Finding a long-term third baseman is both a current challenge for the St. Louis Cardinals and a long-standing one.
For the 2017 season, the club seems committed to 34-year-old Jhonny Peralta in the final year of his contract, spelled by Jedd Gyorko. The prior third baseman, Matt Carpenter, who was previously moved to second base, has been anointed the first baseman of the present.
What the team will do at the hot corner in 2018 and beyond remains an open question. The situation at the position could even change sooner if the front office determines an in-season offensive jolt to the 2017 Cardinals is needed.
Though the position is unsettled, it is not as if the organization has not been trying.
Over the nine drafts since John Mozeliak became the general manager following the 2007 season, the Cardinals have invested seven picks in the top four rounds on third basemen. In doing so, the team spent just under $9 million in signing bonuses alone.
However, none of that group of seven was ever really considered to be the “third baseman of the future” and not a one has played even one inning at third base with St. Louis.
|2015||2||Bryce Denton||$1.2MM||High school||OF||2016||rookie|
|2015||4||Paul DeJong||$.200MM||College Jr.||SS||2016||AA|
|2012||1A||Stephen Piscotty||$1.43MM||College Jr.||OF||2013||A+||yes|
|2012||1A||Patrick Wisdom||$.693MM||College Jr.||3B|
|2012||2||Carson Kelly||$1.6MM||High school||C||2014||A||yes|
|2010||1||Zack Cox||$2.0MM||College So.||3B|
|2008||1||Brett Wallace||$1.84MM||College Jr.||1B/3B||2010||AAA||yes|
This list does not even include Allen Craig, who was selected in the eighth round in 2006 - a year and a half before Mozeliak took over. The former Cal shortstop was migrated from third to a combination of first base and the outfield upon reaching the Triple-A level in 2009.
Two former Cardinals
That is not to say the Mozeliak regime’s third base picks have all been washouts, however, Zack Cox was. The Cardinals’ 2010 first-rounder was traded to Miami in 2012 for reliever Edward Mujica and could never reach the majors. He played last season in independent ball.
2008 first-rounder Brett Wallace was also dealt away while still a minor leaguer – the centerpiece of the Matt Holliday trade in 2009. Though he remains on the fringes of the majors, the 30-year-old has fallen far short of his once-lofty potential. Defensively, he moves between the two corner infield positions, but first base is considered his better spot. Wallace recently re-signed with San Diego on a minor league deal for 2017.
Though neither former first-rounder directly benefited the Cardinals, Mozeliak deserves some credit for moving them out while they still had value. Same goes for Craig, for that matter.
Two major leaguers
Two of the five third base draftees who have remained in the Cardinals organization reached St. Louis – though at different positions from where they started. They are starting right fielder Stephen Piscotty and top prospect catcher Carson Kelly.
Piscotty, a former Stanford star, played at the hot corner for just one partial season in the minors before changing positions. Kelly, a high school pick, was shifted off third base following his first full season as a professional and has since thrived behind the plate.
Three still trying
One of the most recent early-drafted third basemen, Bryce Denton, has followed the Kelly plan in terms of timing. The Cardinals gave the teen his first partial season plus one full year at third before making the decision to shift the 2015 second-rounder to the outfield. Denton played at rookie-level Johnson City in 2016.
In The Cardinal Nation’s top prospect rankings, he fell from 21st last year to 26th in the system for 2017. Factors include the defensive shift to a less-premium position and uneven offensive performance. On the positive side, Denton is still just 19 years of age and his make-up is considered off the charts.
The case of the third sacker selected two rounds after Denton in 2015, Paul DeJong, is the opposite of most of the others shifted away from third. After his first full professional season, the Cardinals now believe the former Illinois State standout can handle a more challenging defensive position.
Prior to the 2016 Arizona Fall League, DeJong was moved to shortstop, and he is expected to continue there at Triple-A Memphis in 2017. Even if the experiment does not continue indefinitely, the additional versatility can only help DeJong in his bid to reach St. Louis. My current assessment is that DeJong could eventually replace Greg Garcia as the team’s utility infielder.
The only member of the seven who still remains a third baseman in the Cardinals system is Patrick Wisdom. Set to open his second year at Memphis in 2017, the momentum of the California native has stalled due to his inconsistent bat. In fact, for the first time since he joined the system, the 25-year-old has dropped out of TCN’s top 50 prospect rankings entirely.
Though Wisdom is very close to St. Louis in terms of level of play, actually reaching the bigs seems farther away than before. Though the Cards tried him briefly at both first and short in the past, he primarily remains a third baseman only.
Those seemingly ahead of Wisdom at the position’s MLB depth chart include Peralta, Gyorko, Carpenter, Garcia and likely DeJong. Realistically, if the position was hit that hard with injuries, help would be brought in from the outside before dipping to what appears to be their sixth option. Wisdom has never been on the organization’s 40-man roster.
The scouting perspective
From the bigger picture, I asked Cardinals scouting director Randy Flores how a player’s ultimate defensive home is evaluated before he is drafted, citing third base as my example.
“I think that is part of his profile, but it also goes with age,” Flores said. “Someone who is a college junior at the position is more likely to resemble the player at the position we think they are than someone who is younger.”
It is fair to note that three of the four drafted college juniors outlined above have left the hot corner, compared to both high schoolers, though as noted, one of collegians, DeJong, has attempted the move to a more challenging defensive assignment.
Less important than actual ages is their still-growing bodies.
“You don’t know what kind of weight they will put on, the type of flexibility they will lose, the type of speed they will keep,” the scouting director noted. “That position changes depending on where they are in their physical development.”
Part of scouting is to consider the art of the possible in each young man. In a general sense, they are tasked with assessing positions a prospect may later grow into.
“Our scouts typically don’t pigeon-hole someone into a position, but they outline where they are now and then other spots that they think they can more to,” Flores said. “And only from a cursory glance - not data-driven, but just from my eyes – it is pretty cool for lack of a better word to see how often times those scouts foresee moves that occur in the field years down the road.”
The player development view
Assistant general manager Mike Girsch offered insight into the other move off third to what seems to be a more challenging position. The reasons were not physical and took a bit more time to surface.
“Carson Kelly was a little bit unique in that he moved from third base to catcher,” Girsch said. “As much as we try through our amateur scouts to get to know players and as much time as they put into it, there is nothing like being the kid’s coach for six weeks to get to know a kid - being around him every day, pre-game and post-game. The kid is no longer trying to put on a happy face to the guy who may give him two million dollars. Now, he is just being himself.”
With Kelly, familiarity brought admiration – followed by an out-of-the-box idea.
“In that case, we got to know about Carson’s leadership skills, the way he approaches the game and is engaged,” Girsch said. “That made the fact that turning a kid who had never caught before into a catcher – it just made a lot more sense after we had him around for a while.
“I am not sure in any of our scouting reports that any of our scouts said that he would become a catcher. Our reports on his makeup were fantastic, but I don’t think anyone had quite the insight we got from the first year of having him around.”
Flores further explained the logical extension player development provides to the initial scouting assessment.
“(Farm director) Gary LaRocque says, ‘I’ve led a scouting department before and I know how hard it is to get to know a player. And so often, you guys (scouts) are right on a player. But there is nothing like being on a hot bus ride in the South Atlantic League. You know in a short amount of time what kind of mettle is in a player.’ And player development finds that out,” the scouting director concluded.
So, there you have it. Seven expensive tries over the last nine years to find a major league third baseman have led to a starting right fielder and the catcher of the future. Other promising options are now a possible reserve infielder and a teen-aged outfielder still in rookie ball. Two others were traded away and another is close but still far away from the bigs.
Not a bad overall result at all, but there are no clear hot corner standouts among them.
The current situation across the system at the position is bleak. Putting aside when the player was drafted or signed, there is not a single current third baseman anywhere in The Cardinal Nation top 50 - or even among the next dozen prospects we profiled as our “Best of the Rest”.
Two third sackers have shown some promise, but both are in short-season ball. Danny Hudzina was drafted in the 10th round in 2016 from Western Kentucky and batted .239 at State College. The Gulf Coast League’s Starlin Balbuena is a former shortstop, moved to his right due to more talented shortstops among his teammates.
I expect the Cardinals will keep trying in the 2017 draft to find that true third baseman of the future. Unfortunately for them, their first pick was forfeited due to the Dexter Fowler signing, so an impact prospect is likely not going to be available when they make their first selection at number 56 overall.
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