The Cardinals, as you may have heard, made a significant addition this week.
They convinced the Rockies to give them $50 million — and, oh yeah, third baseman Nolan Arenado — in exchange for lefty pitcher Austin Gomber and four minor leaguers. The highest-ranked prospect in the group, Elehuris Montero, checked in at No. 14 on Baseball America’s ranking of Cardinals prospects.
But that’s not the point right now, the absolute fleecing of the Rockies by the Cardinals, a deal that was finalized Monday morning. Arenado’s addition anoints the Cardinals as the clear favorites in the NL Central; he’s the best defensive third baseman in the NL (maybe the bigs), and his powerful bat is exactly what St. Louis needed this offseason.
But we’re not even talking about that today. Here’s what we’re looking at: Do the Cardinals now have the best corner-infield combination in baseball? St. Louis already had a pretty consistent All-Star at first base in Paul Goldschmidt.
Let’s take a look at the top nine corner-infield combos.
1B Yuli Gurriel
3B Alex Bregman
Why they’re here: Bregman finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in 2018, then damn near beat out Mike Trout to win the award in 2019. His 2020, though? Let’s just say the final numbers weren’t quite up to his standards, as his rate stats fell across the board. But all that means is that he’s primed for a huge bounce-back season in 2021, his Age 27 campaign. Gurriel’s numbers plummeted, too — he had a 76 OPS+, .274 on-base percentage and minus-0.1 bWAR — but he’s heading into his Age 37 season.
1B Anthony Rizzo
3B Kris Bryant
Why they’re here: It only feels like this duo has been roaming Wrigley Field since the end of the Ernie Banks era. Rizzo’s entering his Age 31 season and Bryant his Age 29 season. Rizzo’s numbers took a tumble in the shortened 2020 season, and Bryant’s fell off a cliff. It’s hard to imagine their time as impact players is done, though (Over at FanGraphs, ZIPS has Bryant with a still-productive 3.2 WAR in 2021, Rizzo at 3.3). It’s also hard to imagine that Bryant will finish the year in Chicago; a free agent after 2021, he’ll likely be traded if he shows early flashes of his former MVP self.
1B Matt Olson
3B Matt Chapman
Why they’re here: Where to rank this duo? Even though 2020 was a productive season for the A’s — they won the AL West going away, then won a playoff series, too — the Matts struggled at the plate. Olson popped 14 homers, but batted just .195 with a 105 OPS+. Chapman, coming off back-to-back 8.3 bWAR seasons, had a .276 on-base percentage and had 54 strikeouts, with only eight walks, before a hip injury ended his season after only 37 games.
Based on those small sample sizes, the duo wouldn’t find a spot in this top 10. But you won’t find anyone in the sport who expects the same type of production from those two in 2021. So we’ll put them here, above their 2020 performance but below their 2019 production.
1B Luke Voit
3B Gio Urshela
Why they’re here: Neither Voit nor Urshela arrived in New York as heralded additions, but they’ve made a huge impact on the franchise in their time with the club. Urshela followed his out-of-nowhere breakthrough 2019 season — 21 homers, .314 average, 132 OPS+ — with a shortened 2020 season that included a 136 OPS+. And Voit? All he did in 2020 was lead the AL with 22 homers, to go with a .610 slugging percentage and 156 OPS+.
1B Eric Hosmer
3B Manny Machado
Why they’re here: Machado will be an MVP candidate again in 2021, and Hosmer was better at the plate in 2020 than in either of his first two seasons with the Padres. In fact, he posted the second-best OPS+ (131) of his career last season.
1B Freddie Freeman
3B Austin Riley
Why they’re here: They’re here because, even though Austin Riley is far from a sure thing at third base — his hot/cold stretches during his two years in the bigs have been extreme — you could pretty much pair your average Double-A third baseman with Freddie Freeman and the Braves would have a Top-15 corner infield duo. The only bad thing for Braves fans about Freeman winning the 2020 NL MVP award is that they no longer can call him the most underrated star in baseball, which was their favorite thing to say.
3. Blue Jays
1B Vlad Guerrero, Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
Why they’re here: If nothing else, this is certainly the only corner infield combo composed exclusively of sons of baseball Hall of Famers. They also have as much upside as any duo here; Vlad Jr. hit nine home runs with a 115 OPS+ in his Age 21 season last year, and Biggio posted a solid .375 on-base percentage, to go with eight homers and a 2.0 bWAR. ZIPs has Biggio with a 3.2 WAR in 2021, Guerrero with a 2.8. It’s a good year to bet on the Blue Jays.
2. White Sox
1B Jose Abreu
3B Yoan Moncada
Why they’re here: The case for this pair at No. 1 would be much stronger if there was any degree of certainty about what we can expect from Moncada. His OPS+ the past three years: 96, 140, 94. He looked very much like the future star we’ve been waiting for him to become in 2019, but regressed back to 2018 levels in the shortened 2020 season. I expect he’ll be more like 2019 in 2021, which is why the White Sox are ahead of two other teams with MVP candidates at one of the spots: Freeman and the Braves and Machado and the Padres. I believe Moncada will have a better year than Riley or Hosmer. And Abreu? He’s never been better. He’s led the AL in RBIs each of the past two seasons and won last year’s MVP award.
1B Paul Goldschmidt
3B Nolan Arenado
Why they’re here: Goldschmidt was almost all the way back to his old .300/.400/.500 self in the shortened 2020 season; his 2.0 bWAR in 58 games of 2020 nearly equaled his 2.4 bWAR in 161 games in 2019. Expect more of that in 2021, especially with more help in the Cardinals lineup. Arenado struggled with a shoulder injury in 2020 that limited his production, but this is a guy who finished in the top eight of the NL MVP race — with a “low” bWAR of 5.9 — for five consecutive years, from 2015 to 2019. He’s healthy and motivated with his new franchise.