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After A Parade of Shortstops, the Cards Have Their Guy in Paul DeJong

In signing their young shortstop Paul DeJong to a six-year, $26 million contract, the Cardinals conveyed two obvious messages:

1. The Cardinals believe in DeJong and already consider him a core player at age 24. Their confidence is based on only 108 big-league games, which includes DeJong’s 85 starts at shortstop in 2017.

2. The Cardinals want stability at a position that’s been itinerant in nature since current president of baseball operations John Mozeliak decided to move on from 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein and go in a different direction following the 2007 season.

Actually, Mozeliak went in MANY directions over the years.

Between 1999 and 2007, a stretch of nine seasons, the Cardinals deployed only two primary shortstops: Edgar Renteria started 866 games from 1999 through 2004. “The Captain” was followed by Eckstein who started 385 games from 2005 through ‘07. A few backups contributed, but the position belonged to Renteria until he left as a free agent following the 2004 World Series and handed off to Eckstein.

With Renteria and Eckstein manning the key position over nine seasons, the Cardinals ranked 5th in the majors with 28.0 WAR at shortstop.

Over the next 10 seasons a long list of passing-through Cardinals shortstops combined for only 21.0 WAR to rank 19th in the majors.

Since 2008 the Cardinals have started 21 players at shortstop and are only one of three National League teams to have used six shortstops for 100+ more starts over the last 10 seasons.

The six shortstops with 100+ starts are Jhonny Peralta (305), Brendan Ryan (244), Aledmys Diaz (168), Rafael Furcal (163), Pete Kozma (146) and Cesar Izturis (110.) Other notables include Daniel Descalso, Ryan Theriot, Tyler Greene, Khalil Greene, Felipe Lopez, Julio Lugo, and Nick Punto

Since 2008, the Cardinals have had only two shortstops to serve as the primary starter for consecutive seasons: Ryan (2009-10) and Peralta (2014-15.)

After employing so many temps at shortstop, the Cardinals believe they’ve found their anchor in DeJong. The Cardinals have him in place through at least 2023 but can keep DeJong for two more seasons by exercising team options for 2024 and 2025.  That would increase DeJong’s deal to eight years and $51.5 million.

The Cardinals feel they’re making a wise gamble by attempting to pay DeJong now, in return for his best seasons.  If the deal goes through 2025, the Cardinals would have bought three of DeJong’s arbitration seasons and his first two free-agent years. This low-risk venture can DeJong can stop the clicking of the turnstiles at shortstop.

“During my time with the Cardinals, we’ve always been searching for that shortstop,” Mozeliak said during Monday’s news conference to announce DeJong’s deal. “This does give us a level of comfort, that we’ve found a player who can play there for a long time.”

Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no guarantee of DeJong remaining at shortstop. He advanced quickly through the St. Louis system playing third base and second until getting prep time at short for Triple A Memphis early last season. Should the Cardinals eventually develop a smooth shortstop that hits with authority, they can always shift DeJong to third. That’s another reason why this deal make sense; DeJong isn’t welded to one position. His flexibility gives him extra value.

Mozeliak doesn’t seem to think moving DeJong will be necessary. After promoting DeJong to the big club last May 28, Cardinals management was thrilled by DeJong’s rookie performance as a shortstop and instant power source.

DeJong homered  25 times in 417 at-bats and slugged .532. Not bad all considering that Albert Pujols (2001) is the only hitter in franchise history to top DeJong in homers and slugging during a rookie season. Until DeJong arrived, the last Cardinals rookie to play shortstop and bat No. 3 in the lineup was future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst back in 1945.

DeJong turned in a solid showing defensively, with zero Defensive Runs Saved. That may not seem like much to brag about, but remember two things: (1) DeJong’s relative inexperience at a difficult position; (2) from  the start of 2015 season until DeJong became the starter, St. Louis shortstops were an awful minus 22 in Defensive Runs Saved.

By playing league-average defense DeJong ranked 18th among MLB shortstop and was a  major defensive upgrade over Aledmys Diaz.

With minus 10 DRS Diaz ranked a woeful 33rd at the position last year.

Last season only two major-league shortstops (minimum 440 plate appearances) popped at least 25 homers, slugged over .500 and played league-average (or better) defense: Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor and DeJong. Easy to see why DeJong finished second to the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger in NL Rookie of the Year voting at the end of last season.

DeJong had 3.0 fWAR last season, becoming only the third STL shortstop to have a three-win season since the start of the 1993 season.

Mozeliak said he expects DeJong to develop into an above-average defensive shortstop through additional experience and by working with coach Jose Oquendo, the master teacher of fundamentals.

There’s other work to do.

DeJong batted .285 with a .325 onbase percentage and the .532 slug. His park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) put him 22 percent above league average offensively. If you add together his stats at Memphis and St. Louis last season, DeJong slammed 38 homers, doubled 35 times, drove in 99 runs and slugged .552.

But DeJong’s plate discipline is a point of concern going forward. Last season DeJong had a similar profile to outfielder Randal Grichuk, his free-swinging, strikeout-stacking teammate who was traded to Toronto in January.

DeJong had a rookie-year strikeout rate of 28 percent, and a walk rate of only 4.7 percent. A stat  from FanGraphs: among the 216 hitters that had over 400 plate appearances last season,  DeJong ranked 211th in walk-strikeout rate (0.31). That must change. He also benefited from a .349 average on balls in play last season, and that isn’t sustainable. And DeJong’s exit velocity wasn’t great last season, but that hardly sapped his power.

The survival and progress of any young hitter depends on his capacity to learn and recalibrate. Diaz failed because he refused to stop trying to pull the ball. Pitchers got easy outs by working the outside corner. Diaz just wouldn’t change his swing, and crashed.

With Grichuk, it was the plague of strikeouts and poor walk rate.

What makes DeJong so different?

“Is a 30 percent strikeout rate and a single-digit walk rate sustainable in the big leagues? History says no,” Mozeliak told me recently. “The question is, can DeJong pull those two rates closer together? Get the 30 percent strikeout rate closer to 20. Move the walk rate into double digits. Grichuk never made the adjustment. I’m confident DeJong can adjust.”

That’s a decent bet.  DeJong — who graduated from Illinois State with a degree in biochemistry — is smart and self aware. He studies a problem and works on solutions.  And as the 2017 season went on, DeJong began to firm up his plate discipline.

His strikeout rate for June was 32.6 percent … from there it dropped every month …  to 29.7 percent in July … to 26.4 percent in August … and to 25.4 percent in September-October.  DeJong’s walk rate of 8% in the final month was his best for a single month last season.

So you might want to hold off on those Trevor Story comparisons.

“One thing that stood out about Paul was his intelligence and his ability to adapt and adjust,” Mozeliak said.

The Cardinals are enthusiastic about investing in DeJong’s rare power-defense combination that sets set him apart from many shortstops. But they’re also gambling on DeJong’s baseball IQ. If he cuts down on the swings and misses, the Cardinals will have a home run. There’s risk in this decision, sure. But given the annual average value of the DeJong’s contract, their liability is limited.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie