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St. Louis Cardinals: Making Sense of an Infield Logjam

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Greg Garcia is less than 400 plate appearances into his St. Louis Cardinals career. He managed less than 100 plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015, spending most of his time in AAA. Any evaluation of Garcia at this point would have been based on his Minor League stats, and his .281/.380/.390 career MiLB line bodes well for his ability.

Last year, however, he spent more time with the MLB club, and we were able to get a better idea of what Greg Garcia the MLB contributor looks like. He showed virtually no power with a .093 ISO, which was no surprise based on his .109 career MiLB ISO. He did, however, continue to show an elite ability to get on base. His career walk rate in the Minors comes in at 11.5%, compared to a 14.8% rate in 257 MLB plate appearances in 2016.

It certainly looks like Greg Garcia can translate his skillset to the MLB level, albeit over a small sample size. Based on his showing so far, I might make a case for Garcia to be the full-time starting second- or third baseman. That argument has holes though, and it turns out an infield platoon, while unusual, might be the best option.

There are complications to putting Garcia in the starting lineup. First is the St. Louis Cardinals infield log jam. Jhonny Peralta will most likely start at third on opening day. The front office is committed to Kolten Wong at second base. Matt Adams is left to backup first base and Jedd Gyorko will fill in at second and third. The best chance for Greg Garcia to find playing time is as a backup shortstop behind Aledmys Diaz, a role that certainly comes with limited plate appearances.

Additionally, Greg Garcia experiences serious platoon splits. To date, he has an above average 110 wRC+ against RHPs, but a 91 wRC+ against lefties. This is over a small sample, but is validated by his career MiLB splits.

Normally, infield platoons aren’t ideal for roster construction, and are rarely put into practice. Your first- and third basemen are generally your better overall hitters, and shortstop is too key a position to platoon consistently. An argument can be made for platooning at second base, though in practice it is still a rarity.

However, given the St. Louis Cardinals 2017 roster, these generalities don’t hold true. Peralta likely won’t be one of the Cardinals best five hitters and has declined defensively. Kolten Wong, despite “Gold-Glove” potential, has been only slightly above average on defense for his career. Jedd Gyorko led the team with 30 homers last year, but has a .296 career OBP. So there’s room to fit in Greg Garcia somewhere, or there should be.

To see how Greg Garcia would fit in the lineup, I looked first at the offensive splits for Peralta, Gyorko, Wong, and Garcia.

St. Louis Cardinals Greg Garcia

Over the last three seasons (with varying plate appearances for each player, though Garcia has the least by far), Greg Garcia has been the best hitter of the bunch against right-handed pitchers. This is mostly due to the fact that he walks nearly as often as he strikes out. This helps him make up for the fact that he still shows nearly zero power.

Peralta’s 105 wRC+ comes in second best, but should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s by far the oldest of the bunch, and it wouldn’t take much of a decline for him to fall below Wong. Given how terrible Peralta was last season defensively, Garcia at third base versus RHPs looks like a possibility. Could he hold his own defensively?

St. Louis Cardinals Greg Garcia

Admittedly, none of these players have handled the requisite ‘three seasons of innings’ at third base. Peralta has handled plenty of innings at short, though, and Garcia has been at short more than third. Playing short seems like a decent proxy for playing third, so I’ll include that in the defensive valuation.

I totaled each players’ Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved since 2014 using FanGraphs, and scaled the numbers to about 150 games (1312 innings). On a rate basis and using a small sample, Garcia has been better at short than Peralta and as good or better than both Peralta and Gyorko at third. So, against RHPs Garcia looks like the St. Louis Cardinals best offensive and defensive option.

Against lefties, the infield takes a different shape.

St. Louis Cardinals Greg Garcia

Here, Garcia manages only a 91 wRC+, far behind both Gyorko and Peralta. This is an extremely small sample for Garcia, though. I wouldn’t expect him to outperform Wong against LHPs over the long haul if his Minor League splits are any indication.

Gyorko and Peralta, though, clearly stand out in a positive way. Both are valuable hitters, and while Peralta may decline after another season to age, he has a long way to fall before he’ll be worse than either Garcia or Wong.

Defensively, Gyorko has spent the majority of his career at second base. While he rates the worst defensively between the second base options, he’s still been about average at the position:

St. Louis Cardinals Greg Garcia

This scenario requires Peralta to step in at third. He was poor there defensively last year, and his Defensive Runs Above Average dropped all the way to negative 8.9 from a positive 18.8 in 2014. It’s hard to imagine someone who was once one of the better defensive shortstops falling so far so quickly. Thus, a defensive rebound from Peralta might not be so far-fetched.

Assuming that there won’t be many changes to the St. Louis Cardinals roster, the way to maximize the value of the players on the field is infield platoons. Against righties, Wong should man second base and Garcia handle third. When facing a lefty, Peralta steps in at third and Gyorko takes over at second. It would be unconventional, but it could be effective.

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