On Friday afternoon, at an optimal time for dumping miserable news onto the public, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that shortstop Paul DeJong was headed to the 10-day Disabled List. While DeJong could technically make it back to the big leagues by Memorial Day weekend, the one-year anniversary of his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, DeJong suffered a left hand fracture as the result of a hit-by-pitch sustained on Thursday, and it looks possible he will miss a more material chunk of time than the minimum.
Particularly in the context of the construction of the Cardinals’ roster, Paul DeJong is perhaps the most valuable player on the team. Carlos Martinez had been better by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, but Alex Reyes will soon be available. Tommy Pham has been better by FanGraphs WAR, but Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and a reconfigured lineup with Jose Martinez in a corner outfield spot could be competent replacements, if downgrades.
But Paul DeJong has handled the shortstop position with even more aplomb than in his allegedly unsustainable 2017 season. And to the great relief of the Cardinals–prior to his injury, DeJong played all but seventeen innings for the Cardinals at shortstop in 2018. But now, the Cardinals must, for at least ten days, rely on others to handle the position.
Reports on who will handle the lion’s share of shortstop duties are mixed. According to John Mozeliak, it will go to Yairo Munoz, called up to the Cardinals from Memphis after having cracked the Opening Day roster (and struggling mightily while in St. Louis). Mike Matheny says it will be Jedd Gyorko. Both were reported by MLB.com’s Joe Trezza. John Jones wrote about it for St. Louis Bullpen yesterday.
There is often talk about the front office “Matheny-proof”-ing the roster to keep the team’s personnel options very straightforward so that Mike Matheny, the guy who keeps being voluntarily given extensions from this same front office, doesn’t screw things up. And while the first lineup card post-DeJong deferred to the stated wishes of Matheny, rather than Mozeliak, it is extraordinarily unlikely that this would provoke the front office to manipulate the roster so that this does not continue.
Jedd Gyorko, of the three realistic shortstop options currently on the Cardinals (the other two being the aforementioned Yairo Munoz, as well as Greg Garcia), is easily the most entrenched of the three in the Cardinals’ player rotation. Despite Greg Garcia getting a two-season head start, Gyorko leads the trio in plate appearances with the Cardinals and laps the group offensively. He is easily the best power hitter of the group: while Greg Garcia has just nine home runs in 709 plate appearances, Gyorko hit 20 home runs in 481 plate appearances in 2017, his less powerful full season in St. Louis. By isolated power, which measures the extra base hits a player accumulates, Gyorko has a 223% edge on Garcia during his time with the Cardinals.
Greg Garcia does have one substantial advantage over Jedd Gyorko at the plate, though, which is ability to get on base. Garcia may not advance as far, but thanks to a 12.8% walk rate, Garcia’s .366 on-base percentage surpasses that of Gyorko despite a lower batting average. Neither is a true shortstop by trade (to be fair, neither was Paul DeJong until the 2017 season); Gyorko, entering his 2018 shortstop debut last night, had logged 8.7% of his career innings at shortstop, while Garcia’s total was 31.5%.
Although Yairo Munoz has not played in the Majors as a shortstop, 67.6% of his minor league innings have been spent at the position. His defense isn’t generally considered great, but he can still play shortstop. But the biggest drawback to his game is that unlike Gyorko, who has shown himself to be a very good big league hitter, and Garcia, who has shown himself to be a decent big league hitter (despite his very good eye, his lack of power keeps his career wRC+ at 101, just a tad above average), Munoz looked lost at the plate in his MLB cup of coffee earlier this season.
To be clear, 20 plate appearances is nothing, but his 11 strikeouts, two hits, and 5(!) wRC+ reflect how he looked. But a more fair look would be at Munoz’s minor league numbers, which are both irrefutably better and utterly uninspiring. In 372 plate appearances in AAA, both in 2017 with the Nashville Sounds and in 2018 with the Memphis Redbirds, Munoz has been slightly below-average (by AAA standards) offensively; his .289 batting average looks solid, but his lack of plate discipline leaves his on-base percentage at a pedestrian .320 to go along with a .420 slugging percentage. His AAA wRC+ is lower than the MLB wRC+ of his shortstop competition. This would be acceptable if Munoz were a plus defender, but he probably isn’t. As a guy on the bench, it’s fine. As a starter, he’s my third choice.
Jedd Gyorko at shortstop is a little bit like when Stephen Piscotty played center field in 2016–it’s not great, but if you put good fielders around him, it can be withstood. In the case of Piscotty, the corner outfielders were below average (Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss), so it was a problem. In the case of Gyorko, the team’s best defensive third baseman, at shortstop, this presumably means continuing with Matt Carpenter at third base and Jose Martinez at first base. From an offensive perspective, Carpenter’s horrendous batted ball luck and Martinez’s offensive regression aside, this is fine at worst, with the potential to be great. But all three of these players are likely minus defenders at their respective spots. At least with Greg Garcia at shortstop, the team retains the option to play Jedd Gyorko at third (which is good) and Matt Carpenter at first (which is better than Jose Martinez).
There isn’t a one-step solution to replacing Paul DeJong in the lineup, but in the meantime, here are my suggestions:
- You don’t trade the world for a partial season of Manny Machado but, like, you might as well ask. The Baltimore Orioles aren’t exactly known for making the greatest trades. Would they take Jordan Hicks and Austin Gomber for Machado? Probably not, but even my cell phone plan allows for free long distance calls. I’m sure the Cardinals can afford that expenditure. It’s worth a shot.
- Start Jedd Gyorko at shortstop every time the starting pitcher is a lefty.
- When the pitcher is a righty, split starts between Gyorko and Garcia depending on the ground ball tendencies of the Cardinals starter.
- Keep Yairo Munoz around for potential defensive replacement purposes. Were we expecting him to become this? Welp, this is the hand the Cardinals were dealt. Here we are.
- Keep Paul DeJong hermetically sealed once he becomes healthy again. Let’s not go down this road again.