Questions abound for the St. Louis Cardinals headed into the 2018 season.
Many a fan and analyst alike have wondered about the team’s starting rotation and bullpen, and there are even a few uncertainties in the field.
Who is the fourth outfielder? How much will Jose Martinez play? Can Tommy Pham post nearly 6 wins above replacement again? What can the Cardinals expect from a 36-year-old Adam Wainwright coming off elbow surgery? Who is this Mikolas guy, exactly? Who is the closer? Is Bud Norris really as good before a knee injury last season? How much can we expect from Alex Reyes as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery?
Even that exhausting paragraph is not an exhaustive list. And yet, there’s another question that could be just as damaging to the team that has gotten little attention this offseason or spring. What does this team do if Paul DeJong takes a step back? The second-year shortstop is likely to bat fifth in manager Mike Matheny’s lineup after leading the team in home runs in 2017. He’s to be a linchpin between the team’s best hitters in Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna and lesser offensive threats like Yadier Molina, Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong. His importance to the offense is difficult to overstate, particularly considering that the team is now wed to him through the 2023 season at a price tag of $26 million.
As anyone reading this certainly knows, at this time a year ago, conventional wisdom held that Aledmys Diaz had finally solved the Cardinals’ decade-long quandary at shortstop. No one needs reminded how that turned out. After all, DeJong’s truly impressive emergence was made possible, at least in part, by Diaz’s failure.
But there’s a cautionary tale to take note of. If someone had expressed concern over Diaz in the spring of 2017, they probably would’ve been told ‘Well, DeJong can come up!’ The 2018 Cardinals don’t have a Paul DeJong waiting in the wings. And there’s a number of reasons to at least be concerned that they might need one.
Even in his minor-league career, DeJong has had a high batting average on balls in play, likely due to his hitting the ball hard and in the air. In all but a 10-game stop at the rookie level in 2015, DeJong has had a line-drive rate of at least 17 percent in every season of his pro career. Even so, his .349 BABIP in the majors last year is bound to come down.
Much has been discussed about DeJong’s plate discipline, as well. The Illinois State product finished 2017 with a 4.7 percent walk rate and a 28 percent strikeout rate. He did improve on those skills throughout the season, posting a 7.9 percent walk rate in September and October, and cutting his K-rate from 32.6 percent in June to just over 25 percent in the final month of the season.
I believe DeJong can improve his plate discipline to the point that it won’t undermine him, but even the contact he did make in 2017 wasn’t as good as his results indicate. Using Statcast data on exit velocity and launch angles, Baseball Savant calculates expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) to determine what a hitter’s results should have been based on what he can control: How well he stung baseballs. According to Baseball Savant, DeJong deserved a much more modest .321 wOBA than the .365 mark he actually posted.
DeJong did play adequate enough defense at shortstop that if he regresses to, say, an average hitter, he can still be a very useful player overall. But the difference in the Cardinals’ 2018 lineup is tremendous based on whether DeJong posts something close to the 122 wRC+ he did last season or a league-average mark. There’s little bite beyond the cleanup spot if DeJong falls off too much.
If DeJong is just unplayable in 2018, which I doubt, the team would likely be forced to rely on one of Greg Garcia, Alex Mejia, Breyvic Valera or Yairo Munoz at the position, unless the Cardinals for some reason decide they’re enamored with J.J. Hardy or Stephen Drew. Munoz has been one of the best performers of the 2018 spring camp, and maybe he would be an adequate fill-in, but the 23-year-old has been a mixed bag at best offensively so far in his pro career. Over at Cardsblog, Jack Stephens had a good run-down on Munoz recently. The other options we largely know what to expect from: slightly above-average defense and not much of a bat.
There admittedly weren’t many good options for the Cardinals to reinforce the shortstop position this offseason, and as our own Kyle Reis has expertly detailed, there are shortstops to be excited about down the road in addition to the fill-in candidates now in-house, but count me among those who consider DeJong’s 2018 offense as a major pivot point in 2018.
Cover photo picture taken by the wonderful Kat Allen