Jhonny Peralta got four years and $52 million from the Cardinals to be their shortstop, or so reports Jon Morosi. That’s the longest contract given to a free agent after a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs — a fact that has made some in the game angry. But that’s only one of the reasons this signing is so interesting.
On it’s face, it’s a perfect signing for the Cardinals. It looked like they needed two things going into the offseason — outfield defense and offense at shortstop — and now they’ve handled their business before turkey day. Over the last three years, Peralta has had the fifth-best stick among shortstops and has been one of ten that have managed to be above league average at the plate. He combines league-average power with league-average plate discipline to be slightly above league average. He’s done most of those things most years of his career, and turning 32 shouldn’t erode those skills immediately even if he’s definitely post-peak.
Those that watch Peralta daily might be surprised that he was signed to be a shortstop. His last team already made a big upgrade defensively at his position, and other teams were rumored to like him as a left fielder. But the Cardinals need a shortstop, and actually Peralta has been top-five among shortstops in defensive value over the last three years. The metrics give players full credit for their positioning, so perhaps Peralta is a triumph of the spray chart. If his new coaching staff can give him as much attention in that regard, maybe what our eyes say about his quickness and athleticism at shortstop will continue to betray us.
Currently, Steamer projects a 1.8 win season from Peralta in 2014. If he plays to that projection, and ages at less than half a win a season, he could easily put up more five to six wins over the life of the contract, and depending on your cost per win (the $5.5 million per value calculated here should inflate, and others have approximated closer to $7m per) he’d be signed for something close to value.
But Steamer projects Peralta for 401 plate appearances. That’s probably because Peralta is over 30 and coming off a season where he only managed 448 plate appearances. Steamer doesn’t care why he only had 448 plate appearances. Many do care, though.
Looking at the list of players that have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, there are only a handful that got multi-year contracts after a ban. Marlon Byrd just got two years from the Phillies after being busted at 34 years old in 2012. Melky Cabrera got two years from the Blue Jays the offseason after he was suspended, but he was 28 years old. Rafael Betancourt had to be good for a long time after he was suspended in 2005, when as an old reliever, he got two years from the Rockies. Ryan Franklin got two years in a similar situation. Carlos Ruiz just got three years, but that was a stimulant ban in his past. That’s it so far for multi-year contracts to guys with a PED suspension in their history.
Then you have a 31-year-old shortstop who’s put up 11 wins in the last three years, and obviously that’s too tempting for the Cardinals. If he’s a true-talent three-to-four win guy right now, then the contract is close to an unmitigated win. And that’s why this distinction for Peralta may be short-lived. If Yasmani Grandal is as good as advertised, what happens when he’s a free agent? If another above-average player gets busted in the middle of his peak, won’t another team take this type of chance that most of his production was innate?
There’s upside in this contract. Peralta could return to his three-win ways next season and be worth the contract sometime in year three. And shortstop was the obvious place for this team to upgrade, since they have been worst in the National League at shortstop over the last three seasons. There weren’t a lot of options out there at the position — if not Peralta, it would have to be Stephen Drew, who has never had an offensive season as good as Peralta’s better seasons, and who has only been worth 4.8 wins over the last three seasons. With glove-first Pete Kozma still under team control, a bat-first shortstop made the most sense for the Cardinals. There’s a lot of reasons this makes sense for St. Louis.
But pushing it to four years brings in more risk. If not in 2014, will there be a season soon where Peralta’s athletic shortcomings begin to make for bad defensive metrics? Considering that his second- and third-best offensive seasons have come in the last two years, isn’t it also fair to worry that some of those numbers were inflated by the same performance-enhancing drugs that just got him in trouble? Perhaps, in 2017, bat-first super utility players will be worth $10 million and it won’t hurt the Cardinals so much. But it sure would feel like less of a risk if this wasn’t the first time something like this has happened.
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