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November 12, 2013

Overthinking It

Picking an Appropriate Cardinals Shortstop

by Ben Lindbergh

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It’s not so bad being Pete Kozma. Between his signing bonus, his major- and minor-league salaries, and his World Series ring, Kozma has already made more than the average American high school graduate earns in a lifetime (and the average American high school graduate is pretty well off, globally speaking). He has his health, his looks and athleticism, and a pretty cool career. We’ve all tweeted or written or said something snarky about Pete Kozma at some point in the last couple years, but the sobering reality is that if everyone in the world were forced to trade lives with either Kozma, you, or me, Kozma would win in a landslide.

Kozma is snarkworthy only in relation to a select group of people: other big league shortstops, just about all of whom are better at baseball than he. The 25-year-old can’t hit, so his overall value depends on his defense. Going by WARP, he wasn’t that bad, because only Andrelton Simmons and Jean Segura had better FRAA figures at shortstop. The location-based defensive metrics weren’t quite as high on him; of the 24 players who appeared in a minimum of 100 games last season, with at least 80 percent of them coming at shortstop, Kozma ranked 22nd by Baseball-Reference WAR, ahead of only Starlin Castro and Adeiny Hechavarria.

Given the option to trade their presumptive 2014 starting shortstop for Kozma—salary aside—very few major league teams would want to pull the trigger. Kozma’s own team feels much the same way: from the moment he made the Cardinals, they’ve been searching for someone better. The Cards were so unimpressed by Kozma’s 2011 debut that they signed Rafael Furcal to a two-year deal that winter. And after being forced by Furcal’s injury to play him in 2013, they haven’t been shy about wanting to avoid that experience again:

The Cardinals already have a young, controllable shortstop: Pete Kozma. What Mozeliak wants is a better young, controllable shortstop. So where is he going to get one?

St. Louis could, of course, sign someone: Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta, or…well, that’s about it, as far as attractive free agent shortstops go. But on the open market, the Cardinals would have to compete with every other team that’s trying to obtain one of those two players. They might have an advantage in certain respects—a history of recent success, a new ballpark, a reputation for having fans who don’t turn on their own players—but they don’t have more money than some of the teams they might be bidding against. On the trade market, though, they have a leg up, since years of smart drafting and player development have given them a surplus of the game’s most valuable commodity: young, cost-controlled talent. And with Furcal, Jake Westbrook, Carlos Beltran, and Chris Carpenter coming off the books, they can afford to assume someone’s contract.

The Cardinals have seven starting pitchers signed for next season: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, and (health permitting) Jaime Garcia. (Trevor Rosenthal is going to keep closing.) Mike Matheny could use anyone he can’t squeeze into the rotation as a reliever/backup starter, but if there’s an exception to the rule about how you can never have too much pitching, it’s when swapping some of that pitching could close a hole at a premium position. Teams would surrender the most for Shelby Miller, but the Cardinals will push to trade Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly, both pre-arb arms who would be attractive to teams but lack Miller’s top-of-the-rotation potential. (Coming off a somewhat fluky season, Kelly’s value will never be higher.) St. Louis has other potentially expendable parts—Matt Adams, David Freese, Kolten Wong—but Mozeliak’s preference is to trade pitching.

This is the time of year when we engage in idle speculation about every team as a means of filling the empty space where baseball used to be, and it’s particularly fun to speculate about St. Louis’ shortstop situation. For one thing, it’s almost certain that they’ll make a move: it’s unlikely that they’ll go into another season with Kozma as their starter, and they don’t have any acceptable in-house alternatives. And because we’re discussing shortstops, there’s a better-than-usual chance that we can pick the player they’ll end up with. Players can't move to shortstop from less demanding positions, and there are only so many existing shortstops a contending team would be happy to have. And we’re looking for young, available ones under team control who would represent obvious upgrades over Kozma, which limits the potential player pool even further.

That said, there are still, oh, 15 shortstops who could conceivably be Cardinals. Let’s put them into neat little categories and then pick a final five.

Young and Controlled
Fewer than 10 teams have productive shortstops who’d check off both boxes on Mozeliak’s wishlist:

Elvis Andrus/Jurickson Profar, Rangers
For the Rangers, an Andrus trade would resolve the blocked prospect problem as neatly as a Profar swap would, and a player who’s under contract for the next nine seasons would certainly fulfill Mozeliak’s “controlled” qualification, albeit not in an inexpensive way. Profar-to-St. Louis rumors haven’t subsided since last offseason, when Profar-for-Taveras was the far-fetched but compelling rumor making the rounds. There’s still some smoke here, thanks to Texas’ continuing logjam up the middle, but the two teams might not be the best match. The Rangers have four starting pitchers under contract through 2016, and they’re prioritizing offensive upgrades, particularly in the outfield and at 1B/DH. Moreover, both clubs would have to part with one of their top homegrown talents to seal a deal, something general managers are often reluctant to do. An offer of Adams and Miller might make things interesting, but before making a potentially franchise-altering move, both teams will explore ways to shore up their weaknesses by dangling other players (Ian Kinsler, Lynn/Kelly).

Everth Cabrera, Padres
Cabrera, a super 2 player, is coming off a career year and is about to turn 27, so he’s about to become more expensive. That might make the Padres willing to part with him, but they don’t really have a high-level replacement ready to go.

Starlin Castro, Cubs
The Cubs won’t want to sell Castro on the cheap with his price depressed by a bad 2013. If they do decide to trade him to clear room for Javier Baez, it probably won’t be until he’s had time to reestablish his value.

Brandon Crawford, Giants
Crawford, 26, is Giants property through 2017. And with Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong reaching free agency, San Francisco could use a starter. But with middle infield prospect Joe Panik spending most of the season at second base, the Giants don’t have a capable backup at short, and the Cardinals might not consider Crawford enough of an offensive upgrade to make a move.

Didi Gregorius/Chris Owings, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks’ shortstop surplus could be an opportunity for the Cardinals. Gregorius showed good glovework in a successful rookie season, though his early offensive success was somewhat deceptive. Owings hit well in a September call-up after batting .330/.359/.482 for Reno. Five of six scouts surveyed by Nick Piecoro this week agreed that Owings has the higher upside, thanks to a better bat, but either option could suit St. Louis. The Diamondbacks are looking for a starting pitcher, so St. Louis could swoop in and get a long-term shortstop solution without paying a premium for Profar’s prospect buzz.

Jordy Mercer, Pirates
The Pirates have Alen Hanson on the way, but Mercer is their guy for the foreseeable future. If they deal him, they’ll be in the same boat as St. Louis at an important position, which won’t make it any easier for them to sustain their 2013 success. For the first time in ages, Pirates fans are expecting their team to win.

Jean Segura, Brewers
St. Louis would love to have Segura, but it’s tough to imagine the Brewers trading the 23-year-old (particularly to a division rival), despite his .241/.268/.315 second half.

Young or Controlled
If the Cardinals can’t find a shortstop who fits both of their needs, they might settle for someone who supplies one or the other:

Erick Aybar, Angels
Aybar has averaged 2.5 wins over the past five seasons, and he’s signed for three more years at a reasonable rate. The Angels need pitching, and an offer of Lynn and a reliever would be hard to pass up. The potential sticking point is a replacement for Aybar, unless the Halos are willing to live with Grant Green at shortstop.

Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
Someone in my chat last week suggested a swap of Ramirez and David Freese. The Cardinals would be happy to make that move and shuffle their other infield pieces, moving Matt Carpenter back to third and clearing room for Kolten Wong. With Freese about to make more money as a second-time arb-eligible player, the White Sox wouldn’t be as amenable. But it’s possible that there could be a fit here, and while Ramirez is on the wrong side of 30 and already appears to be on the offensive down slope, he’s durable—playing 158 games in three straight seasons—and under team control through 2016.

Jose Reyes, Blue Jays
Signed for $82 million over the next four years, on a team that still seems committed to competing in the short term. Even less likely than a Troy Tulowitzki trade. Speaking of which...

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Tulo-to-the-Cardinals is this winter’s breakout rumor, but it’s unlikely to go further than that. Tulowitizki is signed to a team-friendly extension, and the Rockies aren’t eager to trade the face of their franchise, so it would take a ton of talent to pry him free. He’s the best shortstop in baseball, but he’s not known for durability, and the difference between him and a lower-tier solution—whether via trade or free agency—probably wouldn’t justify (for instance) the Adams, Miller, and Rosenthal (plus another prospect) package Ken Rosenthal proposed.

Neither Young nor Controlled, but Hey, What the Heck
Trading for an impending free agent would just postpone the search for a long-term shortstop to next winter, but the Cardinals could profit from settling for one of these stopgaps and waiting to see which players at their deepest positions prove to be keepers before making a major move:

Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
Francisco Lindor needs more minor league seasoning and Mike Aviles isn’t a starter, so Cleveland doesn’t have to deal Cabrera, who’ll turn 28 tomorrow. But he’s a year away from free agency, and the Indians could benefit from the Cardinals’ pitching, so a swap (and an extension) isn’t out of the question.

J.J. Hardy, Orioles
Hardy is 31 and signed only through next season, but if St. Louis decides to settle for a one-year patch, Baltimore might be a match. The Orioles could use a starter, and Manny Machado could slide to his left a season earlier than anticipated, assuming his surgically repaired knee allows.

Jed Lowrie, Athletics
It wouldn’t be at all out of character for Billy Beane to trade an injury prone player who’s going on 30, entering his walk year, and coming off his first season without a DL stint since 2008, especially with Addison Russell looking prepared for a promotion. A’s fans might be annoyed to see yet another good find flourish in Oakland only to be flipped, but that’s how Beane balls on a budget. However, after losing Furcal for a full season, the Cardinals would be wary of putting themselves a Lowrie injury away from another overdose of Kozma.

The Final Five
Erick Aybar
Asdrubal Cabrera
Didi Gregorius
Chris Owings
Alexei Ramirez

Mozeliak has made big trades before—acquiring Matt Holliday and moving Colby Rasmus—so we know he’s not afraid to do something decisive. But a smaller move is more likely, and probably wiser. A trade for Aybar instead of Tulowitzki, or for Gregorius/Owings instead of Andrus/Profar, wouldn’t generate the same sort of headlines, but St. Louis doesn’t need to make a splash. The Cardinals came within two games of winning the World Series with Pete Kozma at short; with an average shortstop, the depth to survive injuries and make mid-season additions, and near-total freedom from expensive players well past their primes, they’ll be positioned to go just as far again—not only in 2014, but well into the latter half of the decade.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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