Jon Jay spent four-plus seasons as the primary center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, with intermittent cameos by others in the starring role, and while he spent most of that time as a solid if not spectacular player, his cataclysmic 2015 was enough to convince the Cardinals to cut bait on the $6.2 million Jay was owed for the 2016 season. In December 2015, the Cardinals sent Jay to the San Diego Padres in exchange for another player who had signed an extension with the organization which drafted him and had quickly turned disappointment–infielder Jedd Gyorko.
While Jon Jay bounced back from his 2016 form and had an adequate if not particularly riveting season, Jedd Gyorko was such a revelation for the Cardinals that it would be nearly impossible to argue that they did not come out ahead on the trade. Despite a lack of full-time position, Gyorko led the 2016 Cardinals in home runs and had a career-best 112 wRC+, painting him as 12% better than a league-average hitter, despite a .244 batting average on balls in play (4th lowest among the 203 players that season with at least 400 plate appearances), suggesting that Gyorko was extremely unlucky in a season in which he was the most productive he had ever been.
In 2017, Gyorko was even more valuable–his home run total fell from 30 to 20 but his walks increased, his BABIP normalized, and the previously pedestrian fielder seemed to find his defensive footing while working primarily at third base. Gyorko’s escalating salary, even if it weren’t being partially subsidized by the Padres, was no longer looking like a major problem.
Gyorko’s 2018 was a step back from his previous two campaigns with the Cardinals, but this was in more of a “Let It Be is worse than Abbey Road” way than a “Metal Machine Music is worse than The Velvet Underground & Nico” way. In 402 plate appearances, Gyorko’s 110 wRC+ still matched his best season in San Diego, he remained an above-average defensive third baseman, and while his power decline was concerning, his plate discipline, both by way of his walk rate and strikeout rate, improved.
That said, Jedd Gyorko remained an average-ish player in a lineup full of average-ish players, and said lineup could only improve by making a dramatic move for a substantial player. And on December 5, the Cardinals made that move by trading for Arizona Diamondbacks superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt is far too talented to be a part-time player, as is Matt Carpenter, so the duo will be engraved into the Cardinals’ corner infield positions for 2019.
And Jedd Gyorko was left without a position. And suddenly, the Cardinals had a utility player scheduled to make $13 million next season.
Gyorko’s contract, like all MLB contracts, is a sunk cost. And contract-based meritocracy in organizing a team’s depth chart doesn’t make much sense. Kolten Wong will make half of what Jedd Gyorko will make in 2019, and Paul DeJong will make less than a tenth of Gyorko’s salary, but this is going to be the case no matter how playing time is allocated. It just, aesthetically, feels strange to have a utility player paid so much. It almost certainly also informs the Cardinals’ long leash with Dexter Fowler ($14.5 million per season, $16.5 million if you factor in his signing bonus) and Adam Wainwright (who made $19.5 million last season and was immediately placed back in the starting rotation despite ineffectiveness and injuries).
Particularly since the Goldschmidt trade, there have been perpetual rumors surrounding both Gyorko and fellow displaced infielder Jose Martinez (while Martinez has the benefit of also “playing the outfield”, to the extent that he can, Gyorko also volunteered to play in the outfield). The rumor usually revolved around the Cardinals trading away one or both of the now-bench players for relief pitching, relatively minor prospects, or perhaps a cheaper, inevitably lesser version of the types of players they are. But the Cardinals have instead signed Jose Martinez to a two-year contract and as the calendar progresses, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the Cardinals are looking to trade Jedd Gyorko, either.
When I was a little kid, I learned somewhat quickly how to game Franchise Mode in Madden video games–you could trade players you wanted to cut anyway for late-round draft picks, and then packages those draft picks for fewer, better draft picks, and then trade off those picks for superstar players. Turning the likes of Troy Pelshak and Rich Coady into prime Randy Moss was my version of turning a paperclip into a house. But eventually, I got bored doing this, because it felt like cheating. It felt like I had found a loophole in life and logic that I did not deserve. And having Jedd Gyorko, still projected to be a healthily above-average MLB starter by ZiPS, feels like cheating.
It isn’t, of course. The “super-utility” player has become increasingly in vogue over the last decade or so, as larger bullpens create more of a demand for players on the subsequently smaller benches to be able to handle multiple positions. The most famous example of this is Ben Zobrist, the nominal second baseman who has also played over 200 MLB games at shortstop, left field, and right field, but the trend is perhaps best exemplified by former Houston Astros and now Minnesota Twins utility player Marwin Gonzalez. Of his 641 career starts, Gonzalez has made 39% at shortstop, 21% at first base, 20% in left field, 10% at second base, and 10% at third base, while also playing some center field and right field. He earned MVP votes in a season during which he started at least 14 games at five different positions.
The Cardinals enter Spring Training with a lower payroll than they had in 2018, and even in the unlikely event that the team signs Dallas Keuchel, they should have the payroll capacity to maintain Jedd Gyorko. It would be one thing if the Cardinals could, say, package Gyorko and Jose Martinez to, to pull an unrealistic example totally out of thin air, the Minnesota Twins, who suddenly determine that Jose Berrios is expendable and that this lineup fortification would be enough to make a serious run at an AL Central title, but the “package your excess players for stars” model doesn’t work as well as it did in early-aughts Madden games. But in the likelier event that the return for Jedd Gyorko would be minimal, the Cardinals should sit back and enjoy their embarrassment of riches. This is the kind of player that teams with serious World Series aspirations maintain as icing on the cake, not one who is traded away to cut payroll.