St. Louis Cardinals: A make or break year for Paul DeJong?

Paul DeJong (12) before their game at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Paul DeJong (12) before their game at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports /

2021 could be a make-or-break year for St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

Before we get started, don’t accuse me of being a Paul DeJong hater. This is not what this piece is about. In fact, after his 2019 All-Star year, I believed in 2020 the right-handed St. Louis Cardinals shortstop would have a breakout year. Here’s the case I made at Redbird Rants a year ago.

However, in August, DeJong tested positive for COVID-19 and missed 15 games. 2020 saw the majority of his stats fall to career lows. It also saw his strikeout percentage rise to a career-high. Even DeJong’s Defensive WAR dropped from 3.3 in 2019 to .3 last year.

We could easily dismiss 2020 as an outlier of his career, especially with the COVID crisis. The impact of recovering from COVID is really hard to measure. Also, the amount of doubleheaders played by the Cardinals in 2020 to make up games, makes it hard to measure the impact on DeJong.

Consistency has been an issue

Even before 2020 his numbers were on the decline. After a promising rookie season in 2017, many of DeJong’s offensive numbers were never repeated. He has never since come close to his .285 batting average, his .857 OPS, or his .532 slugging percentage of 2017.

The Cardinals have tried to make DeJong a middle-of-the-order bat, hoping he can help their often anemic offense. He has the most experience in his short career hitting in the third and fifth spot. But after his impressive rookie outing in 2017, consistency has been an issue. His strong first halves often falter by the season’s end.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that while DeJong’s offensive metrics were on the decline, his defensive metrics improved considerably from 2017 to 2019. By 2019, he was a runner-up for the Gold Glove and named to the NL All-Star team. In 2019, he also led the NL in Defensive WAR (3.3), assists (435), putouts as a shortstop (211), double plays turned as a shortstop (119), and fielding percentage as a shortstop (.989).

Arenado to the rescue

Now, along comes Nolan Arenado to the middle of the Cardinal lineup. Teamed with Paul Goldschmidt, it would seem to take some of the pressure off of other players in the batting order. That should also include Paul DeJong.

The question is where will DeJong be in the batting order? During Spring Training, the Cardinals will also be taking a close look at Dylan Carlson, Lane Thomas, and Tyler O’Neill to determine where they will bat in this lineup. I believe all will be candidates for the chance to hit either in front of or just behind the Goldschmitt/Arenado combo.

So far the Cardinals are showing a willingness to keep Paul DeJong somewhere in the middle of this year’s batting order. As of this writing, he has been in the second, fourth, or fifth spot of the lineup during spring games.

Finally, a make or break year for Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong enters his fifth year as the Cardinals shortstop. Consequently, the St. Louis Cardinals will be looking for DeJong to return the promising player of 2017 vs the player we saw in 2020. It wouldn’t surprise me if DeJong did return to his 2017 form at the plate.

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Nonetheless, even with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado destined to be Cardinals for the next several years, the front office, I don’t believe, will sit by if they have the opportunity to improve at any position. That would include the shortstop position if DeJong falters in 2021.

Paul DeJong is signed thru 2023 as part of a six-year, $26 million contract with team options in ’24 and ’25. Unlike some contract extensions done in the recent past, this contract, combined with DeJong’s age, would make a trade reasonable.

There aren’t really any shortstops in the Cardinal organization who currently can step in and compete with DeJong. However, there will be several free-agent shortstops available in the offseason. These include Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story.

Let me say, I’m not predicting or hoping for Paul DeJong’s trade or exit from a Cardinal uniform. Personally, I hope he stays. He is a good fit for the team and defensively compliments the infield of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

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Nevertheless, I believe this is the make-or-break year for Paul DeJong. I hope it’s the make year.