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Free-Agent Candidate For the Cardinals? Taking a Look at Mike Moustakas

As the Cardinals go shopping this winter, one name that pops up on a fairly regular basis is free-agent third baseman Mike Moustakas. Does it make sense to sign him?

Well, it depends on the length of the contract and the size of the salary . And while these things can be difficult to forecast, we can go back to last offseason for potential clues. Coming off a brawny 2017 season for the Royals — 38 homers and a  .521 slugging percentage — Moustakas was rated as the No. 6 available free agent by MLB Trade Rumors.  The site does a solid job of predicting contracts, but there was no way to envision the slow, sluggish, pace of free-agent signings.

Baseball front offices were more discerning, or perhaps just smarter about evaluating player value. Teams were stingy last winter. So instead of signing a five-year deal for $85.5 million — as predicted by MLB Trade Rumors — “Moose” humbly agreed to a one-year, $6.5 million contract to return to KC. He was later traded to Milwaukee, and helped push the Brewers’ into to first place in the NL Central.

Combining his numbers from Kansas City and Milwaukee, Moustakas batted .251 with a .315 OBP, .459 slug and 28 homers. The .459 slugging percentage, while fine, was his lowest since 2014. Overall Moustakas’ 2018 season was five percent above the league average offensively. Because of his improvement defensively,  Moustakas was credited with 2.4 Wins Above Replacement — 15th among regular major-league third basemen and slightly more than his 2.1 WAR for the 2017 Royals.

Moustakas is 30 years old.

Plenty young.

Here are some other plusses:

1. Relative to today’s MLB standards, Moustakas doesn’t strike out much. He has career strikeout rate of 15.6 percent.

2. Good power, with a slugging percentage of .490 over the past three years — plus a home-run ratio of one HR every 16.9 at-bats.

3. Moustakas bats from the left side and the Cardinals are interested in adding a LH bat to the lineup.

4. He isn’t a platoon hitter. While Moustakas is clearly better against RH pitching, he isn’t weak when facing lefties. Over the past three seasons, he has an .827 OPS against LHP with a .508 slug. And Moustakas has been 15 percent above league average offensively against RHP since the start of the 2016 season. But his stats — while slightly below average — aren’t bad vs. lefties:. Moustakas has a .446 slug and .746 OPS vs. lefts over the last three seasons.

5. Moustakas, a key member of the 2015 World Series-champion Royals, has competed in 41 postseason games for KC and Milwaukee. Not that his stats are great — .217 average, .363 slug — but Moustakas does have six homers, five doubles and 18 RBIs in 157 career postseason at-bats. And he came up big in the three-game 2018 NLDS sweep of the Rockies, batting .364 with a .917 OPS.

6. Good two-strike hitter, with 32 homers in 604 two-strike situations over the last three years. His overall two-strike hitting performance is 17 percent above the league average since 2016.

Now, on the other side here are some negatives … or at least concerns:

* Moustakas’ defense at third was slightly above average last season at plus-2 Defensive Runs Saved. In 2017 he ranked 31st among MLB third basemen with minus-8 DRS.

* He isn’t a good baserunner, period. Pick a baserunning metric, and Moustakas has a bad score.

* He doesn’t walk much, and the result is a mediocre onbase percentage of .307 for his career, and .314 over the last three seasons. Since the beginning of 2016, the Moustakas walk rate is only 6.8% … which ranks tied for No. 169 among MLB hitters over that time.

*  Despite the low strikeout rate, Moustakas chases too many non-strikes — with a rate of 38 percent over the last two seasons combined. His overall contact rate dropped to 79.8% last season after peaking at 86.2% in 2016.

I wanted to mention something that my colleague Brandon Kiley has talked about when asked if Moustakas could be an upgrade for the Cardinals. BK points out that Moustakas and Cardinals’ third baseman Jedd Gyorko have similar numbers.

First, let’s talk about their differences.

Moustakas bats LH, and Gyorko swings RH.

Over the last three seasons Gyorko has struck out more often (21%) than Moustakas (15.6%.)

Gyorko is superior to Moustakas defensively. Gyorko is  +22 in Defensive Runs Saved as a third baseman over the last three seasons.  Moose is minus 5 DRS.

Now, let’s compare the two hitters over the last three seasons:

The RH-batting Gyorko has more balance from a platoon-split standpoint.

I’ll explain…

Gyorko is four percent above league average offensively vs. RH pitchers.  And as we mentioned earlier, the LH-batting Moustakas is slightly below average (four percent to be exact) vs. LH pitchers.

Gyorko has crushed LH pitching; he’s 29 percent above the league average. And while Moustakas does well against RH pitchers, he’s 15 percent above league average against them.

Here are their relevant numbers over the last three seasons:

WAR: Gyorko 6.1 … Moustakas 5.3.

OPS+ Moustakas 112, Gyorko 111.  ( 100 is average.)

Slugging percentage: Moustakas .490,  Gyorko .463.

HR Ratio:  Moustakas, one every 16.8 at-bats. Gyorko, one every 19.2 at-bats.

In fairness to Moustakas, the Cardinals take between  70-75  percent of their plate appearances against RH pitching.  So in that context, Moustakas would be the more effective weapon against RH pitching. That’s the more relevant way of making a comparison.

Against RHP over the past three seasons Moustakas has a .508 slug, .827 OPS, and has homered every 15.4 at-bats.

Gyorko vs. RHP over the same time frame has a .448 slugging percentage, .767 OPS, and homers every 20 at-bats.

Finally, I must point out that Gyorko had a noticeable dip in power last season. His slugging percentage plummeted to .416, and he homered only 11 times in 351 at-bats.

And Gyorko is trending in the wrong direction in his performance against RHP.

Take a look at the year-by-year, starting in 2016:

Slugging percentage:  536, .434, .374

OPS … .836, .763, 702.

Gyorko and Moustakas are roughly the same age — but the difference is, “Moose” has sustained his power against RH pitchers.

Finally … 

If the Cardinals trade for Paul Goldschmidt, they won’t need Moustakas because Matt Carpenter will play third base. And despite the fussing of whiners who have no idea what they’re even crying about, Carpenter is a better third baseman than Moustakas. (The last three seasons combined, Carpenter is a +8 in Defensive Runs Saved at third; Moustakes is a minus-5 DRS. )

If the question comes down to this — would the Cardinals be better off with Moustakas’ bat than Gyorko’s bat at third base? — Moose gets the nod, even with his low-OBP profile. But the Cards would be sacrificing some defense by going with Moustakas at third.

What about the contract prediction?

The forecast from MLB Trade Rumors has Moustakas getting a two-year deal for $16 million. If that’s close, it’s a reasonable price. We’ll see how it all turns out — including the Cardinals’ level of interest in Moustakas.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie