Looking at positions up for grabs for the Cardinals back in spring training, shortstop simply wasn’t one of them.
Aledmys Diaz felt like a sure thing. Coming off a rookie season in which he slashed .300/.369/.510, finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting, and went to an All-Star Game, it seemed as though Diaz had asserted his staying power.
Yet less than three months into 2017, Diaz was headed back to Memphis in a demotion that took many by surprise. The zip in his bat had seemingly departed along with his plate discipline. A few glaring errors cost the Cardinals in the wrong moments. So during a trying time for the Cardinals season, a message was sent, and Diaz became the example. The club maintained belief in him–his trip to Class-AAA was intended to be brief, with John Mozeliak saying “hopefully, this is not a long-term situation for him,”–but it still knocked the wind out considering all he had proven the year prior.
In the months since his demotion, a couple things have happened, with neither of those things being Diaz’s return to St. Louis.
For one, Diaz hasn’t developed at the plate. In 16 games, he has compiled a .680 OPS with Memphis, eight points lower than his .688 OPS with St. Louis this year. Through 65 minor league plate appearances, Diaz has one walk. That’s a lower walk-rate than the paltry one he put together in St. Louis, if that’s even possible.
The other thing that happened has received much more fanfare by fans of the major league club, and for good reason. A year after Diaz came out of relative obscurity to set the world on fire, another rookie shortstop has taken his place to do the same, calling to question the future of the position for the organization.
Paul DeJong began the season as the starting shortstop in Memphis. Primarily a third baseman throughout his minor league career, this was to be his first full season fielding the new position. A combination of struggles by Diaz and general inconsistency in run production by the rest of the Cardinals allowed DeJong an opportunity to audition his bat in a major league setting.
And well, he’s acing it.
So far in his stint with the Cardinals, Paul DeJong boasts a .290/.303/.590 batting line and intriguing upside defensively at short. He’s had only 188 plate appearances, and if Diaz’s issues this year have taught us anything, it’s to be wary of placing too much stock in these small sample sizes. But for a guy growing in a new position, DeJong displays an interesting profile as a shortstop, committed just one error there during his time in the majors.
Oh yeah, and he’s absolutely raking.
DeJong seems to hit a home run every other night, and blasted his 14th of the season Wednesday. The soon-to-be 24-year-old has more home runs in his first 50 games as a Cardinal than any player since 1920 except for one: Albert Pujols.
He turned out pretty decent.
DeJong’s power has become a phenomenon for St. Louis. The Cardinals surely liked his upside offensively, but nobody could have anticipated a Pujolsian start to the MLB career of the former walk-on at Illinois State. This is rare territory–there’s no way he keeps it up.
And that’s probably true. But because of the Cardinals status as a hanger-on in the NL Central race, the Cardinals can afford to spend the rest of this year giving DeJong a chance to prove himself over a longer haul.
To transform into the type of contender the Cardinals want to be, they have to add proven punch to the offense. But based on the leanings of other clubs–like the Marlins and Blue Jays–who currently hold those players, St. Louis may have to wait until winter to make their moves for that player, or those players.
That leaves DeJong in an interesting spot. If the market was such that the Cardinals could acquire their impact bat immediately, they might also be inclined to search for a more proven glove-first shortstop to provide some security at the position. With the big time trade winds at barely a whisper–and DeJong’s unlikely surge–the Cardinals have found production in the three-hole for the first time all season, however temporary it may be. So they might as well roll with it.
For now, this imperfect bunch of Redbirds is being propelled by the influence of younger players–and DeJong is leading the charge. It wasn’t the group they expected to field back in April, but it’s the one they have now.
With nothing to lose, the Cardinals are set to give DeJong the final two months of 2017 to stake a claim to a significant role beyond this season. If he keeps knocking the ball over the fence at his Albert Pujols-like clip, they’ll probably find a way to squeeze him in.