. Peralta will be 32 on May 28 and has never been the most reliable defender at shortstop. He's gotten better in recent years, though, ranking fourth in defensive value among shortstops since the start of 2011 using FanGraphs' metrics.
But where the Cardinals really win with this signing is the upgrade it provides to the offense.
Pete Kozma has a superior glove, but going back to FanGraphs' statistical measures, he was the third-worst-hitting shortstop in the National League. When factoring in the significant upgrade Peralta provides over Kozma offensively, what the team is losing on defense becomes manageable.
There are still moves to be made, of course, but let's look at the ripple effects of this move for St. Louis.
The Cardinals finished third in baseball with 783 runs scored last season. They had 77 more runs than the No. 2 NL team (Colorado, 706).
With Peralta replacing Kozma, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's defensive alignment is going to look a little different, but the pieces will look largely the same.
|1. Matt Carpenter||3B|
|2. Kolten Wong||2B|
|3. Matt Holliday||LF|
|4. Allen Craig||1B|
|5. Yadier Molina||C|
|6. Jhonny Peralta||SS|
|7. Oscar Taveras||RF|
|8. Peter Bourjos||CF|
Carpenter did a fantastic job as a second baseman in 2013, but he's a better third baseman and will get to play his natural position. Kolten Wong had a brutal World Series, but his future is bright as a No. 2 hitter in this lineup.
The one spot I am not entirely sold on, at least right away, is Oscar Taveras in right field. He will take over at that spot eventually, but given the injury that limited him to just 47 games in Triple-A last year, the Cardinals might let him get more work in the minors before bringing him up.
If the season started today, which team would have the best lineup?
If that's the case, I could see the Cardinals trying something with Allen Craig in a corner outfield spot and Matt Adams at first base.
Either way, when Taveras comes up, he's going to hit and will eventually become a fixture in the middle of the order.
Looking at the group listed, which includes five players who hit at least .300 with an on-base percentage over .350 last year, how do the Cardinals not get better?
There was some random luck that allowed the Cardinals to score so many runs in 2013 that could come back down to earth next year. Hitting .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest average by a team since at least 1974, isn't likely to be replicated.
So how do you counter the inevitable regression to the mean?
By finding your weakest spot (shortstop) and plugging in one of the best hitters at that position.
It doesn't hurt that the Cardinals are replacing two other spots (third base, right field) with in-house options that include a player who finished fourth in NL MVP voting (Carpenter) and the best hitting prospect in the minors (Taveras).
The Peralta signing, in addition to strengthening St. Louis' lineup, weakens one of the teams that finished with more runs scored in 2013.
Peralta's former team, the Detroit Tigers, is likely to give Jose Iglesias the starting shortstop gig in 2014. That's good news for the Tigers defense, as Iglesias has all the tools to be one of the best in baseball. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything to help their offense.
Subtracting Prince Fielder, while it probably boosts Detroit's defense, does nothing to strengthen the offense.
Even if you factor in the Tigers replacing Fielder with Miguel Cabrera at first base and installing Nick Castellanos at third base, the lineup still doesn't look as strong as St. Louis' because the team is losing a ton of production at third base by shifting it across the diamond.
I love Castellanos' bat, but if forced to choose between him and the combination of Wong/Taveras, the Cardinals come out ahead every time.
The Red Sox had the best offense in baseball last year, scoring 853 runs, and they were trying to make some improvements where they saw fit. They were reportedly making a push for McCann that ultimately came up short.
In addition to losing McCann, Mike Napoli and Jacoby Ellsbury are both free agents. While there is a chance Napoli could return to Boston, it doesn't seem likely Ellsbury will return.
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports has said Ellsbury could get a similar deal to Carl Crawford's seven-year, $142 million three years ago. It's hard to envision Boston general manager Ben Cherington being comfortable giving out that kind of contract.
So while the two teams ahead of St. Louis in runs scored are losing some of that offensive potency, at least in the early stages of free agency, the Cardinals have made themselves significantly better by replacing the abomination of Pete Kozma with Jhonny Peralta.
A lot of things are left to be sorted out this winter, especially with the winter meetings just two weeks away. But it is hard to envision any lineup better than the one St. Louis will run out in 2014.
Even more remarkable is that the Cardinals were able to do this without having to trade any of their young starting pitching. The rich keep getting richer.
Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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