It’s been nine months since the trade that brought Ryan Theriot to St. Louis, and the shortstop picture for the Cardinals is no clearer today than it was then. With their playoff hopes all but officially extinct, the prospect of another offseason spent looking for up-the-middle help looms large.
The trio of players who have garnered playing time at short for the Cards this season have been unimpressive, producing a combined 0.4 WAR in approximately a season’s worth of plate appearances. Theriot is an obvious non-tender candidate, while newly acquired Rafael Furcal will almost certainly have his $12 million option declined and become a free agent at the end of the season. This leaves the Cards with only Tyler Greene as an internal option, and the free agent market for shortstops is about as thin (the obvious exception being Jose Reyes, who the Cardinals have almost no hope of signing if they expect to keep Chris Carpenter and/or Albert Pujols). While the Cardinals will likely either give Greene a shot to hold down the job, or pick up another bargain during the free agency period, I’d like to propose that the Cardinals consider a radical alternative that could provide the team with a definitive edge: Albert Pujols.
I know, I know, it’s ridiculous, hazardous, preposterous and a few other ous-es, and will never even be considered. Nevertheless, it might actually make sense. The idea for this came from Dave Cameron’s excellent response to Buster Olney explaining why Ben Zobrist is more valuable than Prince Fielder. Much of the ensuing discussion revolved around positional versatility, and the value, or lack thereof, that such an ability provides to one’s team. Now certainly Pujols is no Zobrist when it comes to his ability to move around the diamond, but is the idea that he might actually provide the team with some value if he moved right on the defensive spectrum so crazy? As it turns out, if you’re the Cardinals with Allen Craig blocked on the bench, it’s not crazy at all.
Pujols has produced 4.3 WAR this season at first base for the Cardinals (given the small sample we can safely ignore the few games he’s played at 3B), which would put him on pace for approximately 5.6 WAR for a full season. If we add this to the 0.4 WAR that the Cardinals shortstops have produced, we know that the Cardinals 1B and SS positions are projecting to produce approximately 6 WAR over the course of a full 700 PA season.
Hypothetically shifting Pujols to SS is difficult given that we have to estimate his defensive ability at a position he has never played at the professional level. Ignoring the fact that doing this accurately is nearly impossible, I’ve erred on the side of caution and pegged his UZR at an atrocious -30 for a full season.
This would make it the worst defensive season by a SS since UZR data first became available in 2002, and it’s not even close. Michael Young’s -23.2 in 2005 is currently the lowest total achieved by a shortstop, and our estimate for Pujols tops this by an additional 30%. Overall this would rank as the 4th worst defensive season recorded for any player, trailing only Adam Dunn’s 2008 and 2009 seasons and Brad Hawpe’s 2008. Projecting him to post among the worst defensive performances ever recorded may not be fair given that Pujols has been a plus defender at 1B for almost his entire career and has experience at 3B professionally, nevertheless given the lack of comparables for a player moving from first base to shortstop, this seems appropriate. When we factor in this poor defense and the difference in positional adjustments that moving to SS makes, Pujols’ 2011 still projects to be worth an impressive 4.2 WAR over 700 PA.
Projecting the performance of Pujols’ replacement at first also proves to be difficult. Craig has put up an impressive 1.7 WAR in only 161 plate appearances thus far, but the odds that he continues at that rate are unlikely. Even if we project him to be a league average first baseman he’d still produce 2 WAR over a full season. This seems fair given that his ZIPS pre-season projection called for a .337 wOBA and it’s only risen to this point, projecting a .371 the rest of the way. Additionally, he’s been far better than league average offensively so far this year with a.390 wOBA. Defensively and on the base paths he’s been approximately a league average player so far in his career, so it makes sense to project that this should continue.
In total then, our revised 2011 SS/1B combo of Pujols and Craig would have produced approximately 6.2 WAR — or more than a half a win more than the group the Cards actually did roll out. This difference is certainly within WAR’s error bars, and is based on some hard-to-gauge projections, however we’ve been fairly cautious with those projections so it seems likely that Pujols at SS providing terrible defense and a league average Allen Craig playing 1B would out produce the combination of Theriot/Furcal/Greene/Pujols. If either Craig’s offense or Pujols’ defense outperforms the modest estimates we made, the Cardinals would stand to see significant benefit as a team.
It’s not as though the Cardinals have been unwilling to consider less well-accepted approaches to gaining an edge. Tony La Russa is known for his interesting defensive alignments and unique batting orders. Just last offseason the Cards showed a willingness to forgo defensive prowess when they signed Lance Berkman to patrol right field despite the fact that it had been four years since he’d played the outfield and seven since he’d done it on more than a part-time basis. The Cardinals received a lot of flak for that decision, but it’s worked out pretty well by all accounts so far.
Off course, moving Pujols to short is not as simple as crunching the numbers and making it happen. There is certainly an increased injury risk in playing the position, and Pujols was moved off of third back in 2003 over concerns about his arm. However, it’s not as if there is no injury risk to playing first, as Pujols himself found out this year and Pujols has shown a remarkable resilience over the course of his career. It seems entirely possible that he’d be able to handle the demands of playing SS at least for a period of time.
The largest issue with this sort of position swap is probably the player himself not wanting to do it. We know that utilizing the closer role is an inefficient way of running a bullpen, and it’s likely that many managers do as well. Nevertheless, the cachet of the “save” and the compensation that comes with it has made it difficult for managers to convince their star relievers to forgo the “closer” role. The prospect of being embarrassed at an up-the-middle position or receiving less in personal compensation due to a decrease in one’s individual value would likely turn many star players off the idea immediately. I doubt that Pujols would be an exception to this, despite the “team first” attitude he’s shown throughout his career.
The point of this article is not to suggest that teams should immediately start moving their star first baseman to shortstop – that makes little sense when there is a suitable candidate available to play shortstop already. Rather, given the unique circumstance that faced the Cardinals in 2011 — a terrible crop of shortstop candidates, a dominant first baseman, and a solid average/above average bench player capable of playing first — it made sense to shift Pujols to shortstop from a statistical perspective. This move wouldn’t have been enough to push the Cards over the top in the NL Central, but it’s certainly one of the little things that make a noticeable difference. Just because it will never happen doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.