With the Cardinals season having come to an end, it’s time to look back and reflect on the year that was with player grades. We've already covered the pitching staff in recent days--you can find those recaps here and here. Now it’s time for the position players, beginning with the infielders.
These grades are obviously going to be subjective, and I won’t hide this in my grading: My grades are tied strongly to how well the performance matched expectations. I may grade some players more favorably than others even if their stats are objectively inferior. If a player fell short of expectations, my grade will reflect that.
Yadier Molina: A
What more could you ask out of Yadi at this point? He missed a month after a traumatic injury and still posted rock solid offensive numbers to accompany his always-stout glove work behind the plate. Molina finished third among NL catchers with 20 home runs and tied J.T. Realmuto to lead NL catchers with 74 RBIs. The ageless wonder earned every penny of his $20 million salary this season.
Matt Carpenter: A-
What a strange season for Carpenter. His April was worse than Dexter Fowler’s 2018, but Carpenter went on the hottest of streaks to cement himself in the MVP discussion for much of the summer. Then, well, he disappeared once again to end the year. The body of work was great: Carpenter posted career highs in SLG, OPS and HRs while stroking 42 doubles, 81 RBIs and drawing 102 walks. He had an excellent year, he was the Cardinals best hitter on the whole. I had to knock his grade down a peg, though, because the team really missed him when they needed him most down the stretch.
Kolten Wong: B+
According to FanGraphs, Wong ranked fifth among NL second basemen in Wins Above Replacement (And Ben Zobrist was primarily an outfielder, so it’s really fourth). He should absolutely win a Gold Glove for his work in the field, but even if he doesn’t, the value he provided was unmatched by his peers. Wong's 19 Defensive Runs Saved ranked sixth in MLB among all fielders, while Wong led the league's second basemen in the category. Bogged down by a slow start offensively, Wong’s OPS dipped to .720 from his career-best .788 in 2017. Even still, he was nearly league-average at his position with a 97 OPS+. That plays quite nicely for a position typically less reliant on gaudy offensive stats for overall value--especially if the Cardinals upgrade the lineup at 3B or RF going forward. If Wong can combine 2017’s bat with 2018’s defense, he’s a top-five second baseman in MLB.
Patrick Wisdom: B
I’m glad the Cardinals finally gave Wisdom a chance. He only got 50 at-bats, but he slugged .520 in his opportunities. That’s pretty good! Again, small sample size, but Matt Carpenter slugged .523 for the season, for comparison. Hopefully Wisdom’s cup of coffee extends into a bench role in St. Louis next season. I’m not saying he’s the next Luke Voit, but all he’s ever done is hit. Keep giving him chances until he proves he no longer deserves them.
Paul DeJong: B-
I’m not here to rail on DeJong’s defensive ability at shortstop, because the metrics liked him a lot this season and he did produce numerous web gems. I know I bring up the fantasy of trading for Andrelton Simmons with frequency, but DeJong’s defense really isn’t an issue topping the list of the Cardinals’ off-season priorities for me. What kind of player can we expect him to be at the plate, though? The regression bug definitely hit DeJong after his impressive rookie season. Batting average went from .285 to .241. His OPS dropped from .857 to .746. DeJong’s 19 home runs and 68 RBIs were fine, but my hope is for DeJong’s career averages to settle somewhere between his marvelous rookie campaign and his sophomore effort.
Jose Martinez: B-
Cafecito can swing the bat, there’s no question about it. Martinez led the team in batting average at .305 and he compiled a hefty .821 OPS. The problem was his defense; there really wasn’t anywhere the Cardinals could comfortably stick Martinez in the field. He’s listed on the report card with the infielders because he played more innings at first base than he did in the outfield, but he was terrible there. In Martinez’s defense, he came up as an outfielder and the Cardinals wedged him into first base out of desperation to keep his bat in the lineup earlier in the year. He wasn’t as bad in the outfield as he was at first, but he wasn’t good there, either. The conundrum of what to do with Martinez defensively could conceivably get him traded to the AL this off-season.
Yairo Munoz: B-
I wasn’t a big fan of Munoz to begin the season, but he surprised me with his versatility and athleticism as the season progressed. He can hit a little, he can field a little (at every position besides CF. Please don’t keep running him out there when you have Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill on the roster. Please). By no means do I pencil him in for a starting role next season, but he seems to be an obvious choice to absorb Greg Garcia’s role--and then some--moving forward.
Jedd Gyorko: C+
Though his production offensively declined a bit and his defensive-metrics stardom at third base from 2017 came back down to earth this season, Gyorko remained a solid contributor for the Cardinals. But that’s sort of the point, right? The Cardinals seem to have plenty of ‘solids’ on their roster without too many guys who bring type of impact that transforms a lineup for an opposing pitcher. The intimidation factor. Carpenter brought it for a few months; otherwise, the Cardinals lacked it again this season. And when John Mozeliak scours his club for places to improve this winter, it might be wise for him to turn his attention toward the hot corner. Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson are free agents, after all…
Greg Garcia: D
Historically an on-base specialist and sturdy utility infielder, Garcia was basically neither of those things in 2018. His offense went down the toilet, as he offered virtually zero upside at the plate. His defense was just so-so, and Garcia advances into arbitration eligibility for 2019. He’s gotta be non-tendered, right? Right. Great guy, but the Cardinals can do better with the roster spot.
Matt Adams: D-
My personal bias in favor of Adams and the couple clutch hits he delivered in his second stint with the Cardinals keeps him from an F grade, but Adams’ bat was pretty sluggish overall. He hit .158 and slugged .333. I don’t expect him to return next season.
Carson Kelly: F
Let me just give you Kelly's batting line in his 42 MLB plate appearances: .114/.205/.114. If that's not failure, I don't know what is. Kelly performed fine at the plate again in Memphis this year, but he still hasn't translated that to big-league pitching. Yes, he should have received more opportunities than he did, but he wasn't exactly knocking down the door with his performance.
Francisco Pena: F
I don’t buy into the talk of how Pena held things together so admirably when filling in for Molina this season. In pretty limited playing time, Pena was a full win below replacement level according to Baseball Reference. On FanGraphs, Pena ranked 109 of 114 catchers in WAR at -0.7. We don’t need to sugarcoat it: He was quite bad, and does not need to return next season.
Overall Final Grade: B-
The infield in 2018 resembled what its been the last few seasons: It was fine. Carpenter’s stat line gave the group one real impact bat, but he didn’t show up consistently across six months. That left plenty of holes in the lineup during critical times of the year. For Wong and DeJong, the defense was strong, but both players could stand to raise their production at the plate. When he played, Gyorko turned in another steady season, but the Cardinals have enough steady. They need more difference-makers in the lineup--if only we had said this after last season!
Fine is fine if you’re content cycling through 80-something win seasons for a while. For the Cardinals to break through that ceiling in 2019, it’s going to take more thump in the batting order, and a willingness by the front office and ownership to actually spend the resources necessary to acquire it.