Yesterday, in the 4th inning of a 2-0 game, Paul DeJong hit a 2-run homer to put the Memphis Redbirds up 4-0. A random home run in a AAA game is not normally a noteworthy event. What made it noteworthy was that it was DeJong’s 9th home run in the last 12 games. After struggling mightily immediately after his demotion, DeJong seems to have found his stroke. DeJong is quickly making the middle infield situation in St. Louis exceptionally awkward.
If a struggling MLB player is demoted - a player with over 2,000 MLB plate appearances - and he finds his hitting stroke in AAA, the answer would be simple enough normally. The demotion did the trick, he can become an MLB player again. Except things are significantly more complicated than that.
When Paul DeJong was demoted on May 9th, he was demoted then for a reason. DeJong came into the season with 4.127 years of service time, which means 4 years, and 127 days. On May 9th, he had 4.160 years of service time. Or something very close to it. While there are 187 days in the regular season, once a player reaches 172 days of service, it counts as a. year. Thus, DeJong is 12 days away from reaching 5 years. That is notable, because when a player reaches 5 years of service time, they can no longer be sent to the minor leagues. You need to designate that player for assignment in order to send them to the minors. By sending him down on May 9th, they burned one of his options before he reached that date.
In other words, when they call him back up, they better be damn sure they’re not going to want to send him back to the minors again. That is complicating factor #1.
Complicating factor #2 is that.... they don’t need him. At least theoretically. It’s difficult to say whether or not Nolan Gorman is better than him at this early stage, but it is at the very least advantageous to give the 22-year-old MLB reps for his future development. The same goes for 25-year-old Brendan Donovan, who less needs MLB reps for development and more because he’s walking more than he’s striking out and has a 141 wRC+. And of course Tommy Edman, who already has 3 fWAR.
Whether or not you think DeJong is better than any of these guys - and there might be a guy on an island who has missed the last two years who still thinks that - if they’re even close to equal, it’s difficult to argue that the young guys shouldn’t be getting the plate appearances over DeJong.
Complicating factor #3 is DeJong’s contract. Whether you like or not, the Cardinals are a team that is going to give a guy with a 2 year, $15 million contract and two option years every opportunity to succeed before cutting bait. They will not release him from that contract until the very last minute.
Which directly correlates to complicating factor #4: DeJong still has value. He might not have trade value, but he has value. I’m pretty sure the 2022 version of DeJong is not a replacement player. In fact, especially with his recent binge of homers, he might even have starting caliber MLB value. He was a 1.4 fWAR player last year in 402 PAs with a .216 BABIP. That’s probably an average player with a tiny bit more luck. Hell, it’s almost an average player with that luck. If we didn’t have Donovan and Gorman in front of him, I’d be happy to call up DeJong and make him prove he has something left.
Put together complicating factors #3 and #4, and you have the Cardinals preferring strongly to trade DeJong. DeJong has value of some sort and straight up releasing a guy like that is not the Cardinals’ MO. But he’s also clearly on the outside looking in at this point. There’s essentially no way the Cardinals can trade DeJong if he stays in the minors. He needs to re-prove he can hit at the MLB level.
What do you do with a 2.3 WAR/600 PAs (his career average) player who you want to trade but can’t really find plate appearances for? There’s no real solution. I can only think of two situations where DeJong can get his job back. Or least get promoted to the majors and get a regular amount of PAs, if not as the full-time starter. An injury or demoting Nolan Gorman.
The latter is maybe not as unrealistic as you think. I mentioned above that Donovan had a 141 wRC+ and I did not mention Gorman’s 134 wRC+. There’s kind of a reason for that. Gorman’s numbers come with some huge red flags. He’s striking out 33.8% of the time, which is to be expected given his AAA K numbers. He is swinging and missing a ridiculous amount of the time. His swinging strike percentage was 17.9% before yesterday’s game. He swung and miss at 4 of his 11 swings yesterday, so it’s higher now. He has the third worst rate in baseball.
In Gorman’s last 34 PAs, he has a 40% strikeout rate and 2.9% BB rate. This is not a reason to panic. He’s 22. He’s adjusting. But it’s just not that difficult to see him not being able to sustain a 134 wRC+ if he doesn’t adjust quickly enough. And in that situation, were his overall line to fall below average, I could see DeJong getting called up. Short of an injury, that’s the only thing I can imagine.
And you may be wondering: what about Edmundo Sosa? He has a 46 wRC+ on the season, you can jettison him for DeJong. Well for starters, if your goal is to rebuild his value so you can trade him, he is not rebuilding that value by taking Sosa’s role. For one thing, DeJong has shown reverse splits in his career. He has a career 87 wRC+ against LHP. And I’m not one to believe in reverse splits usually - Sosa has been way better against RHP in his short MLB career but I am 100% not buying it because it seems entirely BABIP driven - but DeJong’s numbers have signs they’re legit. His K% against RHP is 24.3% and against LHP it’s 29.5%. He does walk more against LHP, but he also has less power and a slightly lower BABIP. He needs to play against RHP if he’s called up - that’s not happening unless he’s trading places with Gorman.
Do you guys remember the story of Rusney Castilllo? Let me refresh you. Castillo signed a seven year, $72 million deal with the Boston Red Sox out of Cuba in 2014. He signed late, so he only appeared in 10 games in 2014. In 2015, he struggled so badly that he was sent down to AAA. When he struggled in AAA in 2016, the Red Sox outrighted him off the 40 man to save money. He was stuck in AAA limbo for years because his contract did not count against the luxury tax if he wasn’t on the 40 man. I don’t expect the same thing to happen here - the Red Sox only saved money because they were over the limit which the Cardinals don’t approach. Also I think that loophole was fixed. But I was reminded of him when there’s a possibility DeJong could hit at the AAA level and just stay in AAA - but because he’s completely blocked.
I’d love to finish this article with a solution, but I can’t see one. Before yesterday’s game, DeJong had a 103 wRC+ in AAA - it’s definitely a decent amount higher after a 2-3 game with a HR. Either DeJong needs to find his way to the majors, he needs to wRC+ 150 in AAA and Mozeliak needs to work his magic on the trade market somehow, or they just keep him down until his contract runs out. The latter is just such a non-Cardinals move that they’re going to find a way to get him back in the MLB, it’s just a matter of how long they’ll give him the chance and if they’ll trade him - if they can.