The reshuffling of the Cardinals' infield continues. Two days after trading third baseman David Freese to the Angels to clear a spot for second base prospect Kolten Wong, they've added shortstop Jhonny Peralta via a four-year, $53 million deal, pending a physical. The move shores up the defending National League champions' most glaring weakness and represents their largest free-agent commitment in four years. Notably, it won't cost the team a first-round draft pick, since the Tigers didn't make Peralta a qualifying offer, and it's significantly less money than Peralta was said to be seeking.
The Cardinals came into 2013 hoping that Rafael Furcal had sufficiently recovered from a strained ulnar collateral ligament to resume regular shortstop duty, but he suffered a setback early in spring training and underwent Tommy John surgery in early March, costing him the entire season. The team forged ahead using light-hitting Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, the tandem who had covered for Furcal's absence in late 2012 by augmenting their solid defense with surprisingly clutch hitting in the postseason.
Alas, with Kozma taking about two-thirds of the playing time and Descalso the remainder, they received just replacement level production from the spot in 2013. Cardinals shortstops combined to hit .222/.280/.303 for the league's third-lowest OPS from that slot, and whether you use Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, Kozma's strong glovework was more or less cancelled out by Descalso's shakiness, and the pair combined for 1.0 Wins Above Replacement. As booming as their farm system is, it lacks a compelling alternative at the position, with glove-first Triple-A shortstop Ryan Jackson recently lost on waivers to the Astros as the team set its 40-man roster for the upcoming Rule 5 draft.
The 31-year-old Peralta (32 on May 28) represents a substantial upgrade on the offensive side. He earned All-Star honors for the second time in his career in 2013, hitting .303/.358/.457 with 11 homers for the Tigers, though his season was interrupted by a 50-game suspension for his connections to the Biogenesis clinic. Replaced in the lineup by slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, Peralta returned in time for the postseason, and hit .333/.353/.545 in 34 plate appearances split between shortstop and leftfield, a position in which he received a crash course just prior to returning.
While Peralta has been a durable player over the years, averaging 149 games a year from 2005-2012 without making a single trip to the disabled list in that span, his performance has varied widely from year to year. In his nine full seasons, he's had four with an OPS+ of 113 or higher, including two of the last three (119 in 2013, 122 in 2011), but also three of 85 or lower, and five swings of at least 25 percent from year to year relative to the league. In all, he's a career .268/.330/.425 hitter, with a 101 OPS+.
Peralta's defense has been surprisingly average as well. If that statement sounds odd, consider that he rarely makes a strong positive impression visually, often displaying a lack of athleticism and limited range yet grading out respectably across defensive metrics thanks to a combination of good reaction time and good positioning. Here's a look at his numbers across various systems from 2011-2013, a period that began with him moving back to shortstop full-time after spending most of 2009 and 2010 at third base:
Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating are both derived via batted ball type data, as are Fielding Runs Above Average and Runs Effectively Defended, an unpublished system created by defensive stats pioneer Chris Dial and used as part of the sabermetric quotient in the Gold Glove voting. Total Zone and Defensive Regression analysis, both also incorporated into the voting, are based upon play-by-play data. Since not all of the systems use decimals, I've rounded the numbers off for display purposes. As you can see, the measurements vary widely from year to year and metric to metric, but in all, he comes out around three runs above average per year.
That's important when projecting Peralta going forward, for it suggests that he can remain at shortstop for at least the next few years — a good thing, given a roster where third baseman Matt Carpenter is under club control through 2017, and leftfielder Matt Holliday is signed through 2016. I hadn't gotten a chance to devote a post to Peralta in my What is he really worth? series, which attempts to grapple with the astronomical price tags attached to this winter's top free agents using a simple model that incorporates a player's past performance, a projection of future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging. Running him through a shorter version of that exercise here, this is what we might expect:
Before projecting Peralta's 2014 work using a weighted 5/4/3 formula (where his 2013 counts five times, his 2012 four times, and his 2011 three times, with the whole thing divided by 12 — 5 + 4 + 3), I've adjusted his actual 3.3 WAR for 2013 upwards to account for the time he lost due to his suspension. Simply prorating it over 162 games would yield 4.8, his highest since 2005 by a full win; I've split the distance between that and his actual WAR, using 4.1 as his 2013 figure — still his best season of the past eight by 0.3 wins. That bumps his weighted projection for 2014 from 2.7 WAR to 3.1, after which I'm projecting him to decline by 0.4 WAR per year. Note that by using his DRS via the Baseball-Reference.com version of WAR,I'm also building a slight additional hit into the model, since in the aggregate, the other systems view him slightly more favorably.
Instead of using Russell Carleton's estimate of $5.276 million per win as a starting point, I'm going with $6.0 million per win given that the Cardinals are perennial contenders whose every extra win can have a great impact on their chances of reaching the playoffs. Given those assumptions, the market value of Peralta's performance (WAR times dollars per win, as represented by the rightmost column) projects to be worth $66.1 million over the next four years; if I had instead maintained that $5.276 million figure, the value would still be $58.1 million. Tweaking the model further, if I instead keep $6 million per win but project him to decline by 0.5 wins per year, the value is $61.9 million; if I accelerate his decline to 0.7 WAR per year, the value is $53.4 million — still a hair more than his actual contract.
All of that suggests that while Peralta's deal represents a substantial addition to St. Louis' payroll — he'll be the fourth highest-paid player behind Adam Wainwright, Holliday and Yadier Molina — this is a very reasonable deal. It's the most the Cardinals have committed to a free agent since signing Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million deal in January 2010, but still less than the $15 million per year Peralta was rumored to be seeking, and might have gotten from a more desperate team. Additionally, it doesn't cost them a boatload of club-controlled talent, as a trade for Troy Tulowitzki or Elvis Andrus — both of which the team explored earlier this month, and both of which come with more substantial long-term contracts attached — would have.
The one other factor of note is that Peralta's deal sets a new bar for players who have been punished for performance-enhancing drug use, going well beyond the two-year, $16 million deal Melky Cabrera received last winter and the three-year, $26 million deal Carlos Ruiz signed earlier this month. Obviously, players such as Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez have had higher salaries at the time of their suspensions, but none signed a big new deal after bering disciplined. Peralta's pact suggests that teams are far less concerned by players' drug histories than fans, media or even other major league players are. Note the Twitter-based reaction of Diamondbacks reliever and player representative Brad Ziegler to the deal: