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Prospect Retrospective: Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cardinals

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The Cardinals have signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year contract worth $53 million. What are they getting? Here is a look at Peralta, what he was like as a prospect, and where his career currently stands.

Jhonny Peralta
Jhonny Peralta
Al Messerschmidt

The St. Louis Cardinals signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract on Sunday. Here is a look at his career in historical context.

Peralta (then known as "John Peralta") was signed by the Indians as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 1999. At the time, his glove was ahead of his bat: he had a strong throwing arm, better-than-average range, and unusually good reliability for a young middle infielder, making few errors or mistakes thanks to excellent hands and overall instincts.

Scouts weren't sure about his bat: he swung for the fences a lot but didn't drive the ball over those fences when he made contact, lacking physical maturity. Making his debut in North America in 2000, he hit .241/.352/.309 in 106 games for Columbus in the South Atlantic League. He struck out 102 times and drew 59 walks. The lack of power stood out, but his glove was well-regarded. I had him rated as a Grade C prospect at the time, someone to watch due to his youth and defensive skills, but with a questionable bat.

Moved up to Kinston in the Carolina League for 2001, he hit .240/.328/.351 with 24 doubles, seven homers, 58 walks, and 148 strikeouts in 441 at-bats. That was a lot of strikeouts, but he did boost his power production, a sign he was gaining strength. He also led Carolina League shortstops in fielding percentage, which is not a common thing for 20 year old shortstops (who tend to be error-prone) to do. . I wrote at the time: "He is a very good defensive shortstop, combining smoothness, reliability, range, and arm strength." I still had him as a Grade C though, wondering about the bat.

Then the power came. Moved up to Double-A Akron for 2002, Peralta took a huge step forward by hitting .281/.341/457 with 28 doubles and 15 homers. He was more aggressive and drew just 45 walks, but he actually cut his strikeout rate dramatically, whiffing 97 times in 470 at-bats. The combination of a large power increase with a sharp reduction in strikeouts was unusual and stood out as a huge positive. He remained efficient on defense, although some scouts felt his range wasn't as good as it was previously.

Despite all of that, he didn't receive a lot of attention heading into 2003: he ranked just 17th on Baseball America's 2003 Indians prospect list. I was more optimistic, giving him a "Sleeper Alert" tag (one of the first), rating him as a Grade B prospect, and writing that he was "a potentially special player."

Peralta split 2003 and 2004 between Triple-A and the majors. He didn't hit well in the big leagues at first, but emerged in '05 with a .292/.366/.520 line and 24 homers. That was his peak season offensively, with a 137 OPS+. As you know, he's been a consistent presence in the Cleveland and Detroit lineups for the last nine years.

Although he's hit double-digit homers every year, his overall offensive production oscillates: in his nine years as a regular, he's posted an above-average OPS+ five times and a below-average OPS+ four times. His WAR values track that, as high as 4.9 in 2011 and as low as 0.9 in 2009. Still, even in his worst years he's provided more home runs than the typical shortstop along with steady defense.

Overall, in 1383 games over an 11-year career, Peralta has hit .268/.330/.425 with 156 homers, a 101 OPS+, 102 wRC+, and a career WAR of 22.9.

What does the future hold? Through age 31, his closest comparables according to Sim Score are Juan Uribe, Jay Bell, Brandon Phillips, Granny Hamner, Carlos Baerga, Rico Petrocelli, Michael Young, Craig Biggio, Toby Harrah, and Dick McAulliffe. Phillips is an exact contemporary, so he is no help as a comparison. Of the others, Uribe had a bad year at 32 but rebounded at 33; we don't know what happens with him after that. Michael Young lost defensive value but remained a strong hitter through age 34.

Bell lasted until age 37 although his last good year as a hitter was age 33. Hamner was finished at age 32. Baerga was awful by this point in his career, though he surged back with one final good season at age 34. Petrocelli was finished at 33. Biggio lasted past 40 although at his peak he was far better than Peralta has ever been of course. Harrah lasted until age 37 although his last really good year was at 33. McAulliffe was good through 33 but fell apart quickly after that.

Having already gotten past the Hamner and Baerga markers, if history is any guide, Peralta should be good through age 33 and the third year of his contract, but runs an increasing risk of collapse from that point. I'm sure the Cardinals are aware of this; there is a reason the contract is four years after all.

I have deliberately not mentioned the Biogenesis issue and PED suspension to this point, simply because without more details and evidence of what he did and when, I have no idea how to incorporate that into his history.

Looking at what we do know, at age 18 in the minor leagues Peralta was listed at 6-0, 185. Now he's listed at 6-2, 215. By itself, there is nothing hinky about that: gaining two inches and 30 pounds is perfectly normal development for many players in their early 20s, especially a guy moving from the Dominican to the United States, getting better nutrition into his diet and adopting a professional workout program.

What about the sudden power surge at age 20? By itself, that's not really weird, either: that can happen to players at that age without any PEDs being involved. Peralta always swung for the fences even when he was in the low minors: thus frustrated scouts who felt he struck out too much for a guy without power. But as he gained strength and maturity, the fly ball outs started going over the fences. 

We cannot assume that he would have failed without PEDs: there are many precedents for clean players having similar development curves. This is not to say that the Biogenesis stuff doesn't matter: it does, and many people on and off the field express valid frustration at the fact that guys who cheat have been rewarded with large contracts.

The problem from my point of view is that I don't know how to account for this issue while doing a retrospective piece like this. How much did Biogenesis help Peralta? One percent? Five percent? Twenty percent? I simply don't know.

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