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Jhonny Peralta

In Baseball on January 23, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Baseball’s Hot Stove League is burning up, but the St. Louis Cardinals are sitting on the sidelines with their biggest signings already made. What can Cardinals fans expect out of new shortstop Jhonny Peralta?

It’s the middle of January, which means we’re less barely one month away from Major League Baseball spring training. In this winter of polar vortexes (vortices? Math was never my strong suit), the sun and warmth of the Grapefruit League is particularly tantalizing, but until pitchers and catchers report, fans will have to settle for the action of baseball’s annual hot stove league. With roster spots to fill and money to spend, general managers are draining their iPhone batteries negotiating trades, contracts and mocking the new Chicago Cubs mascot.

It took less than an hour for those rapscallions at Deadspin to take advantage of Clark's pantslessness.

Deadspin took advantage of Clark’s pantslessness in less than an hour.

The hot stove league usually provides fans with months of fodder for speculation — will their team sign a big-name free agent? Will a blockbuster trade go down? Will a veteran in “the best shape of his life” attempt a comeback? Discussing the possibilities are as much fun as the actual deals, and usually help to fill those cold, baseball-less winter months. But fans of the St. Louis Cardinals have a long winter ahead of them, since their team’s time in the hot stove league ended in November.

Coming off a hard-fought World Series loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Cardinals had surprisingly few roster needs. Outfielder Carlos Beltran’s departure after a late-career resurgence seemed a foregone conclusion. The team’s Nov. 22 trade of third basemen David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjos set St. Louis’s outfield. The only real need for the Cardinals was an upgrade at shortstop. Shortstop Pete Kozma struggled through his first full season in St. Louis, hitting only .217, with a .275 OBP, .548 OPS, 34 walks to 91 strikeouts and an OPS+ of 54. Kozma’s offensive WAR was -0.9, meaning his bat — or lack thereof — cost the Cardinals nearly a full win in 2013. Pete Kozma was so bad, his oWAR was lower than Zack Greinke’s — that’s Zack Greinke the pitcher.

With a second season with Kozma out of the question, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak needed to find an offensive upgrade at shortstop. His search did not last long as the Cardinals signed free agent Jhonny Peralta to a four-year $53 million contract Nov. 24. Peralta is clearly better suited as a starter than Kozma. He has 162-game averages of 18 home runs, a .330 OBP, .755 OPS and 101 OPS+ for his career. He also has proven durability. From 2005-2012, Peralta averaged 149 games started per season. Since he became a starter, Peralta’s only significant missed playing time was due to his 50-game suspension in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal. His $15.5 million salary for 2014 is a steep increase over Kozma’s league minimum, but if he can turn in a standard Peralta season, the signing is clearly a win for the Cardinals.

There’s one problem: what does a season from a clean Jhonny Peralta look like? To be fair, Peralta’s PED suspension was due to his connections to the Biogenesis clinic, not to a failed drug test. According to MLB, Peralta had requested prohibited supplements from the clinic. While that alone doesn’t establish Peralta as a juicer, it certainly doesn’t absolve him, especially with regard to his up-and-down career trajectory. He broke out in 2005 in his first year as a starter with a 137 OPS+. The next season, it plummeted to 84. He rebounded in 2007 and 2008 with OPS+ of 101 and 113, respectively, but regressed to an OPS+ of 85 in 2009 and 93 in 2010. Before his August 2013 suspension, Peralta had rebounded again with an impressive .303 BA, 815 OPS and 119 OPS+. Maybe he’s clean, and 2014 will look like his abbreviated 2013 campaign, but Peralta’s Biogenesis connection should raise concerns for Cardinals fans.

With no more hot stove league action to which to look forward, Cardinals fans have spent the last two months debating the merits of the Peralta deal. Many older St. Louis fans (also known as St. Louis fans) have criticized the signing for bringing an admitted PED user to the team, because if there’s one thing the Cardinals are known for, it’s their judicious approach to steroid users. And while it’s fine to be against your favorite team signing a player who has admitted to using PEDs,[1] on its face, the Peralta contract seems to be a win for the Cardinals. Yes, there are understandably concerns about Peralta’s potential PED use, his age — he’ll be 34 by the end of his contract — and his fluctuating weight. But in an interesting move, Mozeliak front-loaded Peralta’s contract. He’ll earn $15.5 million in 2014, $15 million in 2015, $12.5 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017. So even if Peralta’s performance declines, his salary won’t burden the Cardinals, like, say, a 37-year-old first basemen in Los Angeles who will make $26 million in 2017.

Peralta will be the Cardinals’ seventh Opening Day shortstop since David Eckstein left the team in 2007. At age 31, Peralta should be in the middle of his peak performance years. If nothing else, he’ll bring stability to a premium position. But most importantly, he’s not Pete Kozma. And any game without Pete Kozma is a win in my book.


[1] As long as that opposition is consistent.

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