The St. Louis Cardinals solidified their largest trouble spot from the 2013 season Nov. 24 when they signed veteran free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53-million contract. Peralta will also probably face pressure unlike any he has experienced in his 11-year career.
By giving Peralta the largest contract of their offseason, the Cardinals in effect told Peralta he must be the full-time starter who will provide production at least similar to his career numbers as a .268 hitter who averages 18 homeruns and 82 runs batted in per season.
Those numbers would be comparable to what former Cardinals third baseman David Freese produced in his five years with the Cardinals, and St. Louis could have a much more potent infield, offensively, with 2013 National League Most Valuable Player candidate Matt Carpenter moving from second base to third base and rookie Kolten Wong, who has a career .301 batting average in the minor leagues, set to become the everyday second baseman.
Peralta does not have large shoes to fill in terms of the players he will replace at the position, considering Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso combined to hit for a .228 batting average with six homeruns and 78 RBIs, but the Cardinals have committed to pay him a large sum of money to be significantly better than Kozma and Descalso.
Many Cardinals fans already consider the contract to be much too large, and that creates inherent pressure on Peralta before he even takes to a baseball field for spring training in Jupiter, Fla., much less his debut at Busch Stadium.
Other veteran players have struggled in St. Louis after they signed a large free-agent contract, most notably first baseman Tino Martinez.
Martinez signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Cardinals in December 2001 after six years with the New York Yankees when he hit .278 with an average of 29 homers and 115 RBIs, and he was the first baseman on four World Series championship teams.
His two-year stay in St. Louis was not nearly as pleasant nor successful. Martinez hit .267 and averaged 18 homeruns and 72 RBIs before the Cardinals traded him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after the 2002 season for two minor leaguers who never made it to the Major League Baseball level.
Peralta will also likely carry the burden of heavy expectations, but he will also have to battle through his first season in a new city while labeled as a performance-enhancing drug offender.
Major League Baseball suspended Peralta 50 games in the second half of the 2013 season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, and while the identity of the drug Peralta took will likely forever remain concealed, the stain on his reputation is considerable.
Post-suspension life has not and will not be easy for Peralta, and the large contract just adds to the expectations fans will have for him.
It will be particularly important for him to get off to a strong start when the 2014 season begins because players such as Martinez or even Matt Holliday, who signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Cardinals in 2010 after they got him in a trade from the Oakland Athletics about six months earlier, have demonstrated the high standards “Cardinal Nation” will expect him to live up to.
Holliday hit .353 after the trade in the final two months of the 2009 season and hit .312 with 28 homeruns and 103 RBIs the following year, but fans often did not give him the benefit of the doubt during those seasons, especially when he hit a mere .275 through May 6 of the 2010 season.
Cardinals fans are some of the nicest in baseball, but they also have high (sometimes exceedingly high) standards for players the Cardinals sign to big free-agent contracts.
Peralta will have to battle that and more throughout the first portion of the 2014 season, and how he handles those pressures will likely determine his ultimate success or failure as a Cardinals player.