November 25, 2013
The Cardinals Pay Peralta's Price
Everyone knew that the Cardinals needed a shortstop, that there was no way they would enter next season counting on Pete Kozma. GM John Mozeliak said so, in case it wasn’t obvious enough when we looked at Kozma’s slash line. And so for a while the trendy topic was to try to do Mozeliak’s job for him, identifying his options and proposing appropriate packages that would rob St. Louis’ strength to shore up their one weakness.
Maybe Mozeliak had his eyes on Peralta all along, and the trade talk was an attempt to lower the free agent’s leverage. (If so, it didn’t work very well.) Or maybe the fact that trading surplus pitching for a shortstop seemed so obvious—so inevitable, even—paradoxically made it more difficult. J.J. Hardy might have made sense for St. Louis, but not when the Orioles asked for Shelby Miller. Jurickson Profar might have made sense, too, but not after Texas traded Ian Kinsler. As the options dwindled, the eyes of every other GM with a decent shortstop to dangle—which wasn’t a long list—must have lit up when the Cardinals called. Maybe they all asked for Miller or Carlos Martinez, refusing to settle for arms the Cards would have been willing to part with, like Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly. And maybe Mozeliak grew tired of being held hostage, of hearing constant demands for players he’d drafted, signed, and developed—and in the process, grown attached to.
Given that sort of scenario, it’s easy to imagine how tempting it would be to plug the one hole the Cardinals have failed to fill from within without surrendering any of the stockpiled young talent at other positions that sets the organization apart. After all, it’s not like one move would make paying a premium a habit. And what good is all that cost control without someone to spend the savings on?
Still, it’s strange to see St. Louis fill a need by signing a free agent who’s probably past his prime to a contract he probably won’t be worth, just like any old organization without the reputation for being the best-run team in baseball. It’s not necessarily dumb. It’s just…uncreative, and un-Cardinals. It’s been just over six years since Mozeliak replaced Walt Jocketty, and prior to Peralta, he’d signed only two free agents to $20 million deals: Matt Holliday, who had already been in the organization, for seven years and $120 million, and Carlos Beltran, who barely cleared the bar at two and 26. Holliday’s pact was completed almost four years ago, and in the last two years, the Cards have been close to self-sufficient, paying for only five free agents besides Beltran: Rafael Furcal (who, like Holliday, was re-signed after being acquired via trade) a pair of lefty relievers, Ronny Cedeno, and regrettably, Ty Wigginton.
As jarring as it is to see St. Louis sign a big-money free agent, it might be more jarring to see Peralta be that big-money free agent.
For one thing, Peralta doesn’t look like a shortstop. At 215 pounds, he’s heavier than all but a few other regulars at the position—Troy Tulowitzki, Brandon Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez. Tulo is taller, so his weight is well distributed, and he easily passes the eye test. Crawford defies physics. Hanley’s appearance isn’t deceptive: he really isn’t a shortstop. Defensive metrics have always despised him, and if the Dodgers had anyone better, he’d still be at third, where the Marlins moved him.
Peralta is different. He doesn’t make many highlight-reel plays or appear to have great range. The Indians—the team that signed him as an amateur free agent and got to see him every day for the next decade—evidently agreed, moving him to third when he was 27 to make way for Asdrubal Cabrera. Yet it’s Cabrera who’s been a net negative defender, according to every advanced defensive metric, while Peralta rates as positive (or at worst breakeven), particularly lately. Players aren’t supposed to get better at fielding in their late 20s, but according to both the defensive stats and the way teams have treated him, Peralta has (perhaps by being in The Best Shape of His Life).* And now a contending team with a third baseman and a second baseman who are both under contract through 2017 have entrusted him with the job for the next four years.
Another thing Peralta is going about backwards: making money. He last hit the open market after 2010. That time, he got two guaranteed years, for a total of $10.75 million. Three years closer to the bad end of the aging curve, he’s hit paydirt.
Let’s recap. Age 27, moved off shortstop; Age 31, signed to play shortstop through age 35. Age 28, gets a two-year contract; age 31, following a positive PED test and suspension,** gets a four-year contract with an AAV more than 200 percent higher. What a weird career.
Our predictive powers clearly aren’t up to the task of anticipating Peralta’s next move. Earlier this month, baseball’s newsbreakers had no idea how much he was about to make. Jim Bowden—whose free-agent contract calls have proven eerily accurate in the past—expected two years and $20 million when he published his predictions less than two weeks ago. Jon Heyman, a week earlier, predicted two years and $18 million, with the anonymous agent and GM he surveyed saying 2/$21 and 2/$16, respectively. MLBTradeRumors’ Tim Dierkes, the day before that, wrote that Peralta “may manage a three-year deal in the $30MM range, given the limited market at his position.” Maybe Heyman’s GM was Dave Dombrowski; the Tigers didn’t extend Peralta a qualifying offer, fearing that he’d settle for one year, $14.1 million, and a spot at second or in left.
It’s not that everyone failed to anticipate what wins would be going for this winter. Nine of the 50 free agents Bowden published estimates for signed before Peralta, for a total of $225.75. Bowden’s predicted total came to $219, with a $10 million miss on Carlos Ruiz and differentials of $5 million or less for the other eight moves. On Peralta, he was off by over $30 million. Either the Cardinals overpaid, the internet underrated Peralta, or we seriously underestimated how hard it is to find a shortstop. Stephen Drew will cost a draft pick, but if Peralta’s contract is any indication, he’s about to give Scott Boras a big commission.
Peralta projects to be roughly a league-average hitter next season, which—as a decent defensive shortstop, a below-average baserunner, and a durable player who’s never been on the DL—would make him worth about 2.5 wins. Subtracting the standard 0.5 win per season aging penalty thereafter would yield a total of seven wins over the life of the contract, at a rate of $7.4 million per win. That doesn’t sound like great bang for the Cardinals’ buck, but after factoring in inflation, it might not be so bad. Even if it ends up over the market rate, it might make sense for St. Louis, given the magnitude of the upgrade over Kozma, the team’s lack of empty costs elsewhere, and their position on the win curve.
Plus, Peralta might not follow the typical decline curve. He certainly hasn’t so far.
*A few months ago, I laid out the evidence that Derek Jeter had made his own Peralta-like improvement through improved positioning and training techniques. The difference was that Jeter didn’t make those tweaks so until he was older than Peralta is now. Shortly thereafter, his defense headed downhill again; he’d overcome his old habits just in time to succumb to decline due to natural causes.
*Some columnists will be up in arms that Peralta's positive test seems not to have cost him a cent. Maybe the more interesting takeaway, for me, isn't that teams don't financially punish PED users for their bad behavior—it's that teams evidently aren't convinced that PEDs are the super-soldier serum many fans think they are. If the Cardinals believed that Peralta's strong performance for Detroit was the result of whatever he took, and were worried that he'd collapse without it, they wouldn't have made him their fourth-highest-paid player. —Ben Lindbergh
From the Peralta owner’s perspective, the best news to come out of this signing is that the Cardinals not only plan to play Peralta at shortstop, but that because of their ridiculous depth at the corners, they’re very unlikely to move him off the position in the next couple of seasons. That means he’ll maintain the eligibility that makes him worth rostering in nearly all leagues. The switch from the AL to the slightly easier league should mean a slight uptick in his stats (the stadium difference is negligible for right-handed power); for what it’s worth, Peralta is a career .301/.365/.491 hitter against National League pitching. He was the 14th-ranked shortstop in 2013 despite his 50-game suspension, but that .374 BABIP likely would have come way down had he kept playing. Even playing in an improved lineup, a top-10 option at shortstop he is not.
If you owned Kozma this year in a fantasy league that actually rewarded positive performance, then you were doing something horribly wrong. At least now you’ll have one less name to cross off your draft list when you filter by projected playing time. —Bret Sayre
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh