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Cards should go after Hill, Johnson

November 7, 2011

It’s easy to say that second base was a revolving door for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. The Cardinals started seven different players at second throughout the season, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: The last time the Cardinals had a second baseman start at least 130 games was in 2005, when Mark Grudzielanek started 132 games. St. Louis has had at least three players start at least 10 games at second base every year since 2002, when Tony Womack started 149 games and Miguel Cairo and Placido Polanco only started a combined 13 games.

It’s not a surprise St. Louis started so many different players at second throughout the last decade, though. Tony LaRussa loves playing his matchups, and the Cardinals haven’t had a reliable offensive threat at second since Grudz. With a new manager coming in it’s time to firmly entrench someone at second for at least the next few years, and right now is the perfect time to do so with two free agents who happen to be offensive-minded second basemen: Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson.

Second base has long been a sore spot in the Cards’ batting order, the player usually hitting toward the bottom of the order, or, unfortunately, near the top, where the collective players’ mediocre on-base percentage shouldn’t be. If you’re going to have a low-OBP guy in your lineup you’ve got to have him be able to hit home runs. And that’s exactly what Johnson, and to a somewhat lesser extent Hill, can do.

Neither Hill nor Johnson get on base at a great rate, but Hill has posted four full seasons of an OBP of .330 or greater, and after a trade from Toronto to Arizona this past season Hill put up a sparkly .386 OBP in 124 at-bats with a 19:12 K:BB rate. Hill is just a year removed from a 26-homer season, which came after a 36-homer barrage in 2009. He was seemingly the victim of some bad luck with batted balls this year, posting a .268 BABIP, which was the lowest of his career. However he came close to hitting a career-high in line-drive percentage, at 21.2%, while his home-run/fly-ball rate (4.2%) was well under his career norm of 7.9%. Some progression in Hill’s batting line, especially in average, should be expected next year, as Hill’s walk and strikeout percentages were also very similar to his career norms, and his luck has to turn around sometime.

Coincidentally Johnson was involved in the trade that sent Hill to Arizona this season, and he also was rejuvenated in his new home. He posted a .270/.364/.417 line, which is very similar to his career average. That .781 OPS would’ve put him eighth among second baseman in the majors this year had he put it up for the entire year. A career .343-OBP guy, Johnson gets on base better than Hill and has put up two full seasons of a .370 or better OBP, which is quite elite. Both Hill and Johnson are extra-base threats from the second base position, but Johnson has the slight edge over Hill in that category.

Hill’s most recent contract was at $3 million a year, and he shouldn’t expect more than that in his next contract, especially after such a down year counting-stats wise in 2010. Johnson was on a one-year deal for $5.85 million this past season, and should be in line for another contract just like that one. Hill will be the cheaper player to sign this off-season, and he also has a bit higher upside than Johnson.

However, Johnson is the safer play, and while he should command more money this off-season, it wouldn’t hurt St. Louis to lock up a second baseman who will only be 30 on opening day 2012 for two or three years, especially with Albert Pujols (assuming he re-signs) and pretty much the rest of the Cards’ offense in their primes or closer to the end than the beginning of their primes.

Enough with the revolving door of second baseman in and out of St. Louis. It’s a new era in St. Louis, and it’s time the Cardinals lock up a 20-homer, 60-extra-base-hit threat at second base and play to win multiple championships.

Other Cardinals off-season topics:

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