If the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals have one weakness, it would probably be the non-Albert Pujols part of their infield. David Freese appears to be a talented player at third base, but he only has 87 career MLB games and his ankle injury has him questionable for the start of Spring Training. There are legitimate questions about whether or not Ryan Theriot can play average defense at shortstop, and we already know that Skip Schumacher is little short of an unmitigated disaster at second. The Cardinals addressed all three of those positions in one fell swoop over the weekend, signing former Twins super-utility infielder Nick Punto to a one year, $750,000 contract.
Nick Punto is a completely bipolar player. His bat can be nearly impossible to watch: over the last two years, in just over 700 plate appearances, Punto’s slugging percentage is under .300. But there’s no doubt that he does a few things right. At the plate, he does manage to get on base, walking in just under 10% of his career plate appearances. Most importantly, though, Nick Punto has a reputation for flashing the leather from any position on the infield. Whether that’s due to tremendous natural talent, skill, or an infinitude of grit (sorry for your loss, Ron Gardenhire) is up for debate, but Punto’s glove has rated well across the infield (particularly at 3B).
The question is if the glove is good enough to mitigate Punto’s incompetence at the plate. The consensus among the defensive metrics featured at FanGraphs is that Punto has been a +30 to +35 fielder at third base in under two full seasons (285 starts) at the position. With those numbers and the .239/.324/.302 line projected by ZiPS, Punto would be an ideal, 1-1.5 WAR super-sub or even a passable (if undesirable) starter. But there’s both less optimism and less consensus when we look at the other positions. At second base, Punto’s career marks range from +1 to +13 in in about 1.25 seasons worth of data. At shortstop, the numbers are in complete disagreement, with a range from -10 to +27 in a similarly sized sample. Given his success at the other infield positions and his good reputation, I would be tempted to say that Punto rates average to slightly above, but it’s hard to say for sure.
The Cardinals appear to believe in the defensive ability, and not even the grit-powered heart of Tony LaRussa could be convinced that Punto can hit. The numbers seem to agree that Punto’s defense makes him a solid player. For the Cardinals, with a severe need at the positions, a scarcity on the market, and a precarious place near the top of what should be a tough division race, Punto is a great fit. Just as importantly, at $750,000, the price is definitely right.