With Jhonny Peralta likely to miss the entire first half of the season with a thumb injury, the Cardinals must dig deep to find an adequate solution at shortstop.
The Cardinals suffered a significant blow this past weekend when shortstop Jhonny Peralta suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb while fielding a ball on Saturday. On Thursday morning, he underwent surgery that is expected to sideline him until around the All-Star break, an absence that will test the team's depth and could lead to a trade.
While Peralta and the team initially believed his injury—sustained while fielding a routine grounder—wasn't severe, an MRI taken on Sunday revealed a tear. He left the team's spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., to travel to St. Louis for a second opinion from team physicians, who on Wednesday recommended surgery. He'll remain in a cast for four to six weeks before starting the process of rehabilitating the injury.
Alas, thumb surgeries are a topic with which the Cardinals have become all too familiar recently, as catcher Yadier Molina has undergone three separate ones over the past two seasons. Molina missed seven weeks in 2014 after undergoing surgery on his right thumb, then needed two surgeries on his left thumb this past off-season—one in October after playing through a sprain suffered on Sept. 20, and a second on Dec. 16 after the first surgery "didn't take," the inference being that after an attempt to repair the ligament failed, he received a tendon graft. Molina was cleared to begin catching on Feb. 26 and to begin swinging a bat this past Tuesday, but only against soft-tossed pitching. On Wednesday, he made his Grapefruit League debut, wearing a splint on the repaired thumb, and made a swipe tag on a play similar to the one via which he suffered the injury. Since he has not been cleared to hit under game conditions—or even to take batting practice yet—he was removed for a pinch-hitter when his spot in the order came up. His Opening Day availability is still in question.
Peralta, who turns 34 on May 28, earned All-Star honors for the third time in his career last season, though his performance slipped from 2014, his first season with the Cardinals. After batting .263/.336/.443 with a 117 OPS+ and 17 Defensive Runs Saved en route to a career-high 5.7 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version), he hit .275/.334/.411 for a 102 OPS+ with -7 DRS and 1.8 WAR in 2015. With two years to go on his four-year deal, however, the Cardinals had no plans to replace him, and now they're left with a set of makeshift options to replace him for the first half.
Atop the list is Jedd Gyorko, who was acquired in a December swap with the Padres and expected to fill a multi-position backup role. After playing mostly third base in the minors, Gyorko spent the better part of his first three big-league seasons playing second. But the stocky fireplug (he's listed at 5'10", 205 pounds) played 29 games at shortstop last year, a position he had not played since 2010, when he starred at West Virginia and won the Brooks Wallace Award as the NCAA's top shortstop. Within his small sample playing the position in the bigs, he was four runs below average via DRS and three below average via Ultimate Zone Rating; by comparison, he's 12 runs below average in 319 games at the keystone.
Exactly what Gyorko can do at the plate has been clouded somewhat by injuries and spending half his time in Petco Park. Last year, he hit .247/.297/.397 with 16 homers and a 94 OPS+. Those rate stats that are right around his career line, splitting the distance between a strong but uneven debut (112 OPS+ and 23 homers) and a dreadful follow-up (78 OPS+ and 10 homers). His strength against lefties (.260/.335/.441 career compared to .228/.278/.379 against righties) and ability to play multiple positions is what drew the Cardinals to him, but they probably did not envision spending half a season with him at short.
The team's top alternative from its farm system is 24-year-old Cuban defector Aledmys Diaz, who played 102 games at Double A Springfield and 14 at Triple A Memphis last year, hitting a combined .278/.339/.445 with 13 homers. The Cardinals signed Diaz to a four-year, $8 million deal in March 2014, that after he missed a season for presenting a false date of birth—Jan. 8, 1990, instead of Aug. 1, 1990—that would have made him exempt from international signing limits. Rust, shoulder woes and less-than-stellar play have cast Diaz as a utility man instead of a regular shortstop, and he was outrighted off the 40-man roster last July. The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2016, which rates him as the 12th-best prospect in the system, notes that his performance did improve after that wakeup call, with 10 of his homers coming after the move, and adding, "The Cardinals noted his improvement and higher energy level, as well as an improved approach at the plate, which helped him get to his power more consistently." The handbook calls Diaz's defense "more solid than flashy with average arm strength and range to play shortstop adequately."
The team's other in-house option is 26-year-old utility man Greg Garcia, who has hit .225/.337/.360 in 105 plate appearances spread over 63 games in the past two seasons. He has 12 big-league appearances totaling 65 innings at shortstop plus 318 games there in the minors, including 69 at Triple A Memphis last season. Given that the lefty swinger hit just .222/.311/.287 last year against lefties, he's an incomplete solution at best.
Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, other teams have bombarded general manager John Mozeliak with calls, something the GM characterized as "ambulance chasing" and adding, "I'd like to see what we have" with regards to the aforementioned trio of options. That suggests that a big trade is unlikely, though if Mozeliak does go outside the organization, one logical step would be to contact the Diamondbacks, who are trying to sort through a logjam in the middle infield that includes shortstop options Jean Segura, Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. Another team to contact would be the Mets, as Ruben Tejada is on the fringe of the roster with the additions of Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Neil Walker at second base.
Another name that has surfaced is that of Erick Aybar, who was traded from the Angels to the Braves last November. Though Aybar is coming off a down season and can be a free agent at the end of the year, Atlanta GM John Coppolella isn't keen on dealing him just yet, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien, "Erick Aybar was a big part of the Andrelton Simmons trade. We don’t want to trade Erick Aybar; he’s a great, winning player. We need to win more games this year, and he’s going to be a big part of that."
Even assuming the Cardinals decide to deal with the injury in-house, it's likely they'll pick up a warm body somewhere near the end of spring training as teams make their final roster decisions, if only to add some depth in the system. Is it too early to dream of former Cardinals postseason hero Pete Kozma receiving a police escort from the Yankees' spring training complex in Tampa to that of the Cardinals in Jupiter?