The St. Louis Cardinals’ biggest problem in 2016 was their inconsistent defense, especially from guys playing out of position. Why not sign a player who plays good defense at every spot?
It’s virtually impossible to argue that the St. Louis Cardinals were a good defensive team in 2016. If you’re a fan of traditional stats, the Cardinals committed 107 errors, the fifth-most in the National League and the most in the majors by a team over .500. If you’re a fan of more advanced metrics, the Cards had a -26.8 UZR (seventh-worst in the majors) and a -32.8 defensive rating according to FanGraphs (also seventh-worst in baseball).
GM John Mozeliak said earlier this month that defense will be the top priority as the Cardinals try to improve this offseason. While they could use a hitter who remains consistent throughout the season, it’s not as if they’re in desperate need of offense; they did, after all, lead the National League in home runs (225), and they were second only to the Chicago Cubs in OPS (.767). A defensive stalwart should certainly be atop their wish list, and while it might be tough to steal away a well-known star like Kevin Pillar, Kevin Kiermaier, or Andrelton Simmons via trade, there’s a player who’d perfectly fit the Cardinals’ needs who is available in free agency this offseason.
That man is Sean Rodriguez, who has been a thorn in the Cardinals’ side for the past two seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For a team that was so often burned by Mike Matheny‘s desire to play guys like Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, and Jedd Gyorko out of position in 2016, Rodriguez would be the ultimate solution, because he’s a defensive asset at quite literally every position besides pitcher and catcher.
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Rodriguez played all of those positions in 2016, only playing less than 100 innings at third base (61 1/3), left field (38 1/3) and center field (12). He committed just seven errors over a total of 731 1/3 defensive innings this season. Using FanGraphs’ metric of UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games, how well a player would carry out his defensive responsibilities at a particular position if he played there for a full season), Rodriguez was ranked as the fifth-best second baseman and 12th-best right fielder in the major leagues among players who played at least 100 innings at those positions.
FanGraphs’ metrics rate him far less favorably at first base and shortstop, the two other positions at which he exceeded 100 innings, but they still indicate that he’d represent an upgrade over players the Cardinals utilized at those positions this year, such as Jedd Gyorko at shortstop and Matt Adams and Brandon Moss at first base.
Thus, if the Cardinals for some ridiculous reason decided to use Rodriguez as their everyday shortstop instead of Aledmys Diaz, or as their everyday first baseman instead of Carpenter, they might not see that much of an uptick in defensive efficiency. His ability to be plugged in at those positions for a day and not cause an absolute catastrophe, though, is ultra-valuable.
If the Cardinals’ biggest weakness in 2016 was players playing out of position and combining to create disastrous defensive results, then Rodriguez might be the most perfect fit available, because it’s simply so difficult for him to be exposed at any spot on the diamond. He’s not the type of game-changer in the field that a guy like Pillar, Kiermaier, Simmons, Brandon Crawford, or Francisco Lindor can be, but wherever he plays, he limits the “plays not made”, to borrow a phrase often used by Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch.
The real intrigue (and risk) with Rodriguez comes at the plate, where he posted career-best numbers in 2016. Rodriguez, a career .234/.303/.390 hitter over 2,435 big-league plate appearances, hit .270/.349/.510 with 18 homers and 56 RBI this season, all of which were career highs, in 342 plate appearances.
Those numbers are certainly good enough to justify an everyday spot in a big-league lineup, even if Rodriguez is moving around all the time. I’ll save you the overused Ben Zobrist comparison, but is it possible that Rodriguez is more Mark DeRosa than he is Willie Bloomquist at the plate?
It’s within the realm of possibility that Rodriguez is one of those hitters who just needs consistent action to get into a rhythm, as he received more than 300 plate appearances for the first time since 2012 (his age 27 season). It’s also distinctly possible, however, that Rodriguez simply had a career year, which would make more sense than him actually developing into a well-above average hitter at age 31.
For a Cardinals team that had plenty of blowout victories and often hit multiple homers per game in 2016, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a glove-first everyday player in the lineup if Rodriguez ends up regressing to his pre-2016 production at the plate. But how much should the Cardinals be willing to pay a player who hasn’t been an exceptionally successful hitter over the years? Considering that they offered nearly $200 million to a rather similar hitter last winter, maybe quite a bit.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington told Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in late September that the Pirates would like to re-sign Rodriguez, but he acknowledged that the price of keeping the veteran will go up this offseason. If Rodriguez should depart, Huntington has already established that Alen Hanson and Adam Frazier could serve as in-house replacements.
Rodriguez, who made $2.85 million after incentives this year, will be looking for a significant raise this offseason, and particularly with such a weak free agent class this winter, he deserves it. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine Rodriguez getting more than $8-9 million per year or receiving term in excess of two or three seasons. With the Cardinals potentially shedding as much as $37 million worth of talent from their 2016 club if they allow Matt Holliday, Jaime Garcia, and Brandon Moss to walk in free agency, that type of contract should be more than affordable for the Cardinals.
The only issue is whether the Cardinals can justify adding another expensive middle infielder when they owe at least $25.5M to Jedd Gyorko over the next four seasons and $24.25M to Kolten Wong over the next five (those estimates assume that both players’ club options won’t be picked up).
The addition of Rodriguez would likely set into motion an attempt to move an infielder, likely either Wong or Jhonny Peralta. As both players are coming off subpar seasons, the Cardinals probably wouldn’t be able to get a whole lot back in exchange for either player. But if they could get another team to pay most of Peralta or Wong’s salary while simultaneously improving the Cardinals’ defense and reducing roster drama, maybe it’d be worth it.
Ultimately, the Cardinals probably aren’t going to add a true game-changer this offseason unless they’re willing to part with some legitimate assets in a trade. But for a club that went 86-76 in 2016, it’s very possible that simple, incremental improvements could be the difference between a playoff appearance and another October spent at home in 2017. Rodriguez’s defense could very well provide the Cardinals with that type of boost, and with quite a bit of cash available to spend next year, the Cards would be wise to make a run at him this winter.