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Breaking Transaction Update 5/10/22: Paul DeJong Optioned to Memphis, Kramer Robertson Selected

MLB: 2022 St. Louis Media Day USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cards announced the following transaction in advance of tonight’s game with the Orioles:

5/10/22: Optioned SS Paul DeJong to AAA Memphis. Selected the contract of Kramer Robertson from AAA Memphis. 40-man roster at 38.

This move is surely a surprise to Cardinal fans, unless of course you read VEB and have at least lurked in the comments the past couple of days. DeJong has slashed .130/.209/.208 in 86 trips to the plate so far this season. He has struck out about 30% of the time without the power to show for it. Fangraphs gives him a wRC+ of 30 and a negative WAR. Somehow Baseball Prospectus gives him a 78 DRC+, together with 0.5 WARP, which BP lists as fourth on the club behind only Tommy Edman, Nolan Arenado and Harrison Bader! Defensive runs saved likes his defense at +4, and so does the FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) at 2.6. Statcast’s Outs Above Average, in my judgment the best infield defensive metric lists him at a -1 fielder, but manager Oli Marmol liked DeJong’s defense so much that he said this to the media before today:

Right now, DeJong playing short is my call to win because of what he’s doing on the other side of the baseball. The middle of your field you want to be strong defensively, and if the rest of the lineup is doing their job you can get away with a strong defensive shortstop with some upside on the hitting that’s not there yet.

Clearly this move was made because of DeJong’s offense, which has declined rapidly since his breakout rookie season in 2017, when he slugged .532 with a 123 wRC+. Since the 2019 season, a campaign in which he hit 30 homers, but still graded out as just above average offensively according to Fangraphs, DeJong has slashed .202/.284/.356 with a 79 wRC+ in 662 trips to the plate. This season, he just looks lost. Part of the issue is he’s running an unsustainable .173 BABIP, which is obviously unlucky. But that’s not the whole story. When you take a peek under the hood, there’s a few metrics that stand out.

Before this season, DeJong would make contact with over 80% of the pitches thrown in the zone. Until this season, his Z-Contact% according to Fangraphs ranged from 81.9 to 87.9% across his career. This season, he’s only connecting with 72.6% of those pitches. The same metric listed by Statcast is a little off from those numbers, but very similar. Meanwhile, he’s making contact with 62.3% of pitches outside the zone, which is a career high. He’s getting under the ball (defined by Statcast as a launch angle of between 40 and 90 degrees) 45.3% of the time compared to a league average of 24.4%, which has contributed to his career-high infield fly ball rate. He’s whiffed on 50% of sliders, which means he’s missed every other time he’s swung at one. Even if you grant that he’s had some bad luck with his xWOBA exceeding his wOBA by 28 points, his .226 xWOBA and .261 xWOBACON are both in the bottom 1% of the league. Add it all up, and you see a hitter who’s late, getting under the ball, not taking advantage of pitcher mistakes, missing a lot in the zone and helping the opposing pitchers out by making more contact with bad pitches.

One may wonder why the Cards made this move now. Going into the season, DeJong had 4 years and 127 days of major league service time. One year of major league service time equals 172 days, and although the season, including off-days, is longer than that, a player can only get 172 days of major league service in any one season, at which point he is credited with one year of service. The regular season has lasted 33 days before today, which put DeJong at 4 years and 160 days of service. Twelve more days and he would have had five years of major league service, at which point he could not be sent to the minor leagues, whether by optional or outright assignment, without his permission. The club would have had to make the move by May 20th, or it would have been too late. DeJong has never been optioned before, and thus technically has all three minor league options left. There used to be a special type of waivers called optional assignment waivers that had to be secured if a club wanted to option a player to the minor leagues after a certain time had passed from the player’s first ever addition to the 25-man roster, but that type of waivers was abolished with the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Edmundo Sosa, who took major league playing time from DeJong last season, started a rehab assignment with AA Springfield today that is scheduled to last two games. He must have passed the COVID-19 protocols to return to the major league club, or he would not have been allowed to potentially infect the Springfield squad. The Cards must have felt like they wanted to get him a couple of games under his belt before returning to major league action. He could rejoin the Cards as quick as this Thursday. Sosa’s near-readiness, combined with the fact that the Cards are playing a poor Baltimore club, might have led the Cards’ front office to believe that the move was appropriate today because they could use stop-gap options for a couple of days.

To take DeJong’s place on the roster, the Cards selected the contract of infielder Kramer Robertson from AAA Memphis. To be clear, this was not a selection as a COVID-19 injury replacement that would allow him to be removed from the 40-man roster without waivers. He did not directly replace a player who went on the COVID-19 Related IL. Robertson was drafted by the Cards in the 4th round of the 2017 draft out of LSU, but because of the Dexter Fowler signing and the hacking scandal, that was the club’s 2nd highest pick that year (their first pick was Scott Hurst in the 3rd round). After finishing that season in Peoria, he was promoted to Palm Beach for 2018, and then AA Springfield to start 2019. Robertson was promoted to AAA Memphis for one three-week stretch in May of 2019 when Max Schrock got hurt. He then spent another two months that club, starting at a point when Tommy Edman was elevated to the major league roster, and ending at a point when Dylan Carlson was promoted to Memphis from Springfield. He’s been with Memphis ever since, with this year his third spin at that level. This is his age-27 season.

Robertson’s offense has always been driven by his batting eye. Despite his speed, he’s posted below-average BABIPs, and he’s never been known for his power, despite bopping 11 homers each of the past two years. So far this season over 100 trips to the plate, he has slashed .225/.380/.400 with a career-high 16% walk rate and career-high 23% strikeout rate. In 775 career plate appearances at AAA, he has posted a .245/.362/.402 slash line. Robertson was a shortstop in college, but was not thought to have the arm strength to stay there. He played as a full-time shortstop in both 2017 and 2018. In 2019, he ventured into 2nd and 3rd base, but still played short a majority of the time. Since then, he’s played more of the other two positions, while Evan Mendoza has received the lion’s share of the shortstop time. I haven’t watched Robertson extensively at Memphis (and MiLB.TV is definitely not the most reliable way to watch defense especially), but I have seen him make very flashy plays. For what it is worth, Baseball Prospectus has given him negative marks for every season since 2018, and really didn’t like his defense last season.

Because the Cards care about defense so much, Robertson started tonight at short, right? Wrong. That would be Brendan Donovan, who was primarily a third baseman and outfielder in college, and has 25 total games at short under his belt—14 in his last year of college and 11 starts for AAA Memphis last season. Maybe they didn’t want to put Robertson in the lineup tonight after the struggles he had last night and this morning getting to the park. While I agree with leaving Tommy Edman at second base, I’m not looking forward to watching Donovan play shortstop with a groundball staff. I would expect you will see Robertson at short tomorrow, and then Sosa to come off of the COVID-19 Related IL on Thursday to be the regular shortstop for a while. Oli Marmol told the media that he had talked with Edman about the possibility of moving over to short, and that Edman has taken pre-game grounders there. I interpret this to mean that when Sosa gets back, he will have the job, unless he continues to strike out almost half the time, at which point, the club will think more seriously about Nolan Gorman.