NASHVILLE—It's far from a Justin Upton- or Matt Kemp-level blockbuster, but one of last winter's busiest teams has made its first move of this year's winter meetings, as the Padres have traded infielder Jedd Gyorko and cash to the Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Jon Jay. While not a high-impact move, it's one that can help both teams, albeit in a limited capacity, and it's the most alliterative trade in recent memory.
The 27-year-old Gyorko is coming off a modest three-month rebound after a dreadful 2014 season (.210/.280/.333 with 10 homers) in which he battled plantar fasciitis and then a '15 start that was so slow that he was optioned to Triple A El Paso in early June. Prior to that move, he was hitting just .210/.282/.311 with two homers, but after returning three weeks later, he hit .262/.303/.430 with 14 homers for the rest of the year, a level of production that approximated his 2013 rookie season (.249/.301/.444 with 23 homers).
A third baseman in the minors who has primarily played second base in the majors, Gyorko spent the better part of the last six weeks of the season as the Padres' regular shortstop, a position he had never played professionally; it was an odd fit given his stocky, fireplug build (he's listed at 5'10", 205 pounds). In his 28 games there—a very small sample size—he was four runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved and three below average via Ultimate Zone Rating. By comparison, he's 12 runs below average in 319 games at second base for his career. The shift to shortstop allowed the Padres to take a longer look at rookie Cory Spangenberg, who put in a solid claim on the keystone and provided a defensive upgrade (0 DRS, 2 UZR) in 108 games. Spangenberg, who turns 25 on March 16, hit .271/.333/.399 with four home runs and nine steals in 345 plate appearances.
While Petco Park is notorious for its suppression of offense, Gyorko's home/road splits differ by just 11 points of OPS, though his batting average on balls in play has been much better elsewhere (.304 versus .252), hinting that he could boost his production with a change of scenery. With lefty swingers Kolten Wong at second base and Matt Carpenter at third, the Cardinals are more likely to use their new acquisition in a utility role, taking advantage of the fact that the righty-swinging Gyorko has been much better against lefties (.260/.335/.441) than righties (.228/.278/.379) during his big-league career, and that he can spot at both positions as well as shortstop, where Jhonny Peralta is the incumbent.
For as much sense as that combination of roles makes, Gyorko is a pricey option. The Padres signed him to a six-year, $35.5 million extension in April 2014, of which he's still owed $33 million, including a buyout of his '20 club option. San Diego is reportedly sending $7.5 million in cash to cover the move, but the remaining $25.5 million spread over four years is still an outsized commitment to a part-time player. Of course, it's early enough in the winter that the Cardinals could still make other moves involving their infield. The 24-year-old Wong's four remaining years of club control would make him a useful trade piece, though the defensive falloff for St. Louis would be significant. What's more, $13 million of Gyorko's deal is for 2019, by which point the Cardinals' infield might look very different; if they need to absorb some fraction of that cost to move him, it shouldn't be a crippling blow.
Gyorko's extension dates back to the period when Josh Byrnes was the Padres' general manager, and like much of his work, it's been undone by A.J. Preller, who took over in August 2014 and was a whirlwind of activity last December when he traded for Upton, Kemp and Wil Myers. He failed to find a true centerfielder, however, a problem that the addition of Jay potentially solves while freeing up around $20 million in salary commitments. Myers and the half-dozen other players who spent time in center for San Diego combined for -12 DRS, though Melvin Upton Jr., who was acquired in early April, turned in a solid partial-season performance in 228 plate appearances (.259/.327/.429, +2 DRS), and rookie Travis Jankowski got his feet wet there as well.
With Justin Upton a free agent and first baseman Yonder Alonso traded to Oakland, the Padres have some flexibility as to where to play Myers, and the lefty-swinging Jay will add to that—assuming that he can bounce back from the worst of his six big-league seasons, one wrecked by left wrist problems. Jay, who turns 31 on March 15, hit just .210/.306/.257 with one home run in 245 plate appearances; after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in October 2014, he started the season slowly, missed 16 games in May and then all of July and August via two stints on the disabled list with what was first described as tendinitis and later as a stress reaction and bone bruise. He made just 11 starts in September after returning, getting lost amid the numerous options that the team explored in his absence, including rookies Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham.
For as bad as that season was, Jay hit a combined .295/.359/.396 for a 109 OPS+ in his five previous seasons, with an average of six homers and nine steals. That modest offense combined with his ability to play average-or-better defense in centerfield—he's four runs above average there for his career, via DRS—and to fill in at the outfield corners gives him value. From 2011 to '14, he averaged 2.6 Wins Above Replacement per season before slipping to -0.2 in '15. If he can approximate that earlier production, his $6.225 million salary will be a bargain.
The trade of Jay further clears out a St. Louis outfield that shed Peter Bourjos earlier this month via a waiver claim by the Phillies. Those two players combined for 90 starts in centerfield, but the emergence of both Grichuk (.276/.329/.548 with 17 homers in 350 plate appearances) and Pham (.268/.347/.477 with five homers in 173 PA) gives St. Louis multiple options; those two combined for 63 starts at the position. That said, the 24-year-old Grichuk and the going-on-28-year-old Pham are both righties, as are fellow 2015 rookie Stephen Piscotty and incumbent leftfielder Matt Holliday. Barring a big move to replace free-agent rightfielder Jason Heyward, that leaves the Cardinals with a likely Holliday-Grichuk-Piscotty configuration in the outfield; Wong, Carpenter and Matt Adams would be the lineup's only lefties, with Brandon Moss a lefty option off the bench.
In all, this isn't a major move that will shift the NL's balance of power, nor is it one that solves every problem that the two teams have. Then again, it's only Dec. 8, and the significance of these moves will best be understood in the context of what's still to come.