Baseball in the 2010s has seen a renewed focus on the importance of defense. It's the age of the shift and the age of the young, electric defensive whiz. Young players like Andrelton Simmons, Carlos Gomez, Jose Iglesias, Manny Machado and Gerardo Parra have become important players largely on the back of great glovework. Teams like the Rays and the Pirates can credit playoff runs to their ability to take away hits from their opponents.
St. Louis, though? They're happy to just outhit you.
The Cardinals' dedication to thump in the lineup was reinforced over the weekend, as the club inked shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year contract worth $53 million. In Peralta, St. Louis gets one of the best hitting shortstops in recent years. Only four shortstops -- Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera -- have bested Peralta's 108 OPS+ over the past three seasons.
Peralta marks a stark departure from the typical shortstops of St. Louis' current decade of success. Particularly since Edgar Renteria's departure after the 2004 league championship campaign, the Cardinals' shortstop has typically been a speedy, defensively sound player, whether David Eckstein, Brendan Ryan, Rafael Furcal or Pete Kozma. And that's been good enough -- shortstop has been an extraordinarily difficult position for even the strongest of organizations to fill since the golden generation of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra et al began to fade.
The key difference, particularly given the league's trajectory, is in the defense. Renteria won multiple gold gloves with the Cardinals, as Furcal did before his arrival in St. Louis. Ryan's presence on major league rosters is solely owed to his wizardly defensive ability, and Eckstein consistently played one of the cleanest shortstops in the league. Peralta was moved to third base earlier in his career by Cleveland and was considered a free agent option in leftfield by Baltimore. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and 32 years old, he's significantly larger and slower than today's ideal shortstop (basically, Andrelton Simmons).
But he hits. Peralta owns a .268/.330/.425 line for his career, hit .278/.334/.438 in his three years as a Tiger, and hit .303/.358/.457 in 2013. As a group, shortstops hit .255/.308/.373 in 2013. The resulting .681 OPS was by far the lowest of any non-pitcher position, 17 points behind catchers and 29 points behind second basemen. And that, simply, is why Peralta is appealing.
His appeal becomes even more clear when you look at St. Louis' shortstop performance over the past few years. Adjusted for park, Cardinals shortstops have ranked in the bottom half of the league in OPS each of the past four seasons, including two bottom-five finishes. 2013 was one, as Cardinals shortstops limped to a brutal .222/.280/.303 performance. Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso played fine defense, but such players are better deployed off the bench than as everyday starters.
Perhaps some will be put off by Peralta's suspension as part of the Biogenesis fallout. His $53 million contract suggests there is no consequence for offenders of MLB's drug policy. But Peralta is clearly a player who can help a team win, and as such it should be no surprise there was aggressive bidding for his services. Teams and players aren't responsible for a punishment beyond that called for in the rules, and to suggest otherwise is ludicrous.
With Peralta, the "performance" aspect is the most pertinent of the performance-enhancing drug concerns. Will he be able to maintain his performance without the aid of the drugs? There are too many variables at play, however. Peralta was never caught with an analytic test, could he keep beating the tests? How big was the impact of the drugs in the first place? Were other general managers willing to pay upwards of $50 million even with this concern? The concerns are legitimate, but there are plenty of reasons to believe the effect will be minimal.
The Cardinals had another option on the free-agent market in Stephen Drew, one who fit the club's defense-heavy tradition at shortstop much better. But Drew didn't fit in a number of ways -- he would have cost a first-round draft pick and he has struggled to stay on the field over the past three seasons (no more than 125 games played since 2010). But his bat doesn't compare to Peralta's -- Drew hit .253/.333/.443 in 2013 and just .245/.322/.403 in the past three seasons, nearly 50 OPS points worse than Peralta.
Just because the league is tilting toward better defenders doesn't mean the Cardinals can't follow their own tune. Cardinals assistant general manager Michael Girsch said just as much in an interview last Thursday with FanGraphs:
"We would rather have better defense than worse defense, just like we'd rather have a better offense than a worse offense. Same with pitching. All of those things come in packages. Sometimes you get more speed with less batting, but better defense. Or you get better bats with less defense. We try to look at the total package of our players. That's what we're trying to optimize. We're not looking for more power, more speed, or better defense. We're looking for better players across the whole spectrum."
And although Peralta is clearly an offense-first shortstop, he can play the position at a major league level. The statistical picture is unclear -- it's always unclear -- but it generally paints him as no worse than slightly below average. Even if he declines into his 30s -- as most shortstops do -- the Cardinals will gladly work around it if he provides the thump. They've worked around defensive holes in the past: Last season's National League championship club ranked just 21st in defensive efficiency and the 2011 team finished 20th.
Girsch concluded his interview with FanGraphs as such: "At the end of the day, we're trying to maximize total performance, not just offense, defense or speed. If we can do that by improving our defense, that would be great. But we can't treat it as an at-all-costs issue." And Peralta's bat is an obvious improvement.
Perhaps at first glance it doesn't seem Peralta fits the typical Cardinal mold. He hasn't been molded by the club's infuriatingly efficient player development system. He doesn't have a history turning beautifully athletic plays at the shortstop position. But a closer look shows he is precisely the type of player who has kept the Cardinals ticking throughout the past 10 years: the necessary player to fill the need at hand.