A week ago, the St. Louis Cardinals learned they were going to be without Jhonny Peralta for the first couple of months of the season, after he required surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. Because the Cardinals have been participating in a multi-year experiment to see if you can win games without a viable backup shortstop on the roster, speculation immediately turned to outside acquisitions, since no one thinks running Jedd Gyorko out there on an everyday basis is a good idea. While Erick Aybar was floated as a natural fit, given that he’s in a walk year on a rebuilding team, the Braves quickly hung a high price tag on him, making a deal between the teams unlikely.
Instead, the Cardinals seem likely to make a more minor move, not wanting to create a mid-season playing time problem when Peralta does return. And on the minor acquisition spectrum, there was always one name who made a decent amount of sense: Ruben Tejada.
The signing of Asdrubal Cabrera made Tejada superfluous for the Mets, pushing him into a third-string shortstop role that probably wouldn’t have resulted in a lot of playing time. Even with Cabrera having his own health problems, the Mets still seemed perfectly content to let someone else have Tejada if they wanted him, and his availability was no secret around the league. And then today, the Mets made the speculation official, putting Tejada on waivers, and giving any team the chance to take him if they so desire. While Tejada doesn’t yet have a new uniform, his days as a Met are over, and now we simply wait for the seemingly inevitable announcement that he’ll be signing with the Cardinals.
Now, of course, I’m speculating, and perhaps I’m reading this all wrong. Perhaps the Mets waived Tejada because no one, not even St. Louis, was interested in trading for him, and so they decided to just cut him now and minimize the amount of termination pay they’d have to pay him. By waiving him today, they’ll only owe him 30 days of termination pay ($500,000, essentially), versus 45 days of termination pay if they cut him between tomorrow and the start of the season. If they decided that $2.5 million wasn’t worth having a slightly better third string shortstop, and no one wanted to trade for Tejada at his $3 million salary, then this was the easiest way for the Mets to save some cash.
But my guess is that the Cardinals did want to trade for Tejada, but preferred to pay him less than his contract called for, and so the Mets waived Tejada in order to make him a free agent and give St. Louis a chance to offer him a smaller contract but a chance at increased playing time. If they knew that the Cardinals would give him regular at-bats for the first few months of the season, then they could be doing Tejada something of a favor by cutting him loose and letting him join STL, especially if they knew that the Cardinals wouldn’t have given him that shot at his $3 million price tag.
So, if my speculation is correct, Tejada will clear waivers, then sign with St. Louis at a reduced price. They’re the one team in baseball that can offer him a chance to re-establish his value before he hits free agency next winter, and so even if he won’t make as much as he would have had in 2016 had the Mets retained him, this could end up being a net positive for Tejada in the long-run.
Of course, that assumes that Tejada will perform well given the opportunity. As a slap-hitter whose contact rate has gone the wrong way the last two years, there are legitimate reasons to think that Tejada isn’t really worth regular playing time on a contender. While he established himself as an interesting young player by holding his own in the big leagues at a young age in 2011 and 2012, Tejada has gotten worse in some worrisome ways since then. As mentioned, here are his plate discipline rates by year since getting to the big leagues.
His first few years in the league, Tejada swung at roughly a league average percentage of the pitches he saw, and made contact at a well-above-average rate, allowing him to be relatively productive even without any power. In 2015, though, his swing rate climbed over 50%, making him a pretty aggressive hitter, and his contact rate simultaneously sunk down to league average levels. He did manage to marginally increase his power production — his .089 ISO, while one of the lower totals in the league, was a career high — but the increase in strikeout rate offset the small increase in extra-base hits, leaving Tejada as something a little less productive than he was as a contact specialist.
Early-career Tejada was interesting because of the potential that, as he got older, he could add some power to his already solid base of contact. Instead, he’s traded one for the other, which isn’t really improvement, and puts pressure on his defensive performance to drive the majority of his value. While UZR and DRS were not big fans of his work last year, it’s too early to say that he’s definitely lost the ability to play shortstop, and a bounce-back in defensive performance could still make Tejada a perfectly useful role player, but for him to hold down a starting job, Tejada is going to have to make some strides at the plate.
The Cardinals, of course, have a warehouse of magic powder that turns flawed players into superstars, so perhaps a year in St. Louis will turn him into something more than hew as in New York. Tejada is certainly young enough that it’s not hard to see some untapped potential there, and if any organization is a good bet to figure out how to extract it from him, it’s probably St. Louis. But then, we could make that some argument that they could do that with Gyorko too, and it’s not actually clear that Tejada is substantially better than Gyorko as a player right now.
But since the Mets cut him loose, the Cardinals don’t have much to lose. For probably something not terribly over a million bucks, the team could sign a 26 year old who was a league average shortstop not that long ago, and might be able to get back to that level with some improvements. Tejada’s lack of power or speed limit his upside, but the Cardinals need floor more than ceiling, and Tejada represents a stop-loss opportunity to at least make sure Gyorko doesn’t drive their pitchers insane for the first half of the season.
For what he’ll cost, it seems like a move the Cardinals probably shouldn’t pass up. I wouldn’t expect greatness, though; there’s a reason the Mets weren’t all that motivated to keep him around.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.