Cardinals Didn’t Actively Pursue Free Agent Shortstop Help Before The Lockout

The Cardinals have entered each of the past four seasons with Paul DeJong as the Opening Day shortstop. He’d earned the starting nod in 2018 after hitting .285/.325/.532 across 443 plate appearances as a rookie the year prior. DeJong’s next two seasons weren’t quite as strong, but he still combined slightly above-average offense with highly-regarded glovework.

Over the last two years, though, DeJong’s production at the dish has tailed off. Going back to the start of 2020, he’s just a .213/.295/.378 hitter over 576 trips to the plate. That led to a fall down the batting order and eventually, a reduction in playing time. Edmundo Sosa took the lion’s share of at-bats in the season’s final month, and erstwhile skipper Mike Shildt turned to Sosa in a must-win Wild Card game.

With how the second half of the season played out, it seemed like DeJong could wind up as a trade candidate this winter. The free agent shortstop class was loaded with stars, and the Cardinals don’t have many obvious areas of need on the position player side. Yet there was no indication St. Louis made much effort to move DeJong in the early stages of the offseason, and Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch now writes that the Cardinals “were not active in discussions with any player in this marquee class of free-agent shortstops” prior to the lockout.

While it’s possible the team ignites free agent discussions after the transactions freeze — Carlos Correa and Trevor Story remain available — it seems likelier shortstop will be DeJong’s job to lose. Not only was he not the subject of any trade rumors of note, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch gave DeJong a public vote of confidence at November’s GM Meetings. According to Goold, Cardinals executives also privately expressed confidence in DeJong’s ability to right the ship and reclaim the shortstop job in 2022. (Those conversations also occurred before the lockout, which includes a prohibition on contact between team staff and players on the 40-man roster).

DeJong’s contact rate and overall average exit velocity have each dipped over the past couple seasons. Yet he actually barreled balls up at a career-best 10.6% clip last year, and his exit velocity on balls hit in the air hasn’t meaningfully changed. That provides some reason for optimism DeJong’s offensive production can improve, particularly if last season’s .212 batting average on balls in play regresses closer to his .282 career mark. The 28-year-old isn’t merely resting on his laurels awaiting better batted ball fortune, however, as he chats with Goold about changes he’s made to his offseason training routine.

Regardless of whether he rebounds offensively, DeJong should be a key part of a high-end defensive infield. He’s coming off a season regarded highly by both Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average, and DRS has pegged DeJong as a plus gloveman throughout his career. Sosa remains on hand as a potential fallback option, coming off a nice .271/.346/.389 showing. DeJong is guaranteed around $6.167MM next season and is controllable through 2025 under the terms of the contract extension he signed four seasons ago.

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