In his post-season press conference, John Mozeliak identified 3B and RF as the two positions at which the Cardinals can seek improvement.
RF is in play as the Cardinals hold off any firm commitment to Dexter Fowler and as one of the game’s premier hitters in Bryce Harper hits the free agent market. Any outfielder other than Harper isn’t enough of an upgrade over the in-house candidates, and therefore not worth significant financial commitment. For RF, it’s Harper or bust.
3B is prime for improvement, but it would appear there is more than one choice.
Jedd Gyorko has shown himself to be a quality defender at the position. He is extremely good at hitting LH pitching — posting a 150 wRC+ against southpaws in both 2017 and 2018 — but he is merely average — 101 and 94 wRC+ in ’17 and ’18 — against RH pitchers. As approximately 70% of MLB pitchers are right-handed, that doesn’t quite cut it for a full time starter. He has also been unable to display the durability to play everyday for a full season.
This is not to knock Jedd, whom I love. He is an extremely valuable piece that can protect you at 3B and 2B, but he leaves 3B as a clear position to upgrade.
So we turn to the free agent market to see who is available.
Without much detail, of those last 3, only Lowrie would fit as a full-time starter. He would be a good player to get, but it’s very likely he returns to Oakland.
Gonazlez is stronger defensively at other positions, and while his switch-hitting ways would seem to fit a platoon with Gyorko, his career wRC+ vs. RHP is 104 which is better than Gyorko’s career mark of 94, but not so significantly that he is worth the money that he will command.
Chisenhall has been an OF since 2015, but came up as a 3B. He hits LH and some adjustments in approach had led to much better production in between DL stints the last two years. It is highly questionable whether he would hold up defensively on the strong side of a platoon.
So 380 words later, we are left with big names:
Donaldson and Moustakas
Mike Moustakas has been pretty sufficiently overrated for much of his career. He is a solid player, slightly above average, but is comparable to a LH version of Jedd Gyorko, although not as good defensively.
You may be thinking, “well, that’s perfect, put them in a platoon.” I don’t totally disagree. I think the Cardinals would have a productive tandem in Gyorko and Moustakas. However, I do not think Moustakas passed on a $15M option with Milwaukee for this season in order to seek out a platoon role. He wants to be an everyday starter.
Besides, the Cardinals can do better.
The big thing I’ve seen when people link the Cardinals and Moustakas is that he fills their need for a starter at 3B and he brings a LH bat to a RH heavy lineup.
The flip-side is that when I see scribes link Donaldson to the Cardinals, one of the negatives is that he is another RH bat in a RH heavy lineup.
Both players would fill the 3B position with a proven starting caliber player.
Their handedness doesn’t matter.
Career vs. RHP
Moustakas: .254/.312/.443, .755 OPS, 102 wRC+
Donaldson: .272/.362/.482, .843 OPS, 133 wRC+
Gyorko: .237/.298/.411, .709 OPS, 94 wRC+
2017-18 vs. RHP
Moustakas: .260/.321/.509, .831 OPS, 115 wRC+
Donaldson: .259/.373/.499, .872 OPS, 134 wRC+
Gyorko: .250/.328/.408, .736 OPS, 98 wRC+
2017-18 vs. LHP
Moustakas: .264/.299/.441, .740 OPS, 95 wRC+
Donaldson: .273/.381/.608, .989 OPS, 161 wRC+
Gyorko: .318/.387/.561, .947 OPS, 150 wRC+
I looked at the last two seasons to give a better representation of who those players are now.
You can see that Moustakas is an upgrade vs. RHP compared to Gyorko. Although, it lies mostly in slugging over the last two seasons with Jedd posting a slightly higher OBP.
However, it’s clear that Donaldson, even in an injury diminished state the last two years, is better than vs. RHP than Moustakas. That negates the LH/RH hitting aspect of the comparison.
We can also see that over the last two season, Donaldson has outperformed the incredible work Gyorko has done vs. LHP. Essentially, Donaldson at his lowest point was better than Gyorko at his highest.
Gyorko has a 3.1 UZR/150 over the period of 2016-18, the years that he settled at 3B with the Cardinals. He has accumulated 24 Defensive Runs Saved during that time.
Moustakas has a career UZR/150 of 2.3 at 3B. He has accumulated 9 defensive runs saved from 2011-2018.
Donaldson has a career UZR/150 of 5.9 at 3B. He has accumulated 53 Defensive Runs Saved since 2012. Donaldson has taken a step back since heading to Toronto. Some of that can be blamed on leg injuries.
Overall, Donaldson still shows as the superior defender to Moustakas and should be at least the equal of Gyorko, given health.
Donaldson > Moustakas vs. RHP
Donaldson > Gyorko vs. LHP
Donaldson > Platoon defensively, overall.
Donaldson simply outperforms the Moustakas/Gyorko combo.
He leaves Moustakas in the dust if you take away the platoon option.
And for what it’s worth…
Matt Adams has a .854 OPS and 119 wRC+ vs. RHP over the last two years, which is slightly better than Moustakas over the same time period. Although Matt Carpenter is not as good defensively as Moustakas at 3B, you would get nearly identical overall offensive production by bringing back Adams — for a fraction of the cost — and running with a 3-man platoon at 1B and 3B.
That doesn’t sound like an ideal plan does it? I know that I wouldn’t be satisfied with it.
Yet it would achieve, generally, the same results as signing Moustakas.
From a contract standpoint, Jim Bowden estimates the two players as such:
Note: Gyorko makes $13M in 2018 and the team holds a $13M option for 2020.
Using the Bowden contract estimates, here’s how much the Cardinals would be paying to the 3B position, per year:
Over the next two seasons:
Over the next three seasons:
Signing Donaldson would also allow the Cardinals to shop Gyorko this winter in an attempt to clear some payroll space. Although Jedd would still be very valuable, the presence of Yairo Munoz has lessened the need to carry Gyorko if he is not the primary 3B.
The Cardinals would save $10M over the next 2 seasons by going the Sign-Donaldson/Trade-Gyorko route.
They would save $2M over the 3 year span by going that route vs. the Moustakas/Gyorko platoon.
So Donaldson is the better value financially AND the more productive player.
I understand the injury and age concerns, but that’s the risk you take for a significant upgrade in production.
They could search for an upgrade via the trade market, that option does exist.
But if the Cardinals want to sign a free agent 3B, it’s Donaldson.
There is no debate.
Note: I would not be satisfied if the Cardinals one big play was Donaldson. Other improvements must come as well.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats!