As the new year turned over and it began to look more and more like the Cardinals might be done acquiring new talent, much frustration was heard across CardinalsLand. “They need a closer!” “They need a starter!” “They need another impact bat!”
For my money, the biggest Wild Card in how the 2018 Cardinals perform will be the shortstop position.
Looking around the diamond, there’s a fairly good backup option at every position. Randal Grichuk’s days as a starter have passed, but he’s a perfectly acceptable 4th outfielder, and he’s probably not even that on this roster - with Jose Martinez likely splitting time between the outfield and first base. Jedd Gyorko can play 3rd or 2nd, should the need arise. Matt Carpenter can shift to 3rd if you’d like to get Martinez more PAs. Carson Kelly hasn’t shown much at the big league level yet, but he’s still a top prospect who’s likely to produce. Losing Tommy Pham in center would hurt, but you could slide Dexter Fowler back over and be no worse than you were last year, and then there’s likely Harrison Bader on the bench...
But what about shortstop?
After parting ways with Aledmys Diaz, Greg Garcia seems like your backup shorstop. Jedd Gyorko can play there in a pinch. You'd hate to see either of those guys on more than occasional fill-in duty.
Down in Memphis, you’ve (likely) got Breyvic Valera, who could handle the defense but not hit, and has spent more time at 2nd anyway. The only other option on the 40-man is Yairo Munoz, one of the fruits of the Stephen Piscotty trade. I’m no Yairo Munoz expert, but the fact the A’s were moving him around multiple positions last year suggests “full-time shortstop” may not be on his future resume.
It’s not like teams typically have future All-Stars backing up each position, but it’s interesting that the Cardinals thinnest backup core also comes behind the player whose 2018 is probably the most uncertain.
Much of that uncertainty is simply the fact that Paul DeJong has less track record than anybody else. But DeJong’s specific profile is also one that leaves a lot of room for variability.
As I and others have written, offensively, DeJong looks a lot like Grichuk 2.0. Last year, the BABIP Gods were kind to him, his baseball card stats looked great, and he finished 2nd in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
But for those of us who look under the hood, there were reasons for concern - most notably the high strikeout rate and extremely low walk rate. When it comes to predicting future production, my new crush is xwOBA, which uses Statcast batted ball data to strip away any effects of defense or ballpark on batted ball luck, and simply weight the value of a hitter’s batted balls (plus strikeouts, walks, etc.).
DeJong’s 2017 xwOBA was .323. That was only 9th best on the Cardinals, and basically equivalent to league average for a position player (though the average for shortstops was .309). It’s also well above the .359 wOBA DeJong posted in his rookie season.
ZiPS buys into those underlying numbers more than the luck-aided production, projecting DeJong for a .321 wOBA this season and the lowest WAR among Cardinals starters.
So what should the Cardinals do? Probably nothing.
DeJong’s 2017 looked a lot like Grichuk’s 2015, and even if there are reasons for concern in the underlying numbers, it would be hard to argue he has earned anything less than a starting spot... same as it was with Grichuk.
Grichuk’s variability may have been worth riding out if he could have stuck in center field. DeJong looks to be probably a little below average defensively, but that’s probably good enough, and his defensive value as even just “guy who stands at shortstop” puts him out in front of the Grichuk comp.
Yes, there’s uncertainty with a player whose track record is as short as DeJong’s, but that includes upside as well. DeJong announced his presence with authority and performed well above what anyone expected, so it’s likely we’ve seen his upside. But now more than ever, players are making adjustments and unexpected gains, and DeJong is an actual scientist.
There’s a range of potential outcomes with any player, and a probability as to where they land in that range. DeJong’s range of potential outcomes is pretty wide: From potential All-Star all the way down to starting shortstop for your Memphis Redbirds. We saw another Cardinals rookie shortstop make that entire journey just last season.
Regression is very likely. Collapse - while not likely - is a distinct possibility.
The Cardinals don’t look to have much of an in-house backup plan in the event that DeJong collapses, although I would have said the same thing about Diaz last season. There’s probably not much to be gained by going out now and trying to sign or trade for some journeyman backup. There’s a lot of reason to believe that even with regression, Paul DeJong can be a league average, cost-controlled shortstop for several years to come.
But I hope that in some drawer in the Cardinals front office, there is an envelope labeled “Paul DeJong backup plan.”