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Previewing the Cardinals Offseason: The Shortstop Solution

Much ado has been made by Cardinals fans about who the starting shortstop will be in 2014. I think it’s pretty safe to say that after Pete Kozma put up an uninspiring (and downright bad) line of .217/.275/.273, GM John Mozeliak will look elsewhere for 2014 services.

The biggest thing about replacing Kozma, though, is his glove. Koz tied for 4th among all big league shortstops in defensive runs saved (8), and was 7th in overall defensive value. In short, his glove kept him in the lineup, and for a while, that was all manager Mike Matheny wanted out of his shortstop. He was willing to sacrifice the #8 spot in the lineup for good play in the field. I can’t blame him there, except the bottom of the Cardinals lineup turned into the place where rallies go to die.

So why replace Kozma if he’s that good with the glove? The Cardinals are looking at long-term shortstops for 2 main reasons. 1) The team hasn’t had a stalwart at short since David Eckstein held down the post from 2005-2007. 2) As good as Koz was in the field, he was worse at the plate.

While the current class of MLB shortstops is no A-Rod/Jeter/Garciaparra lineup of the late 90’s, the Cardinals can still bring in a top-flight SS that can provide good all-around value. Here are some options:

1. Troy Tulowitzki: Colorado

Rumors escaped earlier in the week about a possible trade for the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki, likely to include a few of the Cardinals’ top prospects. Statistically, there may not be a better all-around shortstop in the game.

Offensively, Tulo has a career slash line of .295/.367/.509, which is a huge upgrade from Kozma’s career stats. He has raked 30 home runs twice in his career, and had 25 in 2013. Tulowitzki has also driven in more than 90 runs four times in his career. Cardinals middle infielders (outside of Matt Carpenter’s 2013 season) have been frustratingly bad at getting on base and making an impact offensively, so adding a bat like Tulowitzki’s would go a long way towards ending that trend.

Defensively, Tulo has been stellar throughout his career as well. He has committed no more than 11 errors in a season, and in 2013, ranked directly behind Kozma in defensive value, defensive runs saved, and ultimate zone rating, three key statistics to rate defenders.

Trading for a big name like Tulo sounds enticing for Cards fans, but I have a few issues with him.

First of all, he has a history of injuries, and at 29 years old, will almost certainly slow him down in his 30s. Tulo has played in more than 140 games just three times in his seven-year career, which wouldn’t be terrible if it weren’t for his massive contract. It’s hard to justify trading for a guy that is still owed $130M up until he is 36 years old to begin with, but considering he will soon be on the wrong side of 30 years old with his injury history, it’s even tougher to accept that.

2. Elvis Andrus: Texas

Andrus is another strong glove with a good bat, albeit not as good as Tulo’s. Andrus has a career slash line of .274/.339/.348, meaning he gets on base slightly more than a third of his plate appearances, but doesn’t hit the ball out of the park too often. Where Andrus shines, though, is in the running game. The Texas shortstop has stolen more than 20 bases in all five of his big league seasons, and if there’s anything that the Cardinals can improve upon, it’s the running game. However, the Cards seem to be okay with only stealing 45 bases as a team across the whole season, so it doesn’t look like speed is a huge priority.

Defensively, Andrus ranks up with Kozma and Tulo in the same three defensive statistics: third in defensive runs saved, 10th in ultimate zone rating, and 10th in defensive value. Andrus doesn’t quite have the same glove as the other two, but would still bring a higher value to the plate than Kozma.

The problem, like Tulowitzki, is the contract. Andrus is signed through 2022, although he has the ability to opt out of his contract in 2018 or 2019. The Cardinals are looking for a shortstop that they can control, so getting 5-6 years out of Andrus would be great. However, he is still owed another $105M over the span of his contract, which the Cardinals would likely have to eat most or all of. The good news though: Andrus is just 25, and has little to no injury history.

The big question with Andrus is: is an average bat and above average glove worth trading top prospects for?

3. Jurickson Profar: Texas

Texas struck gold with Jurickson Profar and Elvis Andrus, but with Ian Kinsler holding down second base, a slight log jam has been created in the Texas middle infield. Profar has only played 94 games at the big league level, but his ceiling is as high as it gets. Profar was rated as the #1 overall prospect in the majors last season, due to his ability to hit for average, steal bases, and play a solid defensive shortstop position.

As of now, the biggest knock on Profar is his age and inexperience. By trading for him, the Cardinals would be taking a huge risk on a guy who hit just .234/.308/.336 in half a season in 2013, but who has an incredible amount of potential. The Cardinals can control him for years until he hits arbitration eligibility, and at just 20 years old, could also be locked up for a long time in the Cardinals system.

Free agent options: Stephen Drew (great glove, but hardly an improvement offensively, plus will demand more than $10M/year in a contract), Jhonny Peralta (decent hitter, but someone that Matheny will substitute for in the later innings for better defense).

Whichever option the Cardinals choose, they will have to put together a strong package of young talent to lure a trade. Since the Redbirds have eight legitimate starting pitchers on their roster at the moment, one or two of them will likely be included. I think Shelby Miller will almost surely be a part of a deal, as he is coming off of a strong rookie season and has a full year under his belt. Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha were great down the stretch, but Wacha has to be off-limits and Martinez has flexibility in his development that the Cardinals like. First baseman Matt Adams is another piece likely to be moved–unless Allen Craig moves to right field for 2014, the hard-hitting Adams will once again find himself on the bench, where he’s too good to waste.

If I’m Mozeliak, and I’m serious about a trade for any of the three above, I see about packaging Miller, Adams, and a 1-2 couple lesser prospects, depending on who I’m trading for. Some of those lesser prospects to keep in mind: P Tyrell Jenkins, OF Stephen Piscotty, 3B Carson Kelly. In my opinion, Adams is expendable (subpar glove, predictable bat), and Miller can be moved as well if that’s what will make the deal work. Lance Lynn also has value, but I can’t see a team taking Lynn when Miller could be had.

My opinion? Go with Profar. He’s still just 20, has all the potential in the world, and will be cheap for years to come. It’s a risk, but he’ll pan out eventually. In the meantime, use the money saved from potentially paying Tulo or Andrus to go after a strong-hitting outfielder like Jacoby Ellsbury. The Cardinals like flexibility in their team, and adding another $100+M contract to the mix allows none of that.

However the Cardinals choose to act, though, even if they decide to stick with Kozma, it will surely be a calculated, thoughtful decision made with the team’s championship goals in mind.

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