Note from Bernie: The Cardinals optioned Paul DeJong to Triple A Memphis on Tuesday afternoon to give him a chance to reboot offensively. This column was written a few hours before today’s news. To take DeJong’s roster spot the Cardinals promoted rookie infielder Kramer Robertson, who had a .380 onbase percentage at Memphis. Tommy Edman may be part of a shortstop rotation but he’s in the lineup at second base tonight.
How long will the Cardinals wait to confront the increasingly untenable situation with Paul DeJong?
They’re in no rush. Payroll politics are in play, and no one should be surprised by that. We watched the front office keep Matt Carpenter around in 2021 because they were paying him $18.5 million in the final year of a dreadful contract extension. And while it’s true that the Cardinals ate the final year of Dexter Fowler’s contract by trading him to the Angels – and absorbing all but a small percentage of his $16.5 million salary – the club wanted to ensure starter-status playing time for three young outfielders, and Fowler had to go. This was a special case – not the beginning of a trend.
If you’re getting paid, you stay, and you play. Period. If you can’t hit, it doesn’t matter. If you are hurting the team, it doesn’t matter. If you are below average overall, it doesn’t matter. The contract is almost always the priority.
DeJong is being paid a guaranteed $6.166 million this season. He will be paid a guaranteed $9.167 million in 2023. Obviously Bill DeWitt and John Mozeliak will delay any hardcore decision on DeJong – if they make any decision at all – because of the team’s investment.
That said, DeJong is an asset defensively at shortstop, ranking tied for second at the position this season with four defensive runs saved. According to Fielding Bible, only three MLB big-league shortstops have saved more runs than DeJong since the start of the 2019 season, and he’s saved 40 runs since the start of the ‘18 campaign.
If the Cardinals want to keep DeJong around for defense, the decision has at least some merit. With a MLB-leading 49.6 percent ground-ball rate, the Cardinals’ pitching staff benefits from a strong middle infield. The combination of Tommy Edman at second base and DeJong at shortstop has saved 12 runs defensively – by far the most by a MLB middle-infield combo this season.
I understand the depth of the obsessive DeJong hatred out there, but to pretend that defense is meaningless is simply wacko. Cardinal pitchers rank 25th in strikeout rate at 20.3%. So the ball will be in play at a substantial rate, and the Cardinals would be loony to ignore the value of maximizing defense – especially with ground balls. Through Tuesday only five MLB teams were doing a better job of preventing runs than St. Louis, which concedes only 3.46 runs per game.
But offense is also important, and the Cardinals have an inconsistent lineup with too many holes. To put it mildly their bench is unimposing; substitutes are batting .136 with a .422 OPS in 25 plate appearances after entering a game.
One of my all-time favorite players, the late Mark Belanger, won eight Gold Gloves at shortstop during his 10-season career peak that began in 1969 and ended in 1978. In 17 seasons as an Oriole, Belanger batted .227 – really low for that time period – and had a feeble OPS+ that was 32 percent below league average. But manager Earl Weaver didn’t care; he greatly valued Belanger’s defense. So there’s an example of starting a shortstop – for a very long time – based on a defense-first philosophy. Historically there have been many shortstops like this, including in St. Louis.
Despite his rather extreme limitations on offense, Belanger had the most plate appearances of any Oriole from 1969 through 1978. I grew up in Baltimore, and loved Earl Weaver and those teams. And while this was long before the internet and social media, Orioles fans appreciated Belanger and didn’t lose their minds with fake outrage when he put up DeJong kind of numbers. They understood the connection between good defense and good pitching.
But here’s what you also need to know about Earl’s thinking … he didn’t need offense from Belanger. Sticking with him virtually every day at shortstop was easy when you had formidable hitters up and down the lineup. Here’s a partial list of lineup-regular hitters that Baltimore deployed at various times from 1969 through 1978: Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, Don Buford, Dave Johnson, Paul Blair, Doug DeCinces, Al Bumbry, Merv Rettenmund, Ken Singleton, Gary Roenicke, John Lowenstein, Tommy Davis, Lee May and Pat Kelly.
DeJong is no match for Belanger defensively, but the general point remains the same: you can sacrifice offense at an important defensive position – and it’s the obvious and responsible thing to do if you have an otherwise muscular lineup. And from 1969 through 78, the Orioles led the American League in OPS+ and were third in runs, homers, onbase percentage and slugging. They were also fourth in doubles and stolen bases.
Of course, the Cardinals aren’t at the same level as Weaver’s Orioles. Putting a premium on defense makes sense, but this team won’t truly ignite unless the offense begins to roar. And while this St. Louis offense is a frequent source of frustration, let’s keep two things in mind: (1) offense is drooping just about everywhere in this retro deadball-era season; (2) the Cardinals rank 10th in the majors in batting average, 11th in runs per game, and are tied for 11th in OPS+. The slugging percentage is (.368) disappointing but the Cardinals are an above-average offense in most areas.
There’s also a reasonable expectation of improvement, and the Cardinal offense will have a dramatically different look once Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson get cooking. Last season, after center fielder Harrison Bader returned from a lengthy stay on the IL, the STL outfield fueled an impressive offense. Over the final three months of the regular season, the Cards’ outfielders ranked second in the majors in batting average, third in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), third in slugging percentage, fourth in home runs, and fifth in OBP.
Perhaps this is why the front office is waiting and stalling. If this offense gets rolling, maybe the DeJong–related hostility will decrease. OK; I’m probably wrong about that. And if Pauly doesn’t hit, the distraction will still be there – and the volume of the noise will remain high. How much longer do the Cardinals want to go through this? How many times does Oli Marmol have to march out and try to spin the media by expressing confidence in DeJong?
About DeJong’s offense …
Here’s my question to the front office: what exactly is the basis for the belief that he’ll come around? We’re still in the small-sample range of the season, but I don’t think that applies to DeJong. He hasn’t had an above-average season since mustering a 102 OPS+ in 2018. (A 100 OPS+ is league average.) And he’s gotten progressively worse over time, with his OPS+ dropping each season. He’s 22 percent below league average offensively since the start of the 2020 season.
– DeJong is batting .130 with a .209 OBP, .208 slug and .417 OPS. Among the 27 MLB shortstops that have 60 or more plate appearances this season, DeJong ranks last in batting average, last in OBP, last in OPS, last in wRC+ and is 26th in slugging. Using wRC+, DeJong is 70 percent below league average offensively. His strikeout rate is 29 percent.
– In his last 20 games (19 starts) DeJong is hitting .109 with a .312 OPS and has struck out 28.5% percent of the time.
– In April, I had some optimism over DeJong because of what I saw in his statcast profile. In the first month he had an excellent 48.5 percent hard-hit rate, a robust 9.7% barrel rate, and an average exit velocity of 89.3 mph.
– But May has been extremely discouraging in the same categories, with DeJong’s hard-hit rate plummeting to 18.2 percent for the month so far. And he hasn’t barreled a single pitch in May. His average exit velo for May is an alarming 83.1 mph.
— DeJong’s line-drive rate is down to 13.2 percent for the season. That ranks 244th among 258 hitters that have at least 60 plate appearances so far in 2022.
If DeJong can’t reassemble his crashed offensive profile, then the Cardinals will have multiple choices:
– Go with his defense and stay the course. This will also justify – at least to the front office – the decision to live with DeJong’s contract.
– Turn to Edmundo for a large share of starts at shortstop, just as they did last season. In 286 plate appearances as the starting shortstop in 2021, Sosa batted .294 with a .795 OPS. He displayed solid power with an above-average .429 slugging percentage. But Sosa has been jumpy and overmatched in his limited opportunities early this season, batting .160 with a 42.8% strikeout rate.
– Pacify the mob by optioning him to Memphis to rehab his offense. That’s more preferable to the Cardinals, who don’t want to designate him for assignment,
– Appease the Fantasy Baseball general managers/experts out there who want to move bodies around – in this case, slide Tommy Edman to shortstop, and promote power prospect Nolan Gorman to STL to take over at second base. But the Cardinals don’t want to weaken two positions defensively. And inside the organization there are concerns over Edman’s durability (and arm) as a shortstop. What about Gorman’s defense at second base? It depends on who you talk to.
– The Fantasy GMs may get their wish. If DeJong stays in the freefall mode, the Cardinals will likely make a move at some point. Part of the reason would be to give Gorman an entry point to the majors at second base. If Juan Yepez keeps hitting, Gorman won’t dislodge him as the DH against right-handed pitching. And they’ll have to take a look to (A) determine if Edman can handle shortstop; and (B) if Gorman can play average or slightly below-average defense at second. But as far as moving people around … we go back to Baltimore. People thought Earl Weaver was flat-out crazy when he moved Cal Ripken Jr. from third base to shortstop on July 1, 1982. But the Earl of Baltimore – raised in St. Louis, and trained in the Cardinals’ minor-league system – knew what he was doing. If Ripken Jr. can be transferred to shortstop, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to see how Edman moves and throws at shortstop. It doesn’t have to be a permanent switch.
– Trade DeJong, and swallow a large portion of his remaining salary (about $14 million through 2023) to dispose of an unpleasant problem and get it out of the way. (In other words: Mike Leake II.)
– Acquire a shortstop for the short term. The front office has blocked too many of their good prospects, and it would be stupid to do that to shortstop Masyn Winn, the 54th overall selection in the 2020 draft. Stationed at high Class A Peoria, Winn is coming on fast. He’s batting .378 with a .448 onbase percentage, .610 slug and 1.058 OPS. He’s spraying extra-base hits all over the place, with four doubles, six triples and one homer among his 31 hits. Winn’s speed has captured 11 stolen bases in 11 attempts. And his rocket arm is said to be as powerful as any shortstop in the minor leagues.
The DeJong conundrum isn’t never-ending.
But it sure is exhausting.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.