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Why does Paul DeJong keep starting?

Since his promotion from Memphis, the infielder immediately supplanted Greg Garcia as first-choice second baseman with Kolten Wong out

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Following his comments during Spring Training that implied he would rather be traded than be part, even the primary part, of a righty-lefty platoon at second base, the collective imagination of St. Louis Cardinals fans about potentially trading Kolten Wong ran wild.

Whether this was ever a serious possibility is unknown, but while such a trade would by definition give the team less depth at the Major League level, competent replacements did seem to exist internally—either Jedd Gyorko could play at second base, as he has done for the majority of his MLB career (particularly with the San Diego Padres), while Jhonny Peralta could man third base, or Wong’s college teammate, Greg Garcia, could assume Wong’s spot in the lineup. Garcia, after all, had played well in 2016—in 257 plate appearances, he was an above-average hitter (111 wRC+ with a very impressive .393 on-base percentage, buoyed by a 14.8% walk rate.

Wong, of course, was never traded, and has played well enough in 2017 to maintain his starting role: in 157 plate appearances, he has a career-high 105 wRC+, and although his defensive statistics are a bit shakier than ideal, these metrics take far more than a quarter of a season to stabilize—it is more likely that Kolten Wong has made an offensive breakthrough than suffered a defensive collapse, but even if neither happened, he remains a competent part of the lineup whom the organization seemingly is not actively pushing out the door.

Coupled with Jedd Gyorko’s clear emergence as the best Cardinals option at third base, and a seeming hesitance to give him regular starts at shortstop, Greg Garcia was the odd man out in the Cardinals infield. But a player capable of handling multiple infield positions while serving as a competent pinch-hitting threat can have tremendous value, particularly in an era of shorter benches and deeper bullpens (a baseball-wide trend which is even more magnified in St. Louis).

There is also the obvious additional role of such a player being able to fill in at several different positions in the event of an injury, and following an injury to Kolten Wong, who has not played for the St. Louis Cardinals since May 26, playing time opened up at second base. Unsurprisingly, Greg Garcia got the start at second base on May 27—he was hitless while drawing a walk. He started again on May 28, and he hit a home run.

It was a heavy home run day for the Cardinals: in addition to Garcia, three more players hit home runs in a losing effort, but the solo shots from Garcia, Jedd Gyorko, and Tommy Pham took a back seat in the public consciousness to the pinch-hit home run from the newest member of the Cardinals, in his first MLB plate appearance—Paul DeJong.

Paul DeJong was rewarded for his impressive debut with a start the next day against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals may have been playing the hot hand (this would have been confusing, as Greg Garcia had also hit a home run the day before), but they also may have simply been playing the platoon advantage—the opposing pitcher, Rich Hill, is left-handed, while Garcia bats left-handed and DeJong bats right-handed. But DeJong played and played well, going two-for-four with a double.

The Cardinals have played every day since Paul DeJong was called up to St. Louis from Memphis. Since his pinch-hitting debut with the Cardinals against the Colorado Rockies, DeJong has started every game.

The actions of the Cardinals with regard to DeJong and Garcia imply that the organization believes that DeJong is the superior option at second base. Paul DeJong is nearly four years younger than Greg Garcia, so keeping him in the minors to get regular playing time while Kolten Wong gets the majority of starts at second base while keeping Garcia, 27 and unlikely to turn into a big-league star, in the bench role that will likely be his peak.

However, digging through DeJong’s career, it’s difficult to find much reason to believe this to be the case. DeJong has not generally been regarded as an elite prospect, and while he put up decent wRC+ marks in the minor leagues, 123 in both 2016 with AA Springfield and so far in 2017 with AAA Memphis, they are hardly so impressive that one would deem him can’t-miss.

It would be one thing if Paul DeJong were riding a hot streak during his initial run in MLB, even if it were an unsustainable run such as the one enjoyed by Magneuris Sierra. It is not prudent long-term planning to expect Sierra to maintain his 124 wRC+, as he accomplished this with a .500 BABIP and absolutely zero power (he had zero extra-base hits in MLB and hit the ball hard on just 8.3% of his batted balls), but on an instinctive level, it makes sense to play the hot hand, even if it would not actually be a good idea (side note: it wouldn’t be).

But DeJong, his accomplishments in the first 24 hours of his Major League career aside, has not been an especially productive player for the Cardinals. His wRC+ currently stands at 63—in case you are not particularly versed in wRC+, Daniel Descalso had a wRC+ in his Cardinals career of 81. While Greg Garcia is having a down season by his standards, his wRC+ for 2017 still stands at 89. By the eye test, DeJong seems fine-ish defensively, even though his (far too small of a sample size, microscopic to a point of being basically irrelevant) defensive metrics have been somewhat below average; regardless, he hasn’t shown much sign of being such a transcendent fielder that he can atone for a truly poor bat.

A platoon shared between Garcia and DeJong at second base would make sense in the interim; Garcia has been a better hitter throughout his career against righties than lefties (a 109 wRC+ vs. 76 wRC+) and himself is not such a strong defensive second baseman that he must play everyday regardless of offensive production (in a vacuum, a platoon between Garcia and Gyorko, with Gyorko otherwise playing third base, would also make sense, but this would require giving Jhonny Peralta more than a token amount of playing time, and nothing in his 2017 suggests this would be a good idea). But while DeJong has started every game since Memorial Day, Garcia has started just once—at second base, while DeJong started in place of Aledmys Diaz at shortstop.

What the Cardinals do with Paul DeJong when Kolten Wong comes off the Disabled List is an open question. The most likely scenarios seem to be either that DeJong will return to AAA or that the Cardinals will cut bait with Jhonny Peralta. If the former happens, Garcia would likely return to his role of utility infielder—he would perhaps get more playing time than before due to the struggles of Peralta, but that would be a different matter. But if DeJong and Garcia both remain on the bench, and DeJong continues to play in basically all circumstances over Garcia, it may suggest that the Cardinals think less of Greg Garcia than his career 3-4 Wins Above Replacement per 600 plate appearance track record suggests.