The Cardinals, Mark Ellis, and Depth

The Cardinals have reportedly signed Mark Ellis to a one-year deal. Ellis will turn 37 next season, but played well enough the last couple of years with the Dodgers that he was sure to find a job. The question is whether the Cardinals really needed him given the presence of Kolten Wong. The answer has to do with the Cardinals’ position as a contender and their concern with depth.

Back around 2008, Ellis was something of a sabermetric favorite in a (retrospectively) stereotypical style. Aside from the obvious career year in 2005, Ellis was only an average-ish hitter, but he played good defense at an not-very-glamorous position. There was a fair bit consternation in those cirlces when he opted to give Oakland what appeared to be a very team-friendly deal after the 2008 season instead of testing free agency. Ellis was up and down for the A’s in 2009 and 2010, then was traded to the Rockies during another down season in 2011. When the Dodgers gave him a two-year deal prior to the 2012 season, even many of Ellis’ former saber-fans might have shaken their heads given that age seemed to have taken its toll on his bat to the point that his glove could not longer make up for it.

Ellis answered the doubts with two solid seasons in 2012 and 2013 for the Dodgers. His bat was below average, but good enough for a second baseman who seemed to still have “it” in the field. Some saw his 2013 performance as one of the keys to the Dodgers’ semi-miraculous run to the playoffs. So it was not surprising, particularly given how many teams seemed to be in need of second base help, that he would find a job in 2014, even if he will turn 37 in June. What might be surprising is that it is with St. Louis.

The main question with Ellis is whether his glove can still make up for his bat. Ellis was last an above-average hitter in 2010, and as one would expect given his age, he has declined. Sure, random variation has been a factor — particularly in his dreadful 2011 — but Ellis is in his thirties playing a position at which attrition is brutal. Ellis’ plate discipline as measured by walks and strikeouts is probably about what it has been the last few seasons — a slightly better than average strikeout rate and a below-average walk rate. But his power, never that great, has really dropped off, both in terms of home runs, but also doubles and triples per ball in play. Steamer projects Ellis for an 85 wRC+ in 2014, Oliver for 80. Even if that seems a bit pessimistic, I doubt many think his true talent is much better than the 92 wRC+ he produced for the Dodgers last year.

Now, if Ellis was just an average defender at second, a 92 wRC+ would not really cut it. But, as noted above, Ellis is generally considered to be an above-average defender. How much above average is difficult to say, but even at 90 wRC+, if he is as good in the field as UZR and DRS see him as being the last three years, then he could still be roughly an average player — roughly two wins over a full season.

“A full season” is something of an issue for Ellis. Ellis has been put on the the disabled list in every season since 2008. He has had more than 500 plate appearances just once (2011) since 2008. He has not played in more than 140 games since 2007, and only in more than 130 once since then. He has never been out for a season, and he has played in at least 100 games every year since his rookie campaign, but it is still a bit worrisome, especially given his age.

In the abstract, Ellis seems like he is pretty low risk on whatever one-year deal he would be likely to get. But why the Cardinals? After all, despite trading away David Freese and moving Matt Carpenter to third base, St. Louis’ 2013 Minor League Player of the Year, Kolten Wong, seems like he could step in and take over at second base. Why sign an aging veteran role player to “block” the rookie?

Wong did not exactly light things up in his major league debut in 2013, as he hit just .153/.194/.169 for a -1 (~!) wRC+. Still, it is hard to believe the statistical line is problematic — it was just 62 plate appearances, after all. It is similarly hard to imagine St. Louis being overly concerned about Wong’s, um, exploits in the World Series. Wong may not profile as a future superstar, but he is generally considered to be a promising prospect with a future as a good major league regular.

Obviously, the Cardinals know more about Wong than anyone else. Maybe they simply do not think he is as good as the public prospecting community believes. That would be an easy rationale for the Ellis signing, but there is no independent indication that this is the case, and it would be less interesting, anyway.

Perhaps St. Louis thinks Wong needs more seasoning in the minor leagues, which may be true, but that answer is like the “they don’t like him” answer — not that interesting, although it would be a reason to bring Ellis aboard. Along similar lines though, we might find something of broader significance. It would be one thing if the Cardinals were a rebuilding team with out a credible shot at the playoffs and were signing veterans instead of playing promising young players. But the Cardinals are clearly not in that position. They are built to win now.

In particular, this Cardinals team is at an age where they need to be trying to win now. Yes, they have some exciting young talent, especially on the pitching side, but they are not a young team. Of the projected position players for 2014, every hitter besides Wong and Matt Adams will be at least 27 by the end of March 2014. Oscar Taveras may change that calculus slightly as well, but with Allen Craig and Jon Jay already set for at least some right field duty, it’s unclear how much Taveras will play, if at all. Even if you think hitters still peak at 27 (despite important recent research), it is pretty clear that the Cardinals, despite a continuing influx of talent from the minors, are at a team age at which “winning now” makes sense. They have a good collection of players, but on the offensive side, they are not likely to improve as time passes.

One might argue that the overall age means the team should be willing to get younger, and that makes sense. The Cardinals do have a very good minor-league system that develops players that teams have been and probably will be ready to use. However, not even the best prospects are sure things, and while Wong is good, few see him as a potential superstar. This is not trading Wil Myers and letting Jeff Francoeur handle things in right field, to pick an obvious example.

The point is simply that the Cardinals want more certainty, and thus are avoiding the risk of a hole as best they can within the constraints of their budget. Of course, even if Wong bombs, they might be able to carry second base in 2014 in the same way they did with shortstop in 2013. But why take that extra chance when they do not have to do so? Moreover, bringing Ellis on board on a low-risk one-year deal adds to the depth that has been a feature of the Cardinals’ recent success. If Ellis does get hurt (or age definitively catches up with him), they still have Wong ready to play. If Wong is so good he forces his way onto the lineup Card, it is not as if their commitment to Ellis is so large he would really be in the way. Maybe the two players will end up in a platoon at some point. These are the sorts of options deep teams give themselves.

The Cardinals have a recent history of taking advantage of depth. This is obvious just from looking at 2013. Craig was slated to be the team’s first baseman, and was for most of the season. The problem was that this blocked Matt Adams, a promising who could not really play anywhere else. Still, to the surprise of no one, Craig eventually went down with an injury and Adams filled in quite ably at first base. With Carlos Beltran now gone, Craig moves back to right field and Adams to first base. The trade for Peter Bourjos also illustrates the Cardinals liking for depth. Yes, they gave up their third baseman, but they already had Matt Carpenter available for third base, and Wong was ready for second base if they could not find another one. It also shored up an outfield — with Bourjos slated to start in center, it allows Jay, who is not a horrible player, to slot into a more natural fourth-outfielder spot and to back up Craig “just in case” he has to miss time with injury.

One could look at examples of other recent, successful teams turning depth into an advantage — the current composition of Ellis’ former team in Oakland comes to mind. The Cardinals were hardly a stars and scrubs team before the Ellis signing. The Ellis signing does, however, shore up a potential weak spot at the Cardinals make yet another run for a championship.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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