Peralta not resting on his laurels

Recovered from thumb injury, third baseman back in groove

Peralta not resting on his laurels

JUPITER, Fla. -- With big league service that stretches back to 2003, Jhonny Peralta has lived the cycles of baseball seasons longer than anyone else in the St. Louis clubhouse. And yet, so much about the year ahead for him is cloaked in unfamiliarity.

Peralta has no guarantee of a starting job. He's no longer viewed as the solution at shortstop. There are questions about whether his offensive decline in 2016 had at least something to do with expected age regression. And there's the nearing uncertainty about his baseball future.

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Peralta enters the final season of a four-year contract with the Cardinals in murkier waters than when he started in 2014. He was signed then to stabilize things at short, which Peralta did from 2014-15. He was to be the Cardinals' shortstop again in 2016 until a thumb injury during the spring left Peralta sidelined until June.

The scars lingered much longer.

Peralta's RBI single to left

When Peralta returned last summer, he was thrust into familiarizing himself with a defensive position -- third base -- he hadn't played since he was with the Indians, while navigating through offensive ruts complicated by a still-healing thumb.

"I never felt 100 percent," Peralta said Sunday. "To tell the truth, last year was kind of tough with everything that happened. Going to third base so quickly, that was tough. The swing, sometimes it would not feel right. But I learned from last year. I feel different now."

It started with regaining full strength in his surgically repaired thumb, and that came with weeks of rest during the offseason. Understanding his fit defensively has also allowed Peralta to tailor his spring to prepare for the demands ahead. Those practice reps he couldn't get midseason are now a focus during workouts.

With six-plus weeks to prepare, Peralta hopes to show that he's the right fit for the position. Jedd Gyorko is also in the mix for starting consideration.

Must C: Gyorko's go-ahead homer

"We have a competition going, and I like that," Peralta said. "It helps me get ready."

Before landing on the hot corner by default last season, Peralta hadn't been a third baseman since 2010. In fact, this is the first spring in which he has ordered a third baseman's glove since 2010.

The Cardinals always envisioned the possibility that third base could be a better fit for Peralta as he aged. The position doesn't require the same side-to-side range as shortstop, and the decreased reaction time shouldn't be an issue for Peralta, who will be 35 in May.

"The majority of work he's doing right now is to make sure he's moving well," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's healthy. He's swinging the bat well. And he's going to take as many ground balls [as he needs] to feel comfortable on the infield."

Production at the plate will factor into the Cardinals' third-base decision, and Peralta does have something to prove after an uneven offensive season. He finished with a .260/.307/.408 slash line and his lowest OPS (.715) since joining the organization in 2014.

As for Peralta's future, the long-term outlook is nebulous.

"Hopefully, I can play for a couple more years," he said. "I feel my body can do that. If I can play a couple more years, I'd be happy."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.