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What Does Brendan Donovan’s Promotion Mean for the Middle Infield?

It’s exciting to see Donovan make his debut, but don’t expect him to become a lineup fixture. At least, not yet.

St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Well, we have a lot to talk about when it comes to the middle infield. You probably heard already, but the St. Louis Cardinals brought Brendan Donovan to the Show on Monday afternoon, with Lars Nootbaar taking his place in Memphis.

This is a big move. And the timing of it is interesting too, considering that Paul DeJong has been given two consecutive days off to work on his swing. There are a lot of potential implications with this move, so I’ll unpack them here.

For starters, we have to look at playing time. Nootbaar wasn’t getting much playing time off the bench with Corey Dickerson on the roster, so this move appears designed in part to get him consistent at-bats. We’ll see what happens with Dickerson, but after receiving a $5 million contract in the offseason, he’s going to get a chance to prove himself. The Cardinals will give him a longer leash than 14 games.

Nootbaar could force his way back into the conversation if he hits well in Memphis and Dickerson continues to struggle. That’s not the focus of this article, though, so I’ll leave that discussion for a later date.

If Nootbaar was sent down to receive more ABs, where does that leave Donovan? You would think that he’s not being called up to sit on the bench everyday. Do I think he will become an immediate starter? No. But let’s not forget how much Oli Marmol raved about Donovan during Spring Training. Both the manager and the organization seem to regard Donovan highly and that, along with his versatility, caused me to speculate in the spring that he could make the roster out of camp.

So, I’m not exactly surprised to see him in St. Louis this early, especially considering how well he has played in the early going with Memphis. The 25-year-old has as many walks as strikeouts (8) and is slashing .298/.385/.404/.789 with a 121 wRC+ through his first 16 games.

He’s an OBP machine, a tough out at the plate, a left-handed hitter, and super versatile. This gives Marmol a lot of options, so while I don’t think he will start, I do think he’ll see the field. Otherwise, why would he be in St. Louis?

There has already been a lot of speculation that the move means Edman will go to short and Donovan will take over at second. I’m not there yet. I do think it might happen occasionally, but it won’t happen very often, if at all. At least not yet. Maybe it will when Gorman comes up or if DeJong keeps struggling and Donovan gets hot, but it’s way too soon to expect that to happen.

Rather, look for Donovan to give days off to O’Neill, Carlson, Edman, Arenado, and DeJong/Sosa. He can play first, second, short, third, left field, and right field, so I think it’s more reasonable to expect him to receive a smattering of time at each of those positions than it is to expect him to take over the starting job at second base immediately.

He is simply a more useful bench option than Nootbaar at this point since he can play the infield as well as the outfield.

Jeff Jones basically confirmed as much after the move was announced.

Don’t get carried away with the excitement of a fun prospect making his debut soon. This is not going to mark a massive shift in how the Cardinals deploy their infield. At this point, Donovan simply provides more depth than Nootbaar.

This move does leave us with four middle infielders who the Cardinals want to see on the field to varying degrees. The team has been outspoken in support of Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman is firmly entrenched as a starter. Donovan needs to play to continue his development, though, and Sosa is starting two games in a row in relief of DeJong, who is trying to get his swing right.

Neither Sosa nor DeJong has looked great at the plate so far, but it’s still early in the year. If the Cardinals are anything, they are a team that doesn’t make hasty moves during the season. Don’t expect DeJong to move to the bench this early, though I do think that the promotion of Donovan may add a bit of pressure to him, especially if Donovan comes out hot.

The middle infield is pretty murky right now, to be honest. Edman is a sure bet as a starter but DeJong is only a starter by virtue of being called the starter all offseason. Neither he nor Sosa have done anything yet to prove that they should be starting the rest of the season.

For DeJong, it hasn’t all been negative. The shortstop actually has shown good plate discipline this year. Again, I’ll make the obligatory statement that it’s still early in the year and we’re looking at a small sample size, but it doesn’t seem like DeJong’s plate discipline has been the cause of his struggles so far this season.

In fact, DeJong’s 23.1% chase rate puts him in the 69th percentile. It’s over 5% below the current league average and over 4% below his career average. He has actually done a great job of not swinging at balls. Surprisingly, this chase rate is even lower on breaking balls. DeJong has chased just 13% of the breaking pitches thrown against him and just 9.7% of sliders.

Thus, the problem for DeJong is simply making contact. Despite swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, DeJong has a 15th percentile whiff rate of 32.9%. This would be a career high for him if it held over the course of the season, so it’s not surprising that he has a strikeout rate over 35%.

Even worse for DeJong is that when he makes contact, it isn’t quality contact. His average exit velocity is under 87 mph and even though he has an 84th percentile barrel rate, he also has a 0% rate of solid contact. It’s been all or nothing so far for DeJong. It’s either a barrel or it’s not hit super well, and DeJong only has three barrels on the year.

So, even though there’s a positive (better plate discipline), it’s outweighed by his inability to make consistent, and good, contact.

It’s a bit early to go all doom and gloom on DeJong. This could just be a 14-game slump at the beginning at the season. The problem for him is that a slump at the beginning of the year is just seen as a continuation of his struggles while a slump for someone like Goldschmidt is just seen as a blip.

Edmundo Sosa has even fewer plate appearances than DeJong so it’s basically pointless to try to analyze anything, though he didn’t look great last night against Max Scherzer and the Mets as he finished the game with a golden sombrero.

I’m sure both of these players will be given more chances at shortstop in the coming weeks, despite their struggles, than either Edman or Donovan, with DeJong probably seeing the most time.

So, what does Brendan Donovan’s promotion mean for the middle infield? In the short term, not much. He’ll give players days off and fill in here and there but don’t expect him to become a lineup fixture all of a sudden. In the long term, the answer to this question is still unclear. As a lefty hitter with a high average and OBP in the minors, he presents a different kind of option to DeJong and Sosa. If the struggles continue, then who knows? Maybe Donovan does earn a bigger role, especially against right-handed pitchers.

Honestly, I’m still doubtful because I think at that point the Cardinals would just bring up Gorman and hand him the keys to second base. If Gorman needs more time then Donovan may get a chance to establish himself, but I’m not expecting that. He’ll need all of his gloves if he wants to see the field, because I’m expecting him to bounce around from position to position as needed.

Eventually, though, something has to give. This is purely specualtion but it does feel almost inevitable that Edman and Gorman share the middle infield before the end of the year. The Cardinals seem ready to give every chance to DeJong to hold onto a starting role, but when it comes down to it, Gorman is going to be a starter. He’s simply too good of a prospect to come up and sit the bench. At that point, who will play shortstop? Basically, do the Cardinals value DeJong over Edman? It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Unless Paul DeJong becomes a capable hitter, his time as a starter is on the clock. Donovan is an interesting little wrinkle because he feels like a player who could impress and earn himself more playing time. I don’t think he’ll do enough to keep Gorman in Triple-A, but I could see Donovan becoming a kind of 2019/2020 Edman-lite in the sense that he could see time everywhere instead of pushing for a starting job at one spot.

He could definitely fit the Ben Zobrist kind of mold long-term.

For this all to happen, Donovan, and eventually Gorman, would need to hit the ground running at the major league level. That’s never guaranteed, but Donovan does seem to have the profile of a player who won’t be overmatched at the major league level since he makes a ton of contact and draws a lot of walks. He has gotten rave reviews for his approach to the game and to hitting, so there may be an adjustment period but I don’t think he will fall flat on his face.

Nothing is guaranteed at this point, except for the fact that Paul DeJong remains the starter at short. At the very least, the addition of Donovan to the roster adds some intrigue to the infield and gives us something to watch.

Based on the team’s comments following the move (thanks to Jeff Jones for being on top of it), Donovan should essentially be seen as a replacement for Nootbaar, at least in the short-term. He’s a better fit for the roster because he’s more versatile and that should lead to him seeing the field more than Nootbaar did.

Nobody would mistake Nootbaar for a starter, though, so don’t expect that from Donovan. Rather, be excited to see an promising homegrown prospect make his Major League debut, but realize that any increase in playing time will need to be earned by strong performances and accompanied by continued struggles and shortened patience toward the current shortstop options.

I do want to again mention that Marmol raved about Donovan in camp, and that may be a sign that he will be given a decent amount of chances on the field. It already sounds like Donovan will at least be given some starts at first and third base in relief of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but beyond that it’s unclear. He gives Marmol a lot of options, though, so I’m excited to see how he is used.