Cardinals sign Mark Ellis, fortify their bench

Mark Ellis is one of the more underrated infielders in baseball, and he's heading to St. Louis on a one-year deal. - USA TODAY Sports

After filling in two of their key weaknesses - center field and shortstop - early in the offseason, the Cardinals went to work improving their bench by signing the criminally underrated Mark Ellis.

There's a feeling among a lot of baseball fans and writers that the St. Louis Cardinals are competent to the point of annoyance. I'm sure people in St. Louis don't feel that way, but for everyone else, it's becoming a little obnoxious how well they run their organization. On Sunday, they added another fantastic piece to a team that has been to the World Series twice in the last three seasons. In true Cardinals fashion, they added Mark Ellis on a one-year deal to be their primary middle infield backup and insurance behind Kolten Wong

There are a few interesting angles to this deal, which we'll hit in quick succession. First, this is a story about the rich getting richer. The Cardinals had very few holes entering the offseason and filled the primary ones quickly with Peter Bourjos and Jhonny Peralta. Beyond that, the only thing the Cardinals really needed was a more impressive bench. During the World Series, it was clear that they didn't have a ton of great options to pinch hit and fill in beyond their starting nine, but in 2014 they'll boast a backup middle infielder who could probably start on a good portion of the league's 30 teams.

Not only do the Cardinals have a strong lineup and great pitching staff, now they'll have some depth up the middle, which was a weakness for the team that came two wins from a title in 2013.

This is also an important signing for the broader free agent market, as Ellis' deal thins an already withering group. Cano was the big prize, Infante was the primary alternative, and Ellis was Plan C. You can't even grab Nick Punto, thanks to Billy Beane and the A's. Kelly Johnson is gone too. Everyone that is left is essentially a replacement level backup. Unless you're going to convert Stephen Drew, the second base market is pretty much bone dry.

Teams like Seattle might have a player to deal and the Reds desperately want to move Brandon Phillips despite very little interest, but Mark Ellis was really the last real option. Which is problematic for teams like the Yankees and others who need to settle the keystone. What's even more interesting is that the Dodgers held a very inexpensive option on Ellis and declined it heading into the winter. The Dodgers could have probably dealt Ellis to the Cardinals for some low tier prospect with a 5% chance of becoming a useful player instead of just letting him hit the market and getting nothing in return.

But aside from the Cardinals angle and broader view of the market, this is a great opportunity to acknowledge Mark Ellis as a tremendously underrated player. He's only played 150 games twice in his 11 seasons, but when he's been on the field, he's been a very productive player, and it's not like he routinely misses 100 games a year. Below you'll see his offensive production, his defensive numbers at second base only (he has fewer than 200 total innings elsewhere), and his overall value in each of his 11 seasons:

Season PA wRC+ DRS UZR fWAR
2002 404 106 NA 1.4 2.5
2003 622 80 17 5.0 1.7
2005 486 135 8 6.5 4.3
2006 500 84 15 7.7 2.0
2007 642 107 13 9.9 4.0
2008 507 89 23 14.8 3.0
2009 410 86 2 1.4 1.1
2010 492 106 8 7.6 3.0
2011 519 67 17 6.4 1.0
2012 464 98 10 11.0 2.7
2013 480 92 12 5.4 1.8

Ellis is reliably going to offer an 85 wRC+ with a decent shot as something higher and will provide an excellent glove that isn't fading much with age. Ellis might not be a lock for 600 plate appearances like some, but he's going to be a consistent contributor. He's not going to be a four-win player, but he's a safe bet to give you decent value at a good price. And if you're asking him to be a backup or to share time with Wong, he might even be better on an inning by inning basis than if he was asked to handle the starting job. He provides a great defensive option and a solid contact hitter to come off the bench to bat for the pitcher. Just to give you an idea, here are his fWARs per 600 PA:

Season fWAR per 600 PA
2002 3.7
2003 1.6
2005 5.3
2006 2.4
2007 3.7
2008 3.6
2009 1.6
2010 3.7
2011 1.2
2012 3.5
2013 2.3

It's not perfect consistency, but Ellis is more than capable of being above average off the bench and could fill in as the everyday second baseman in St. Louis without much problem. Ellis is entering his age-37 season, so he doesn't have the appeal of Cano or Infante as a long-term option, but he's showing very few signs of decline. He's nowhere near Cano as a player, but he's a safe option for a team that likes to stockpile good players.

If you are looking for a player who could add value as something between a backup and starting middle infielder for very little cost, Mark Ellis is your guy. He's been one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball over the last decade and gets nowhere near the amount of attention he deserves. As far as under-the-radar moves go, this one could be one of the best of the offseason.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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