Last year’s shortstop class was packed with stars. Trea Turner. Carlos Correa. Xander Bogaerts. Dansby Swanson. All of those players inked massive deals with Swanson earning a measly $177 million over the life of his 7-year contract while Trea Turner topped the market with a $300 million pact over an 11 year period.
The other two players fell somewhere in between with Bogaerts also getting 11 years but coming up a bit short of $300 million, landing right at $280 million, while Correa had the shortest deal (6 years) but the highest AAV at just over $33 million per year, giving him $200 million over the life of his deal.
That’s a lot of money. But those are also really good players so it made sense that many wanted the St. Louis Cardinals in the thick of the market. They weren’t (which shouldn’t have surprised anyone), and opted instead to stick with Tommy Edman at short. Or so we all thought. But now it turns out that Paul DeJong is the every day shortstop again.
Baseball is a funny game, isn’t it?
It’s possible that DeJong comes back to earth and finds himself back on the bench, but right now he’s doing everything right. His defense is characteristically strong. His bat is rejuvenated and that may even be the wrong word since his current numbers are significantly higher than his numbers in even his best seasons.
It’s early, and too early to draw conclusions, but with DeJong on a tear we have a great opportunity to compare the Cardinals production at shortstop with the production of the players signed to those massive contracts.
Let’s start with a little game of “Guess the Player”. Your options are Turner, Correa, Bogaerts, Swanson, and DeJong.
Player 1 - 120 wRC+, 4 HR, 14.1 BB%, 21.8 K%, 6 DRS, 5 OAA
Player 2 - 117 wRC+, 6 HR, 12.1 BB%, 16.1 K%, 2 DRS, 7 OAA
Player 3 - 170 wRC+, 8 HR, 8.6 BB%, 28.0 K%, 2 DRS, 2 OAA
Player 4 - 85 wRC+, 4 HR, 5.9 BB%, 27.1 K%, -3 DRS, 1 OAA
Player 5 - 90 wRC+, 6 HR, 11.7 BB%, 23.4 K%, 0 DRS, 1 OAA
I sorted these players from most fWAR to least. Now, take a moment to guess.
Player 1, with 1.9 fWAR, is Dansby Swanson, the player who signed the smallest contract of the big four free agent shortstops. Player 2, also with 1.9 fWAR, is Xander Bogaerts.
Player 3 is Paul DeJong. He has 1.3 fWAR.
Players 4 and 5 are Trea Turner (0.7 fWAR) and Carlos Correa (0.3 fWAR), respectively.
Here’s the thing about DeJong, though. He’s only taken 93 plate appearances this year. That’s less than half the plate appearances of each of the other 4 players. Give DeJong the 206 plate appearances that Dansby Swanson has had and he’s on pace for 2.9 fWAR.
I should mention that I highly doubt he can keep up this extraordinary pace for over 200 PAs, but it’s crazy to consider that a player that many had written off heading into this year has been better than players that signed for around $200 to $300 million in the winter. Heck, it’s even crazy to consider that DeJong has been better than the player the Cardinals were supposed to be starting at short.
In my article last week in which I discussed DeJong and Andrew Knizner, I included a poll to get opinions on whether each player was having a breakout (or in DeJong’s case, a re-breakout) or a hot streak,
The results of the Knizner poll were clear. People overwhelmingly thought he was simply on a hot streak as only 21% of voters selected “Breakout”. The results for DeJong were much closer as 49% of people sided with “Breakout” while 51% sided with “Hot Streak”.
The confidence in DeJong surprised me a bit but as he plays more games, the confidence in his becomes more and more well-founded. Even a 2-for-19 stretch didn’t sink him as he simply responded with 4 hits and 2 home runs in his next 2 games to snap the skid.
His recovery from last year (and the past few years) is simply incredible. In fact, in the last 3 seasons prior to this one, DeJong combined for 1.8 fWAR. At 1.3 fWAR and with the way he’s playing right now, there’s a chance that he could top that total by the All-Star break.
The shortstop’s resurgence is one of the most exciting parts about the team right now which is why I can’t stop writing about him. But one thing that has stuck out to me is how Oli Marmol has handled the lineup considering DeJong’s success.
The manager hasn’t shied away from giving DeJong all the playing time that he can handle and that has disrupted the other members of the team, who were likely expecting to have more concrete roles at specific positions.
Take Tommy Edman for example, who was widely expected to be the everyday shortstop this year. He has started 25 games at short but he’s also started 12 at second base and has more recently moved into an outfield role to accommodate for DeJong and Nolan Gorman becoming indispensable parts of the lineup.
And then there’s Brendan Donovan. He was expected to start quite a few games at second base while rotating a bit with Gorman and he has done that, starting 18 games at the position. But he’s done a whole lot more too, starting 5 games at first, 1 at third, 1 at short, 8 in left field, and 2 in right field.
Even Gorman has played some third base this year after switching away from the position in the minors.
DeJong has earned every single inning of playing time that he’s received but it’s a whole lot easier to get him time on the field when the presumed starters up the middle can also play other spots.
The versatility amongst the Cardinals infielders is a major attribute for a team that helps Marmol get the most out of the roster. And, not only that, but the infielders’ ability to cover in the outfield has been a boost to an outfield that has been bitten by injuries.
With Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson injured and Jordan Walker in Triple-A, only Lars Nootbaar is left from the group of 4 outfielders expected to get most of the starts this year. But that’s been okay for the most part as Tommy Edman and his 125 wRC+ bat need a place to play and his glove fits in just fine in the outfield.
And even though Brendan Donovan has struggled a bit at the plate, his glove has actually been better in the outfield, according to DRS and OAA. I will admit that we’re dealing with small sample sizes here but In 160 innings at second base, Donovan has compiled -4 DRS and 0 OAA while 93 outfield innings, he’s put up exactly 0 DRS and 0 OAA.
Which position he has been better at is a matter of which stat you trust more and what the eye test tells you, but, at the very least, I think it’s a fair statement to say that Donovan hasn’t been worse in the outfield. If he could get his bat back to where it was last year, he would truly be an asset out there.
It’s funny to be talking about Edman and Donovan playing the outfield, though, after all the talk of how good and how deep the Cardinals outfield was heading into the season and it’s honestly hilarious to see a lineup card like the one we saw on Monday.
Edman, Mercado, Yepez is not an outfield alignment I ever expected to see https://t.co/oNCZ6I7GJm— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) May 22, 2023
Edman playing right field isn’t even the weirdest part of that lineup card. To me, it’s the outfield alignment as a whole.
And that’s my whole point. DeJong has been mashing. He will be the shortstop for the forseeable future and maybe even the rest of the season if he can keep hitting. And his double play partner may very well be Nolan Gorman for a good long while because, with the way Gorman has been hitting and with the drastic improvement he’s made defensively, it makes sense to see if he can be an every day player in the field as well as in the lineup.
That means displacing a nearly 6-win player last year (Edman) and a talented second year player (Donovan). That’s okay because both are versatile enough to play elsewhere and that means that we should get used to seeing some weird defensive alignments. But it’s only weird if it doesn’t work and Edman and Donovan work just about anywhere while DeJong and Gorman keep pacing the offense.
So, while Gorman and DeJong are getting a lot of the credit (and deservingly so) for the success of the team, it’s important to remember that the versatility of players like Edman and Donovan deserve a ton of credit too.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a splendid Tuesday.