- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to break the outrage meter when they signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract in November. Critics, including big-league pitchers Brad Ziegler and David Aardsma, rushed to Twitter to share their objections to the idea of a player fresh off a PED suspension cleaning up on the open market. In the time it took the commissioner's office to email a news release, Peralta went from a respected teammate and solid pro to the poster boy for "rewarding cheaters."
Eventually, it came time to move beyond the moral debate and assess the impact on the field. The Cardinals officially reached that point the moment Peralta began turning double plays with Mark Ellis, Daniel Descalso and Kolten Wong on a back field at Roger Dean Stadium in February.
At first glance, the Peralta acquisition seemed right in line with St. Louis' approach to building a lineup. Left fielder Matt Holliday, who's in the middle of a seven-year, $120 million contract extension, is a six-time All-Star with a career defensive WAR of minus-9.0, according to Baseball-reference.com. The Cardinals spent $26 million on a two-year deal for Carlos Beltran, whose bat remained productive even as his knees and advancing age limited him in the outfield. In 2011, they even took a flyer on resurrecting Lance Berkman as an outfielder, and he hit 31 homers and made the All-Star team while making do in right.
Peralta, 31, fits the profile of a bat-first type of player. He has hit 20 or more homers and logged an OPS of .800-plus four times in nine full seasons as a regular, and his .457 slugging percentage in 107 games last season was second highest among MLB shortstops behind Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. Even if Peralta is a magnet for skepticism because of his links to Biogenesis, he has a track record for putting up numbers. The length of his deal also brings St. Louis stability at shortstop, where Cesar Izturis, Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot, Rafael Furcal and Pete Kozma have alternately held down the starting role since David Eckstein's departure.
But it might be an oversimplification to suggest this is just a case of history repeating itself, for two reasons:
• The Peralta acquisition was part of a significant offseason makeover for the defending National League champions. Matt Carpenter is moving from second base to third. Wong and Peralta will make up a new double-play combination. Allen Craig takes over for Beltran in right field, and Matt Adams moves in for Craig at first base. Throw in center fielder Peter Bourjos, who came over from the Angels in the David Freese trade, and that's six new players at the eight positions on the field.
All told, those changes will help address the biggest weakness of a St. Louis team that won 97 games and had a run differential of plus-187, second best in the majors.
Carpenter should be a significant defensive upgrade over Freese, who posted a minus-14 in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved calculations. Bourjos, who's likely to receive the bulk of the center field at-bats if he can hit enough to justify staying in the lineup, should also be an improvement over Jon Jay, who had a DRS of minus-8 in 2013.
• Peralta is probably a better defender than his reputation suggests. Over the past three seasons, he ranks fifth among MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating. And he was exactly league average in Defensive Runs Saved in 2012 and 2013 in Detroit. Surprisingly, the metrics suggest he'll be a wash in the field over the Kozma-Descalso combination that held down the shortstop position for St. Louis a year ago.
The Cardinals are well aware of Peralta's reputation as a reliable-yet-range-bound infielder who won't cover massive chunks of ground, but he has looked good in Jupiter. In a 3-1 win over Minnesota on Wednesday, Peralta turned two double plays with Wong and showed some smooth footwork at short.
"I'm not going to completely compare him to Carlos [Beltran]," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But there were times when Carlos was moving a whole lot better than people think, and I think the same thing can be said about Jhonny. We haven't seen his range tested to the extent that we will over the long haul. But right now he's moving pretty good and makes it look pretty easy. He's got great hands. There's no question about that."
The sure hands club
St. Louis' offseason moves were testament to the evolution of quantifying defensive performance. Do teams completely buy into the assessments of services that employ scouts who pass judgment on whether defenders should or shouldn't have been able to make a play, and then assess a rating compared to the league average? Or do they subscribe more to the "eye test," as Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and some other skeptics prefer to do?
New-age defensive analysis isn't kind to the Cardinals. They finished 21st in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings last season, and were 14th among 15 National League clubs in Defensive Runs Saved with a minus-39. In contrast, the more time-honored measures are more charitable to the Cards. They led the majors with 177 double plays, committed a franchise record-low 75 errors to tie Arizona for fewest in the NL, and established a new franchise fielding percentage record of .988.
Although statistical advances might make fielding percentage seem quaint, outmoded and only slightly more relevant than Gold Gloves in evaluating defense, the paucity of errors is a point of pride among the St. Louis players.
"What our coaching staff always preaches is making the routine play and doing it every single time," Carpenter said. "If you grade on that, we were as good as anybody. What good is it to have a guy who can get to all these balls and have this crazy range and his Defensive Runs Saved is really good, but when the ball is hit at him and the game is on the line, he drops it?"
In the big picture, the concept of defense-as-collaborative effort can't be overlooked. Positioning is obviously huge. Matheny talks about Peralta being in sync with catcher Yadier Molina to gain a step in either direction before the pitcher delivers the ball. The Cardinals are also exploring the idea of using more defensive shifts this season, but only if everyone is on board with the idea.
"We're going to prepare for it, but the pitcher and pitching coach will make the decision to do it or not," Cardinals infield coach Jose Oquendo said. "If they feel comfortable, we'll do it. If not, we'll figure out something else. We might play a strong pull, but not a shift."
Although the St. Louis staff ranked fifth in the NL with 1,254 strikeouts last season, several Cardinals pitchers have repertoires that will keep the infielders busy. Last year, according to FanGraphs, St. Louis' pitchers threw ground balls 48.5 percent of the time, second most to Pittsburgh among major league staffs.
Staying at short?
The long-term picture in St. Louis might take a while to come into focus. Even if Peralta is a serviceable shortstop for the next year or two, can he maintain that level of performance late into his contract? Or will he eventually have to accept the idea of moving somewhere else on the field?
"It's hard to say," Peralta said. "It depends on how I'm doing and who else they have in the field. In the future, maybe I'll play third base or left field or whatever. But right now I'm thinking about shortstop."
If the Cardinals eventually want to unload Peralta, his contract should help make it more palatable for another club. His deal is significantly front-loaded, with $30.5 million owned him over the next two years compared to $22.5 million in 2016-17.
The Cardinals signed Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz to an $8 million contract earlier this month, but some personnel people think he can't play the position in the big leagues and will gravitate to second base or third sooner rather than later.
In the first month of camp, Carpenter has been busy re-acclimating himself to the unique challenges of third base. Descalso is moving around the infield, as usual. Ellis is dealing with a case of tendinitis in his knee that forced him to miss more than a week. And Peralta and Wong are spending time together on feeds, flips and double play pivots in an attempt to build chemistry for the regular season.
"If you hit Jhonny the ball, you're out," Wong said. "People say his range is really limited, but I don't believe it. He's an amazing player. I've seen him get to a lot of balls, and I feel like he'll make some plays for us."
Said Carpenter: "I think he fits in perfectly with what we do here. Every time I've seen the guy get a ball hit to him that he should field, he fields it."
Amid debates over defensive metrics and PED fallout, life goes on in St. Louis, where the players have a way of keeping things simple even as the world around them grows more complex.