I really, truly do not believe St. Louis Cardinals fans properly appreciate Paul DeJong. I understand why that is. His offensive profile can be pretty unpleasing at times–the home runs are certainly cool, but a guy who strikes out somewhere in the 20-30% range is suboptimal statistically and dreadful aesthetically. His base running numbers are perfectly functional, but nobody is clamoring to call the guy with 16 career stolen bases in 2,173 plate appearances “exciting” out there. Defensively, Paul DeJong has been consistently very strong by zone-based defensive metrics, but he rarely makes spectacular plays–as somebody who is good at positioning and just not making very many mistakes, he’s the Cardinals’ spiritual successor to Jhonny Peralta, not Ozzie Smith.
Paul DeJong debuted on May 28, 2017, and since then, he has been one of the ten best shortstops in baseball. This sounds like a thing I am just proclaiming, but FanGraphs WAR agrees with me, and that’s counting guys like Marcus Semien, Javy Báez, and Trea Turner that logged meaningful time at other positions. Last season, in what was supposedly this disastrous collapse of a season for DeJong, there was reason for hope–19 home runs in 402 plate appearances with continuously solid defensive metrics sounds quite good in a vacuum, and much of his lowly .284 on-base percentage can be explained in large part by his impossibly low .216 batting average on balls in play. Give DeJong a break, and he’s going to be fine.
Fine. He’s going to be fine. He’s probably not going to be a superstar, but he should be fine. Solid. A worthy player on his current team-friendly contract. The kind of player who can be your starting shortstop as part of a World Series run, provided that he is not one of the main components on which you are depending. There are a number of shortstops who are or were available this off-season that fit this bill, or perhaps a slightly stronger version of it–the aforementioned Javier Báez and former Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story come to mind. There are the Marcus Semiens and Corey Seagers of the baseball world, guys who are clearly superior to DeJong (and, again, superior to almost everybody), but those guys were scooped up almost immediately.
Carlos Correa was not scooped up, and remains the best player remaining in free agency. I have repeatedly implored the Cardinals to sign a(nother, post-Steven Matz) half-decent starting pitcher to help rectify their paper-thin starting rotation depth, but apparently there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to convince them that, in 2022, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright are not mortal locks for 180+ innings pitched. So I’m pivoting.
There are two approaches a team that fancies itself a contender can take in free agency–fill holes or acquire high-end talent that you are willing to blow up what you have to accommodate. The Cardinals do not have a hole at shortstop–an optimistic view might be that they have two competent options at the position, with DeJong and Edmundo Sosa. But Carlos Correa is a full-blown star. Last season, the former Houston Astros shortstop was 34% above league-average at the plate by wRC+, he hit 26 home runs (good for his fifth career 20+ home run season, accomplished during his age-26 season), and he won a Gold Glove. In 2019, despite only playing in 75 games due to injury, he hit 21 home runs. Yes, he gets a bit annoying when the Astros’ sign-stealing comes up (and I say this as somebody who is relatively apathetic about that whole scandal), but there is no denying his talent nor his production.
Carlos Correa does have a little bit of an injury history, and I’m not going to try to spin that as somehow a positive, but on a team that has Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa and which would presumably have at least one of them post-signing Correa, I would argue that it’s a less bad thing. It does not appear that Correa is wearing down after his injuries: he remains a superstar. And even if these injuries eventually hamper Correa in his thirties, this may not matter for whatever team signs him–per The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, Correa might be willing to sign a one-year contract given the unusual circumstances of this off-season.
The Cardinals are projected (numbers are unofficial, as arbitration totals have not been gathered) to rank 10th in payroll this season, per FanGraphs. Now, let’s say the Cardinals can convince Carlos Correa to sign a one-year, $30 million contract–this is probably more than he would command on an average annual value perspective, and it exceeds the amount we know he has rejected for one year–the Astros’ qualifying offer, by eight figures. Now let’s also consider that the Cardinals are being paid $15 million by the Colorado Rockies to have Nolan Arenado on their payroll. If you alter the numbers accordingly, this gives the Cardinals a payroll ranking of…tenth.
Yelling at Bill DeWitt Jr. to spend more money may be fruitless, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to note that the Cardinals could sign Carlos Correa. And while my initial preference would have been that the Cardinals make a serious run at the high-end pitchers available at the start of free agency, that time has passed. Now, I just want something that makes a meaningful difference. Something that justifies their previous conservatism that in a vacuum is fine but really is only worthwhile if it leads to something bigger. Maybe they really just don’t want to sign a guy named C. Correa because it’ll remind people of the Cardinals’ hacking scandal, but it’s not as though anyone who would weaponize this wasn’t constantly talking about the hacking scandal anyway.
The Cardinals signing Carlos Correa is not going to happen, but perhaps it should.