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Is Cardinals rookie Paul DeJong for real?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 20: St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Paul DeJong (11) ready at the plate during the Major League Baseball game between the St Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies on June 20, 2017 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia PA. (Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

Paul DeJong has taken St. Louis by surprise this season, coming up to make his big-league debut and fighting his way into a regular spot in the starting lineup. He has been on a tear at the plate the last few weeks, which may have helped save the Cardinals from having to decide between buying and selling at the trade deadline.

Since June 26, DeJong has gone 20-for-51 with four home runs, posting an absurd slash line of .392/.418/.745. That brings his total line in the major leagues to .313/.331/.595, with nine home runs in 136 plate appearances.

How much of that is what DeJong truly is?

For this, we take a trip back to 2015. It was just mere weeks after DeJong was drafted, with the Cardinals selecting him in the fourth round of the June amateur draft out of Illinois State University. After a brief stint in Rookie Ball, St. Louis sent DeJong to Single-A with the Peoria Chiefs. That was convenient and comfortable for DeJong, who played his college ball less than 40 miles from Dozer Park in Peoria, Ill.

It was there that I spoke with DeJong, saw him play, and formed my first opinions on him as a future big-leaguer. As a 21-year-old prospect, the Cardinals had settled with DeJong at third base despite his ability to play all over the infield. It was clear, however, the his arm wouldn’t be strong enough to make playing third on an everyday basis a possibility. At Double-A in 2016, the Cards began to give him more time at shortstop – where the arm plays slightly better, but still isn’t natural with his limited range – and second base.

Overall defensively, second base is probably his best position. DeJong currently gets the most time at shortstop because of the demotion of the struggling Aledmys Diaz, and playing there in the short term likely won’t be a problem. As he ages, however, keeping him on the left side of the diamond will become an issue.

But defense isn’t what carried him to the majors, even if his versatility is a huge plus. The intellectual DeJong, who majored in Biochemistry at ISU, knew back when he was in Peoria what his greatest asset would be.

“My biggest strength, I think, is my bat,” he said. “And if I’m able to hit and play multiple positions, that gives me multiple options to be in the lineup every day. Being able to play all those positions will definitely help me, as long as I can keep swinging the bat.”

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 31: St. Louis Cardinals' Paul DeJong hits an RBI double during the second inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers May 31, 2017, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire)

The projection on that bat, at the time, was raw power with a high average and high on-base percentage. DeJong agreed with that characterization, and even offered a comp that he liked to keep in his back pocket.

“I used to say Buster Posey, but that was when I was catching.,” he said. ” I’m going to still say him; just the way that he carries himself on and off the field. I think we share a lot of the same traits, and our game is pretty similar.”

So far, the projection has been true. After hitting .288/.360/.438 in 247 plate appearances at Peoria in 2015, DeJong hit 22 home runs in 552 plate appearances at Double-A in 2016. In his 190 plate appearances at Triple-A before arriving in St. Louis this season, he cranked out 13 homers with a .909 OPS.

Going forward, it’s unfair to expect that this home run binge will continue. DeJong is averaging a 23.7 percent HR/FB rate in his short time with the Cardinals, which is well above the 8-12 percent range that was once considered the average in baseball. That number may be rising with all the home runs that have been hit this season, of course, but to expect any player to continue at a 23.7 percent rate would be foolish.

If DeJong continues to get regular playing time, it’s fair to expect him to post a batting average somewhere in the .260-.270 range, with an on-base percentage around .300. Considering that he has already smashed nine homers in only 37 games, the chances that he gets to 20 this season would be relatively good with regular playing time.

For 2018 and beyond, regular playing time at second base, to go with a slash line of .260/.300/.450 and 20 home runs ,would probably pin DeJong right around a 2-3 WAR type of player – think in the range of a poor man’s Logan Forsythe. That’s excellent value, especially for a player who could start at multiple spots on the infield.

It’s unfair to expect that DeJong will be the savior of the Cardinals offense, or even that he’ll continue his home run barrage this season. But he’s a very good, young player with an extremely talented bat and flexibility on the infield – even if he’s not Gold Glove-caliber at any one spot.

*****

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