St. Louis Cardinals: The perils of Paul DeJong’s contract

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 13: Paul DeJong /

In 2016, the Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story had an absolutely great rookie season.  He followed it up with another incredible season, but he did so by inhabiting the body of St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

Just kidding, of course. Trevor Story had an abysmal 2017 in comparison to his opening campaign, but Paul DeJong looked in many respects last year just as Story had in the 2016 season. And that’s one of several reasons why I have concern with the recent contract that DeJong inked with the St. Louis Cardinals, one that ensures him six years and about $26 million, with the potential for far more.

There was no pressing need for the Cardinals to make this move. DeJong still has a couple more years before arbitration, so there was time to reach agreement later. No doubt the paucity of strong shortstop prospects in the system contributed to locking DeJong in at this point.

But are the benefits of securing a long-term deal outweighed by the risks? To answer that, we need to go back to Story for a moment.

Trevor’s terrific 2016 season placed him high in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In only slightly more than 400 ABs, Story turned in 27 HRs, 72 RBIs and a lofty .909 OPS and a 122 OPS+. True, there were those 130 strikeouts, but in this day and age, teams are willing to overlook Ks if other parameters satisfy them.

All that was atop a fine fielding debut as well. Story delivered an 0.9 dWAR, maybe not Andrelton Simmons but decent nonetheless.

All in all, Story looked like the egg laid by the golden goose. But not so fast. Last season, his strikeouts ballooned. I mean, REALLY ballooned, to almost 200. This not only drove his OBP down to .308, a barely respectable figure, but his SLG dropped 110 points, slamming his OPS all the way to .765. Good but hardly outrageous.

Now let’s look at DeJong and what happened in 2017, as it is eerily similar to Story’s 2016.  Let’s go backwards and start with defense. DeJong had a sure hand, great position and fundamentals, and adequate but limited range, producing a 0.4 positive dWAR, still acceptable.

On the hitting side, though, take away Coors Field and you might as well have Story Junior.  In 417 ABs, Paul flashed a 121 OPS+, predicated on a total OPS of  .846. A great SLG of over .500 and an OBP of .325 catapulted him to success. He mashed 18 homers — not that much below the Story comp when you consider Busch III is hardly Coors.

Then there are the strikeouts and walks. Oh, my. Again similar Story, 124 Ks, but only 21 walks; even Story had 35 in 2016. The combination of a large strikeout total and a very low walk sum gives one pause for sure.

But wait, there’s more. Because DeJong’s Babip, batting average on balls in play, was an astoundingly high .349. That’s right, a good 50 points or so above average.

What does that mean? Well, if you’re being generous, you could say that it means DeJong hits the ball hard. But honestly, the most common explanation for Babip is good fortune.

Here’s a good example: In 2015, his one truly strong year in St. Louis, now Toronto Blue Jay Randal Grichuk attained an OBP of .329, which was a good 40-50 points over any of his other three years. We know Randal is a hard hitter, right? His Babip in 2015? A seriously high .365. The other three years? .316, .294, .293.

Story also had a very elevated Babip in 2016, in the .340s, and dropped only to the .330s last year. If he reverts to a league average, it will be, ahem, interesting to see where his figures land.

This is not to say that DeJong is guaranteed to fall off a cliff. Not at all. We’ve already seen a bunch of talent from the young man. The issue is, we just don’t know where he’s headed based on 400 at-bats.

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Remember Aledmys Diaz, who was the All-Star, apparent savior of the shortstop position for the Redbirds? His freshman year placed him just behind Story in the ROY voting. His gross numbers were a lot like the 2016 Story and the 2017 DeJong, but with one major difference — he struck out half as much and walked twice as much.

We all know, of course, about Diaz’s fielding antics in 2016, and when his bat cratered in 2017, DeJong got his chance and capitalized on it.

But when one objectively examines the vagaries of Story and Diaz, why did the Cards forge such an immediate and permanent impression of DeJong that they were willing to essentially overlook the risk of a sophomore slump or worse? Why did they need to lock in the player right now? Why was this more important than fortifying the roster with a closer or more depth?

The answer to the last of those questions is probably the easiest — teams multitask, so focusing on DeJong doesn’t mean anything about seeking other players.

The rest, however, is more troubling. If DeJong’s performance tilts in some of the glass-half-empty ways, then we’ll wonder why the Cards hitched their horses to the young shortstop. The Story-like strikeouts, the Diaz regression, the  arguably poor plate discipline and lack of walks — all those could spell some deep doodoo for a long-term commitment.

Next: What's Jordan Schafer's future?

I’m rooting just as hard for DeJong as anyone. I hope he returns with a smashing season, one even beyond 2017. From a baseball management perspective, however, the decision made on relatively little data spells a high-reward, but pretty high-risk, scenario for the Cardinals.