How Will St. Louis Cardinals’ Lineup Look After Jhonny Peralta Returns?

Oct 10, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta (27) fields a ball hit by Chicago Cubs second baseman Starlin Castro (not pictured) for an out during the fifth inning in game two of the NLDS at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta (27) fields a ball hit by Chicago Cubs second baseman Starlin Castro (not pictured) for an out during the fifth inning in game two of the NLDS at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

With Aledmys Diaz currently near the top of baseball’s leaderboards in batting average and OPS, how do the St. Louis Cardinals plan to integrate Jhonny Peralta back into the lineup?

The St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup has undergone constant change during the early part of 2016, with Mike Matheny giving only catcher Yadier Molina, third baseman Matt Carpenter, and right fielder Stephen Piscotty more than 80 percent of the starts at their primary positions through the season’s first 38 games.

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One would think that the upcoming return of shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who started a team-leading 147 games at short for the Cards in 2015 (plus another two at DH), would alleviate some of the issues with excessive lineup turnover.

Unfortunately for Matheny, it appears that things are only going to get more complicated once Peralta, who has been out since suffering a thumb injury during the early part of spring training, returns. Peralta’s replacement, Aledmys Diaz, has been the Cardinals’ hottest hitter since making his major-league debut on April 5, and there’s now uncertainty as to where each player will fit in upon Peralta’s return.

While there’s been some gray area regarding Peralta’s rehab process and return date, it sounds like the veteran infielder, who has resumed fielding and hitting drills, is on track to return in late May or early June. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Rick Hummel wrote earlier this month, the Cardinals now have a tentative date selected for Peralta to begin a rehab assignment:

"Mozeliak said Peralta would be re-evaluated in 10 days and added, “It wouldn’t surprise me for him to begin a (minor league) rehab about May 21st.”Peralta probably would need a week or more of rehab games but, by that timetable, he could be ready to rejoin the major-league club by the first few days in June."

Amazingly, though, Diaz has become the latest Cardinal to be sprinkled with the team’s seemingly endless supply of magic devil dust, and through 126 plate appearances, he’s third in the major leagues in batting average (.376), second in slugging percentage (.658), and third in OPS (1.063). His six homers rank fifth among major-league shortstops, trailing only Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Correa. As Hummel wrote, Diaz still seems to have a place in the lineup once Peralta is back:

"Mozeliak said Peralta’s return wouldn’t necessarily affect hot-hitting rookie Aledmys Diaz, who has played most of the shortstop with Peralta out.“It’s hard to imagine (Diaz) not playing somewhere,” said Mozeliak. “He’s been such an offensive asset.”"

There had been speculation earlier on about the Cardinals possibly giving a new position to Peralta, who had been considered a defensive liability destined for an eventual move to a corner infield or outfield spot prior to his signing with the Cardinals in 2014. If that were to happen, it could have created a domino effect for Matt Carpenter, who has substantial experience at second and first and could have shifted to one of those positions if the Cardinals decided to plug Peralta in at third while leaving Diaz at shortstop. After’s Jenifer Langosch posed the question to Matheny several days ago about a possible Peralta move, he didn’t seem to think that was a realistic possibility, according to the Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold:

We recently ran a poll over on the Arch Authority Twitter account, and the results were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Peralta and Carpenter at their natural positions of short and third, respectively, while shifting Diaz over to second. While that move conceivably would remove Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko from the everyday equation–which would be quite unfortunate for the Cardinals, considering that they owe the two infielders a combined $54.5 million through 2020 (and that’s assuming neither player’s options are picked up–they could always plug in Gyorko at first base, a position that Matheny has expressed a desire to use him at since he was acquired this past winter.

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Ultimately, the second base position is the one where the Cardinals should most be seeking an upgrade, as the players there have delivered a team-worst .218/.280/.373 slash line in 157 plate appearances. Plugging Peralta, a player who many consider to be the Cardinals’ best all-around hitter, in at shortstop while shifting Diaz to second seems to be the best move. It’d allow Diaz to remain in the lineup, which is only fair considering that he’s clearly been the Cardinals’ best hitter in 2016, while also allowing the rookie to move to a more manageable defensive position at second base, which is probably for the best considering that he’s made nine errors in 118 chances at short.

That’d further displace Wong, but that’s to be expected considering that the 25-year-old has been in a platoon with Gyorko all season and has hit just .229 with a .626 OPS and just three extra-base hits in 96 plate appearances. As for Gyorko, who’s hit .213 with a .676 OPS and four homers in 87 plate appearances, it’d free him up to provide coverage at first, second, and third if necessary.

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If Diaz were to cool down, there’d be nothing to stop Matheny from going back to his current platoon at a later date. Perhaps that’s a bad thing considering that Matheny has traditionally opted for more experienced players when he has them at his disposal–after all, Diaz has hit eighth or ninth in 24 of his 29 starts this season–but for now, Diaz is owed the opportunity to keep invigorating the Cardinals’ lineup and to continue his bid to be an All-Star as a rookie.