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In Losing Paul DeJong, the Cardinals Discovered a Real Talent In Yairo Munoz

When shortstop Paul DeJong went on the DL with a fractured left hand after being hit by a pitch on May 17, the Cardinals lost a valuable part of their lineup. How would they fill the void? The Cards had options … but not necessarily a solution.

Veterans Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia were in-house possibilities. Maybe the Cardinals would take a second look at rookie Yairo Munoz, the surprise star of spring training who made the 25-man roster to open the season. But Munoz, 23, wasn’t ready for the big leagues. In his first 20 MLB plate appearances, Munoz had two hits in 18 at-bats and struck out 11 times. He was sent down to Triple A Memphis on April 16.  Maybe he’d get a second chance at some point this season. Or it could be that Munoz needed a full season at Triple A.

Stop right there.

A new opportunity emerged through DeJong’s misfortune.

Munoz was summoned from Memphis on May 18.

This time he was ready for the stage.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny subbed Munoz into the game at shortstop on May 19 vs. Philadelphia and May 21 against Kansas City. Munoz was given a start at short against the Royals the following night and went 4 for 4.

Matheny kept writing the kid’s name into the lineup. And the more Munoz plays, the more he impresses. He’s a talented, aggressive player with energy and poise. Confidence does not seem to be be an issue, but eventually we’ll learn more when the rookie copes with an inevitable slump.

Munoz has a strong arm but is raw at shortstop. And at four runs below average he hasn’t  graded  out  well in Defensive Runs Saved. But let’s not be too hard on Munoz for the “D.”  He can get better.

At a time when the Cardinals needed someone to take good care of DeJong’s space, Munoz arrived. He’s been a delightful surprise. Had Munoz merely done an adequate job as a replacement, the team would be satisfied. But Munoz has smashed his way through the modest expectations, bringing the power and production with his startling offensive performance.

Yeah, small sample … it’s early … only 35 plate appearances since being recalled … and all of that.

But we can see why the front office coveted Munoz in the trade with Oakland for outfielder Stephen Piscotty. And in the uneasy aftermath of DeJong’s loss — who could handle this assignment? — the Cardinals have found their answer.

Since May 19 Munoz is batting .424 with a .457 onbase percentage and .636 slugging percentage for a 1.094 OPS. Munoz has driven in nine runs and scored five. He’s blasted two homers, including Thursday’s three-run walk-off into David Freese Land above the center field wall. The big fly launched the Cardinals to one of their best wins of the season, a 10-8 comeback job over the Pirates at Busch Stadium.

In his eight starts at shortstop sans DeJong, Munoz is batting .467 with a .500 OBP, .700 slug and 1.200 OPS … with the two homers, a double, the nine RBIs. In the eight games Munoz has been credited with two game-winning RBIs, and two go-ahead RBIs.

Enhanced plate discipline is an important factor in the Munoz turnaround from early April. Before the regrouping demotion to Memphis, Munoz struck out in 55% percent of his first 20 plate appearances. Since making his way back to St. Louis, Munoz has struck out 18.8% of the time.

Before the injury, DeJong was supplying offense that came in at 27 percent above the league average in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+). But here’s the amazing thing: since DeJong made an unwanted exit, the Cardinals have substantially increased their level of offense at the shortstop position.

This is no reflection on DeJong. And frankly, what we’ve seen here lately is unsustainable. But when a key player suffers and injury and his team must scramble for help — hope for help — even a small-sample burst of offense is a fantasy come true.

Since DeJong was placed on the DL, this is what the Cardinals have gotten from the shortstop spot offensively with their combination of Munoz, Garcia and Gyorko, and I’ve included the MLB ranking at the position (when applicable) since May 18:

Batting average:  .392,  #2

OBP of .407,  #3

SLG% of .529, #5

Onbase+slugging:  .936, #5

Runs batted in:  15, #1

Park-adjusted runs created: 56 percent above average,  #5

DeJong will be out for quite a while, so there’s a lot of road to cover. But to this point, the Cardinals couldn’t have asked for more than what what they’re getting from Munoz. They couldn’t dream for more, either. They just hope that it can last. You never know what can happen when an injured regular goes off to heal. This time, in losing DeJong, the Cardinals found the real Yairo Munoz. And they’re discovering just how good he can be.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Cardinals: To Max Out His Potential, Paul DeJong Needs Better Plate Discipline