ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — This is what the Cardinals do.
Young player bursts onto the scene. He finds success. The Cardinals believe he will sustain that success. And they make a calculated gamble on him.
The latest example: Paul DeJong.
Monday morning, the Cardinals announced they had inked their shortstop of the present—and presumably, the future—to a contract extension that will keep him in St. Louis through 2023. For DeJong, it’s a guarantee of $26 million—life-changing financial security.
For the Cardinals, it’s an insurance policy on the chance that DeJong builds on his breakout 2017 and becomes a household name, a franchise cornerstone for years to come. Should this young player have the kind of productive big league career the Cardinals anticipate he will, St. Louis won’t have to worry about him departing for free agency in his prime—if the Cardinals want DeJong, he’ll be here, at least until 2025 considering the two options years tacked onto the new extension.
It’s how they’ve operated for years. Last year, it was outfielder Stephen Piscotty receiving a multi-year contract before reaching arbitration eligibility. Carlos Martinez got one, too, just before an arbitration hearing was to take place. In 2016, the Cardinals locked up Kolten Wong with a long-term deal. And before him, Matt Carpenter. And so on.
Often wary of turbulent free agent waters, this is the Cardinals’ mold for retaining talent. The Cardinals fiercely value club control of their core players, but some wonder if the risk of offering guaranteed money to players after such a small sample of major league experience might outweigh the potential benefits of such a strategy. Particularly as it pertains to DeJong’s deal, which stretches the concept to a level beyond any the Cardinals have ventured before.
When Carpenter signed a six-year deal before reaching arbitration in 2014, he had more than 1,000 career plate appearances under his belt. The same could be said for Wong when he netted his deal in 2016. Both remain in the Cardinals starting lineup heading into 2018. On the pitching side, Carlos Martinez had nearly 500 MLB innings on his ledger before he cashed in last February; he’s obviously still a central figure for St. Louis.
Allen Craig had 857 MLB plate appearances before the Cardinals locked him up in 2013. Piscotty had 905 prior to his deal last year. St. Louis has since divested both via trade after their performances didn’t live up to initial expectations. The team's ability to consistently pawn off potential bad contracts might quell some of the concern that these early extensions gone wrong could ultimately burden the franchise. Though some of these contracts haven’t benefited the Cardinals as they had hoped, those deals, at least so far, haven’t turned into albatrosses for which the Cardinals remained responsible.
But where does DeJong’s sample size stack up compared to these other examples from recent Cardinals history? Well, he signed his extension Monday after 443 career plate appearances.
That’s significantly less of a sample than any other such extension the Cardinals have offered. Will the outcome of this one favor the team—like it arguably has with Carpenter, Wong and Martinez thus far—or will John Mozeliak have to pull another rabbit out of the hat, the way he did to shed Craig’s salary after his ability to hit completely vanished?
Again, it’s a gamble. But if there were ever a player the Cardinals have made it clear they’re comfortable banking on, it’s DeJong—and that was true even before they offered him this shiny new contract.
The team’s actions in handing him the starting shortstop gig so enthusiastically after his May call-up last season seemed strange considering Aledmys Diaz’s place on the roster. Though Diaz had struggled in multiple areas following his All-Star rookie campaign, he still led the team in base hits last year at the time of his late-June demotion. It just seemed awfully hasty to dismiss a player who had found so much success the prior year. But then this winter, they traded him away in a virtual giveaway.
That line of decision making by the Cardinals surrounding the shortstop position over the past year says more about their faith in Paul DeJong than it serves to highlight his predecessor as a cautionary tale.
Sure, a lack of plate discipline was the most notable issue to plague Diaz during his downfall in 2017; and DeJong shared that concerning attribute as a rookie, walking about once to every six times he struck out (21 BB:124 K). Outsiders critical of the rush to extend DeJong would argue if he can’t maintain his power numbers from last year—25 home runs and a robust .532 SLG—that lack of plate discipline could come back to haunt him, as it did Diaz a year ago.
The Cardinals, apparently, don’t share that concern. At least, not to a degree that it prevented them from hitching their wagon to the 24-year-old infielder for the long haul. Considering his defensive polish and offensive consistency at every level of his professional career, any regression from DeJong was a risk the Cardinals were more than willing to take.
The outcome of the Cardinals’ gamble rests in DeJong’s hands, his paycheck suggesting a sophomore slump won’t suffice. The Cardinals have doubled down on that which numerous decisions over the past year had already declared: Paul DeJong is their shortstop.
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