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The case against keeping Jon Jay

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As reported by Jennifer Langosh of MLB.com, today Jon Jay will submit his proposed salary as part the arbitration process with the St. Louis Cardinals. After Jay submits his proposed salary, the Cardinals can counter with their own, lower number, and then an arbitrator can make a binding decision between the two numbers. In the past, the Cardinals have been able to come to an agreement with a player before the arbitrator makes his decision, usually at a compromise price between the two numbers.

The common wisdom is that the Cardinals will find a way to keep Jay, and that Jay will earn approximately $3.5 million when all is said and done in the arbitration process. No one is really talking about the possibility of simply letting Jay walk, but maybe they should.

Let’s be clear that this author has nothing personal against Jon Jay. Jay has been a more-than-serviceable centerfielder for the Cardinals since 2010, posting a .293/.356/.400 stash line over that time. In 2012 Jay had a 3.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement Player) with an excellent .373 OBP.400 SLUG with 19 stolen bases. The Cardinals would not have made it to the 2012 playoffs without Jay.

The problem with giving Jon Jay $3.5 million next season is not his past, but his most recent past and his future.

Last year Jay declined in all major offensive categories, posting a .276 batting average with a .351 OBP and a .370 SLUG. Jay stole only 10 bases. Perhaps worst of all, Jay’s defense declined dramatically. In 2012 Jay posted a 3.7 UZR in centerfield, a statistical measurement which illustrates how many balls a player correctly fielded within his “zone” on the field. In 2013, Jay’s UZR was -7.3 in centerfield.

Perhaps 2013 was a statistical anomaly for Jay, but there are many reasons why the Cardinals should not bet $3.5 million on that theory.

First, the Cardinals acquired Peter Bourjos in the offseason. By all credible accounts, Bourjos was acquired to take over the starting job in centerfield in 2014. Bourjos plays Gold Glove level defense when healthy, producing a 16.3 UZR in 2012 and -0.3 UZR in 2013 over limited playing time when injured. Bourjos has not got on the base at the same clip as Jay with a .333 OBP last year, but he has shown the potential for more power as demonstrated by his .438 SLUG in 2011.

The counter argument is that Bourjos has not shown he can stay healthy. In 2012 and 2013 Bourjos was limited to less than 200 MLB plate appearances due to a myriad of injuries.

However, if the Cardinals are looking for a backup plan to Bourjos they have other options which come at a much lesser cost than Jay.

Last year the Cardinals began grooming Oscar Taveras as the centerfielder for the future. Before Taveras AAA season was derailed by an ankle injury he posted a very respectable .341 OBP and .462 SLUG over 186 plate appearances. Taveras enters 2014 as the Cardinals number one prospect. By all accounts, Taveras bat is ready for the big leagues. Taveras offers more offensive potential than both Jay and Bourjos. Best of all, the Cardinals could pay Taveras the league minimum (approximately $550,000), compared to Jay’s $3.5 million.

If Taveras is not ready or is unable to handle the defensive demands of centerfield then the team has yet another cheap option. Last year, Shane Robinson posted a .345 OBP and .319 SLUG as a bench player for the team. Defensively, Robinson garnered a 2.1 UZR. Once again, Robinson could be paid the league minimum.

And behind Taveras and Robinson there is James Ramsey, the team’s 2012 first round draft choice hit for .251/.356/.424 line at AA last year. Reports on Ramsey’s defensive abilities are very positive, and his makeup is said to be off the charts. Ramsey

Are any of the backup options behind Bourjos as sure of a thing as Jay? Perhaps not, but one must ask if Jay is really worth the extra $3 million it will cost the club to have him backing up Bourjos as opposed the team’s best hitting prospect since Albert Pujols (GM John Mozeliak’s words not my own).

Finally, there are those who would say the Cardinals should keep Jon Jay simply because they can. Even if the team pays Jay $3.5 million next year they would still be below their 2013 thanks to the loss of big contracts like Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter.

However, this argument confuses what could be done with what should be done. Sure the team has plenty of money to spend on bench players now, but in the not-so-distant future the team will be forced to pay players like Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, Peter Bourjos, and Trevor Rosenthal. Banking $3 million, and letting it earn interest between now and then, would give the team more flexibility in keeping these players. However, if the team spends all that it can now simply because it can, they may find themselves with empty pockets in future years when they seek to sign the “core” to long-term contracts.

Which option seems preferable: paying Jon Jay $3.5 million for Jon Jay as a backup to Peter Bourjos, with Jay getting as few as 200 at-bats this season, or using that same cash as part of $30 million dollar there-year extension Shelby Miller next year? The Cardinals are not the Yankees. Funds are limited. As a consequence, it would be wise to consider the opportunity cost in spending $3.5 million on a bench player when other, cheaper options are available to the team.

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