St. Louis Cardinals

Gyorko adds depth that improves the Cardinals in three positions

Jedd Gyorko takes a swing during spring training in Jupiter, Fla. He figures to be the Cardinals’ top backup on the middle infield this season.
Jedd Gyorko takes a swing during spring training in Jupiter, Fla. He figures to be the Cardinals’ top backup on the middle infield this season. snagy@bnd.com

Baseball fans like player acquisitions that come with gaudy bubble gum stats and a lot of zeros at the end of their salary, but not every player worth having has to be a future Hall of Famer in order to make an important contribution.

I’m thinking of Jedd Gyorko, the versatile infielder the St. Louis Cardinals acquired from the San Diego Padres in a trade for Jon Jay.

When your club swings and misses at signing David Price, one of the game’s best left-handed starters, then loses Jason Heyward to its chief divisional rival, you’re not bound to light up the radio switch board with the likes of Gyorko.

But trading from an overflowing roster of outfielders to build depth that was lacking on the infield was as necessary as the free agent signing of pitcher Mike Leake.

Gyorko won’t be a starter — not even with shortstop Jhonny Peralta out until the All-Star break with a thumb injury — but I would be surprised if he doesn’t finish the season with more than 400 at-bats.

His value to the Redbirds is rooted in two things: He can back up three positions where the Cardinals had little depth in 2015, and he can hit left-handed pitching. Both of these factors will make at least two other players look better in their starting positions.

Remember last season the dramatic fade we saw from Peralta and second baseman Kolten Wong? Gyorko will take up some of their slack.

The only backup manager Mike Matheny had on the middle of the infield last season was Pete Kozma, a good fielder who hit a whopping .152. His lacking offense landed him in the witness-protection program for huge stretches of time, including the entire month of September, during which he got a grand total of seven at-bats, three less than he got in August. Not that anybody noticed.

Peralta, meanwhile, got no relief.

In 333 games since signing with the team as a free agent prior to the 2014 season, Peralta sat for just 12. All those innings caught up with him in the home stretch of a red-hot pennant race last fall. He was batting .300 as of July 19, but slumped to .242 for the month of August and .243 for September, while the Cubs and Pirates were gaining ground.

The innings also caught up with Wong, whose average fell more than 20 points from a season-high of .283 on July 17. He hit nine home runs before the All-Star break, but just two after.

Even before Peralta wound up with his thumb in a sling this spring, Gyorko figured to take plenty of innings off the 34-year-old’s load – keeping his legs fresh for the pennant drive.

Now with Ruben Tejada having been reclaimed from the New York Mets’ scrap heap via the waiver wire, there’s no pressure on Gyorko to take over for Peralta at shortstop. He can return to the role for which he was acquired.

He’ll still take plenty of innings from Tejada and Matt Carpenter at third and he will spell Wong at second base against left-handed pitching.

Wong batted nearly.280 with a .340 on-base percentage against right-handers in 2015, but hit just .229 in 166 at-bats against lefties. Gyorko, a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, hit .282 last season against left-handers while reaching base nearly 10 percent more and slugging 66 points higher than he did against right-handers.

It’s pretty apparent how that time-share arrangement is going to shape up.

Speaking of which, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of lineup the Cardinals can assemble against left-handers, especially if it turns out Matt Holliday can actually play first base.

Once kryptonite to the Redbirds offense, lefties may now have to face a lineup that includes Holliday at first (.299 avg., .905 OPS vs. left-handers in his career), Gyorko at second, Stephen Piscotty in right (.322 in 2015) and Tommy Pham in left (he hit 13 points higher against lefties than righties in 2015).

At 27, Gyorko brings a lot of upside, especially on offense. He started last season as the Padres’ starting second baseman and ended up hitting .247. It’s his power that intrigues, however. Extrapolated over a 162-game season, his three-year career numbers average out to 22 home runs and 76 RBI per season.

Gyorko can do at the plate what Scott Spiezio did for the Cardinals’ World Series championship club in 2006. He can be like the 2011 versions of Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig wrapped into one. He’s Jose Oquendo or Skip Schumaker with pop.

Who on that list is bound for the Hall of Fame? Or even an All-Star game?

Who was their equivalent in 2015?

And who among them could the Cardinals have done without?

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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