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Who Will Play Center in St. Louis?

Does anyone want to go to St. Louis? After losing Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels, it was unclear how the reigning champs would respond this off-season. Instead of going after the other marquee free-agents, the Cardinals appear to be shoring up their team through smaller moves. With the uncertainty surrounding Allen Craig — who had knee surgery in November — the Cardinals are looking to add outfielders. The Cardinals have been linked to both Coco Crisp and Carlos Beltran in recent days. Would signing either player be a good decision for the World Series champs?

From an offensive standpoint, it makes the most sense to sign Beltran. While Crisp experienced a bit of a revival last season, Beltran could have been the comeback player of the year. Finally recovered from his knee injury, a rejuvenated Beltran hit .300/.385/.525 last season. Crisp, meanwhile, only managed to hit .264/.314/.379 — albeit in Oakland’s ballpark. By season’s end, Beltran was worth 4.7 WAR — his best performance since 2008 — while Crisp was only worth 2.2 WAR. Offensively, Beltran is the far superior option.

Problem is, the Cardinals lack a center fielder at the moment. Many analysts expected Jon Jay to be stretched in center, but UZR hasn’t taken issue with his play in the middle of the field. Jay hasn’t accumulated enough of a sample to make any definitive positions, but he would probably perform better in a corner outfield spot.

Signing Crisp seems to alleviate the Cardinals defensive issues. If the Cards sign Crisp, Jay would likely slide to right field to allow Crisp to play center. Over his career, Crisp has been considered a strong defensive center fielder — as evidenced by his career 67.1 UZR. Crisp does come with risks, however, as he posted a -5.5 UZR last season. If this is nothing more than a UZR fluctuation, Crisp will be fine. If it’s a sign of decline, the Cardinals will be much worse off with Crisp.

While Beltran also carries a strong career UZR rating, he hasn’t been the same player defensively since his knee injury. Over the past three seasons, the once exceptional defensive center fielder has posted a total UZR of -13.7. Nearly half of that negative UZR was accumulated last season — when Beltran played right field — meaning his time as a useful defensive player may have come to an end. At this point, he would be extremely stretched in center field, and it would be foolish to put him out there.

At the same time, the Cardinals were able to sneak into the playoffs despite one of the worst defenses in baseball last season. Hell, Lance Berkman was their right fielder! Even though it will take more money to sign Beltran he looks like a significant upgrade over Crisp offensively. And while Crisp might be a better defensive option, Beltran’s superior offense should be more than enough to make up that difference. The Cardinals can still play Jay in center — where he was acceptable last season. Signing Beltran may not ease the pain of losing Pujols, but it would be a step in the right direction for the Cardinals.