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A “Competitive Core”, “What Ifs” and Paul DeJong

If the Cardinals want to project a contending, 90-win roster, they need more production from their core. That’s where Paul DeJong comes in.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Here’s an interesting question to consider: What player can make the most difference in the Cardinals’ season by performing as they are expected to perform?

The point of this question is to eliminate, for now, the extremes on the Cardinals’ roster. Take Alex Reyes. Yes, if Reyes earns a spot in the rotation in spring, pitches like his hair is on fire, and wins the Cy Young, he’ll make a huge impact on the team’s win totals. That’s not expected, though. Nor is it remotely likely.

That’s why I’m focusing on the expected production from the club’s core. That value – expected core production – provides the baseline that will likely determine the club’s competitiveness.

First, let’s define “competitiveness”. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 90 wins are the baseline projection for a team to contend for a typical division crown in a typical season. To project a 90-win baseline, a team’s roster has to have a relatively high level of expected production from “core” players. Proven, consistent production – a team’s core – projects a lot better than unproven or inconsistent production.

Frequently, 90 wins to claim a division crown isn’t enough. That’s where the rest of the roster – these “what if” type players come into play. Championship-caliber teams are built around a highly competitive and consistent core supplemented by a secondary cast of talented (often young) players, whose projected outcomes are more variable.

Do the Cardinals fit this model? Do they have a competitive core that’s supplemented with variable talent?

Yes and no. The Cardinals do have a significant number of players in the “what if” category. What they lack is projected core production. This is well illustrated by the ridiculous range of win totals that exists in currently available projection systems.

ZiPS has the club winning 85-87 games, as usual. Steamer – who has some issues in its system because of the shortened 2020 year – is placing the club in the 78 win range. That’s an 8-10 win swing.

You probably have your own opinion on where the Cardinals actual sit in that range, but the reality is that the Cardinals need more core production if they are going to project as a legitimate contender in the NL.

With that in mind, let’s look at the current 26-man roster, try to place players in the categories described above, and see where the Cardinals might be able to squeeze out some extra wins.

Core Players (9): Flaherty, DeJong, Goldschmidt, Kim, Bader, Mikolas, Gallegos, Miller, Hicks.

What If’s (10): Carlson, Edman, Martinez, Carpenter, Gomber, O’Neill, Knizner, Reyes, Helsley, Cabrera

Low-Impact (7): Fowler, Heineman, Sosa, Webb, Ponce, Whitely, etc.

Debate away! For core players, I tried to place producers in relatively set roles who will account for the Cardinals’ competitive baseline in the offense, rotation, and bullpen. My what-ifs are players with significant swing, either through unknown performance or unknown role (which will be defined by performance.) Then there is the rest of the roster, who aren’t likely to provide any swings to the club’s win record regardless of the role they fill.

Let’s take the list I have above, focus on the core group, and return to the original question: What player can make the most difference in the Cardinals’ season by performing as they are expected to perform?

Flaherty would be a good answer. The club has ace-level expectations from Flaherty. He also seems very likely to meet those expectations. Disregarding his start-and-stop 2020 season, Flaherty has consistently been excellent and ZiPS believes that will continue. With Flaherty, expectations, and actual performance align pretty well; unless he does something remarkable or historic, it’s hard to see how he could elevate his performance enough to significantly raise the club’s competitive bar.

The same can probably be said of Paul Goldschmidt. Team expectations exceed what the computers are offering for him, so there is some gap that he can fill. Still, at his age, and as a first baseman, his performance is somewhat capped. He’s not likely to suddenly be better than he’s been historically.

That brings us to Paul DeJong. DeJong has the right combination of high expectations, a high floor of projected production, and some untapped upside that could legitimately shift the club’s outlook. If he performs as the club expects, he could really move the needle.

One of the reasons this is true is because DeJong still hasn’t had a season where his expected offense, defense, and health have lined up.

Take his rookie season in 2017. Here the Cardinals saw what DeJong was capable of on offense. He batted .285/.325/.532 with a .359 wOBA. That’s elite production from a shortstop and set the bar of expectations for DeJong’s future very high.

In 2018 health was the problem. DeJong improved his BB and K rates and, over the first half, showed that his rookie performance was no fluke. Then he broke his hand. When he returned, he wasn’t the same hitter – a common problem after hand injuries. He ended up with just 490 PA’s over 115 games.

2019 was his defense year. Finally comfortable at short, DeJong had 26 DRS and an 11.4 UZR. OAA loved him, too. He was one of the best defenders in the league. His offense was there for much of the season, too. He improved his BB and K rates again. His power returned after the hand injury. But with no one else on the roster to cover for him, Shildt played DeJong in 159 games. That grind wore him out and his BABIP and hard-hit% dropped dramatically in the second half, pulling his overall stats down.

Then there was 2020, where DeJong did pretty much everything he had been doing while struggling to recover from COVID, which caused persistent fatigue and sapped his strength.

While DeJong hasn’t yet put everything about his game together, there have been significant stretches of play each season where DeJong displayed a high-level overall production. ZiPS and Steamer pick up on this:

2021 ZiPS Projections: .245/.316/.431, +7 defense
2021 Steamer Projections: .249/.326/.455, +8 defense

Those stats might not look impressive, but they result in what would be DeJong’s best overall offensive season since his rookie year. And that’s just at DeJong’s 50th percentile projection.

The projections also credit DeJong for his improving defense, which is encouraging, while still cutting his value there significantly. (Computers love to regress high-level defenders since there is typically a great deal of variance in year-to-year defensive performance.)

Add that all up and DeJong projects to be the most productive offensive player on the roster in 2021.

Yet, even if he hits those 50th percentile computer projections, I think most fans and the club would still be disappointed in his performance. Expectations for DeJong are simply higher than a 750’ish OPS and good-not-great defense. DeJong can and probably should be even better than the projections suggest.

When I dug through DeJong’s split stats – looking half a season at the time – I kept seeing wRC+ numbers in the 108-120 range in his “healthy and not exhausted” stretches. Steamer’s 50th percentile projection has him at the bottom end of that – 105. ZiPS would be a hair lower if they offered wRC+.

What happens if DeJong exceeds his 50th percentile projections and provides his “healthy and not exhausted” production for a full season?

Trevor Story is a name that shows up a lot when making comps for DeJong. He has a similar offensive and defensive profile. In 2018 and 2019, Story had wRC+’s of 128 and 121. Those came with similar BB and K rates to DeJong, but with a Coors Field bump in both ISO and BABIP. At Baseball Savant, Story has a .78 correlation to DeJong in terms of “affinity” (similarity in batted ball type).

If you want to know what DeJong could be if he had a season where he put his health, offense, and defense together, Trevor Story is a good place to look.

In ’18 and ’19, Story had 5.1 and 5.8 fWAR respectively. In ’20 that wRC+ dropped to 117 and his WAR was 2.5; if we project that out to 650 PA’s, that’s a 6.3 WAR.

Interesting, right? Story is probably a better hitter than DeJong, but it’s easy to see how quickly a power-hitting shortstop with upper-level defense can slide into the 5 WAR range.

Let’s put all this together in easy to manage statements:

1. If DeJong continues to perform defensive the way he has with no changes to his offensive production, he will outpace his computer projections just based on their typical regressions. Maintaining his current defensive production is the easiest way for him to add .5-1.0 wins to the club’s competitive core.

2. If DeJong can maintain his defensive production while avoiding the injury and exhaustion that have marked his recent seasons (105-110 wRC+) with no other bump in his peformance, he would add 1.0-1.5 wins over projections in offense and defense.

That alone would make DeJong into a 4.3-4.8 WAR player.

Now, let’s get greedy.

3. If DeJong can maintain his defensive production, avoid injuries and exhaustion, and hits the upper-end projections that the club expects from him (110-120 wRC+), he would add 1.5-2.0 wins over projections. DeJong would be Trevor Story-lite at 4.8-5.3 WAR.

Is #3 possible? It’s probably more likely than Alex Reyes winning a Cy Young next year.

That’s why DeJong is the most pivotal player among the Cardinals core. If he can put his game together, stay healthy, and meet his already high expectations, the club has the most to gain from him.

Let’s hope it happens! 2021 is a year for optimism.