During the first year of Jhonny Peralta’s four-year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was, by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the second-best shortstop in all of baseball. He led the Cardinals in home runs, was by far the team’s most valuable position player, and was a refreshing contrast to the notoriously weak-hitting Pete Kozma in 2013. During the final year of Jhonny Peralta’s contract, he was an abject disaster–he was deemed incapable of playing shortstop, and offensively, his 28 wRC+ in 58 plate appearances prior to being designated for assignment in June was enough to make Pete Kozma blush.
Jhonny Peralta is my favorite example of an extremely common phenomenon–a baseball team signs a good player, the player remains good in the near term, but in the long term, he begins to decline and is no longer worth the money offered to him–because every step along the way for Peralta was so stark. It is rarely the case for a team that is competitive enough that it is bothering to sign players to multi-year free agent contracts, but Peralta was replacing an actual Replacement Level-type player in Pete Kozma. Peralta, 31 when the contract was signed, followed a predictable path of having his best years early in the contract, but few foresaw such dramatic highs in the early years or such dramatic lows in the later years.
But in the end, was Peralta worth the money? It’s a more complicated answer than it is for most. By FanGraphs’s estimation of player value on the open market (where Peralta was signed), Jhonny Peralta was worth $52.4 million–the margin is razor thin, but this puts Peralta’s contract as ever-so-slightly negative for the Cardinals. Not enough to be worth freaking out about, but negative nonetheless. But after Year 3 (which was itself not a particularly good year for Peralta), his value was at $55.4 million, which would put him in positive territory. Had the Cardinals simply released Peralta after 2016, a thing that I would never have suggested but which in hindsight would have been beneficial, they would still have had to pay Peralta his money but he would have put up 0 WAR and thus Peralta would look like a mild value.
A big problem with Peralta, and with any free agent signing, is that teams feel obliged to try to make it work. Lars Nootbaar struggled for a week, so the Cardinals demoted him to Memphis; Corey Dickerson has been one of the worst hitters in baseball while playing designated hitter and he remains on the Cardinals because demoting him to Memphis isn’t an option–the Cardinals would have to cut him outright, thus not only being forced to confront a mistake but also potentially losing out on Dickerson’s future value if indeed he has some (remember when the Cardinals paid Greg Holland to put up a 0.84 ERA for the Washington Nationals in 2018?). Jhonny Peralta had a much longer leash than a rookie putting up similar numbers would have.
Paul DeJong isn’t precisely analogous to Peralta–he has, for instance, remaining minor league options that allowed the Cardinals to send him down to Memphis yesterday with hopes that he can rebound from what has been a truly terrible offensive downturn from the former All-Star shortstop. But like Peralta, DeJong had codified his own job security with a long-term contract and while each contract seemed like a bargain in the beginning, future declines put the totality of it into question.
Following the 2017 season, DeJong, a late-May call-up, inked what was reported as a six-year, $26 million contract, though the precise numbers on both have fluctuated a bit and could fluctuate further down the road. The contract called for DeJong to make salaries in the $1-2 million range from 2018 through 2020 (his 2020 salary dropped due to the COVID-19-fueled 60-game season) during what would have been DeJong’s league-minimum seasons, increases during what were scheduled to be DeJong’s arbitration years which totaled around $20 million for three seasons, and two subsequent team options worth a guaranteed $2 million (if the Cardinals bought out the two years following the 2023 season).
In a world in which Paul DeJong is just completely and utterly toast and the Cardinals choose not to keep paying him any longer than they are contractually obligated to do so (through 2023), the total they will have paid him over the life of the contract is $24,950,617, including the buy-out and accounting for the abbreviated 2020 season. And even accounting for Paul DeJong’s awful, below Replacement Level 2022, FanGraphs estimates his total value over the contract at $54.5 million. 2022 is the first year during which DeJong has not been worth his salary–over the first four years of the contract, DeJong was paid $7,617,285 for $56.5 million’s worth of work.
Taking these numbers and declaring that Paul DeJong has been a bargain is not unreasonable, but that is because pretty much any half-decent young baseball player is, by the design of the system, a bargain. This does not necessarily mean that the Cardinals should have signed DeJong, as the system had already granted the team a major advantage over the player–call out the system as unfair if you want (and anyone who reads this website regularly knows that I do), but I fully expect and understand teams to operate within this realm.
DeJong debuted in May 2017, which put him in a somewhat middling spot in terms of his free agency eligibility calendar, but ultimately, due to an unusual threshold in 2019, Paul DeJong would have been (assuming no shenanigans on the part of the Cardinals, though had they done so, DeJong’s value would be completely different and this whole experiment falls apart so just bear with me here) Super Two eligible. In many years, the cut-off which allows players with under three years of MLB service time to become arbitration eligible would be before DeJong debuted and thus he would be stuck making the league minimum until after 2020, but the cut-off wound up in June–note, for instance, that Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers became arbitration eligible after 2019 even though he didn’t debut in MLB until a couple weeks after DeJong did. The TL;DR version, for those who don’t want a Super Two system explanation from somebody who barely understands it himself–Paul DeJong would have been arbitration eligible after the 2019 season, though because it was expedited, this would also means he would get four years of salary arbitration rather than three, which is an advantage for the team, since even Year 4 arbitration salaries tend to be lower than a player could make on the open market.
It is impossible to know for certain what Paul DeJong would have made in arbitration, but there are reasonable estimates that we can make. We do know that, had he not signed an extension, the Cardinals almost certainly would have simply paid the shortstop the league minimum in 2018 and 2019, so by definition less than they did in practice, where he made about $2.83 million over those years. But that’s fairly immaterial in the grand scheme of things–the real issue is the subsequent salary arbitration. For years, there was a rule dubbed the 40/60/80 rule for estimating arbitration values–a player would earn 40% of his worth in Year 1, 60% in Year 2, and 80% in Year 3. Obviously this wouldn’t apply in the case of a player with four years of arbitration anyway, but also, it is generally accepted now that this dramatically exaggerates how much players actually make in arbitration–some estimates put the mark closer to 20/40/60/80, with the bump better reflected in the Super Twos. Is this perfect? No, but it seems in the neighborhood of accurate, and frankly that’s good enough for me.
In 2019, Paul DeJong had his most valuable MLB season–he had sterling shortstop defense, (slightly) above-average hitting, and a 3.7 fWAR season. He was worth $29.5 million to the Cardinals per FanGraphs–20% of this would come out to $5.9 million for 2020. Of course, that total drops because of COVID-19, a thing which presumably still would have happened in this universe where the Cardinals do not extend Paul DeJong, no matter how heavy the hostility levied against him as of late. DeJong’s relatively weak 2020 would have suppressed his 2021 salary, but the rough calculation of 40% of the prior year value does not work in practical terms–players essentially never have salary declines in arbitration. But let’s say he gets $6 million, a modest raise from his expected 2020 salary and a total low enough that the Cardinals would still surely be willing to pay it for their expected starting shortstop. And let’s say DeJong performs to the level he did in 2021, where he was worth $11.3 million, and earns 60% of that for 2022, which comes out to $6.78 million, another modest raise.
This would put DeJong at $16,065,185 earned over DeJong’s contract. If you work once again under the premise that DeJong is straight up done as a playable MLB player, a thing I am not doing but which certainly is not impossible, that would mean the Cardinals overspent by $8,885,432. Fair enough–sure, this is basically loose change to the Cardinals’ ownership group, but an overpay is still an overpay. But the Cardinals still have Paul DeJong–they have him for the remainder of 2022, for 2023, and if they so choose, for 2024 and possibly 2025. On the open market, one win above replacement is worth about $8 million, so essentially, for Paul DeJong to break even, we are asking for a guy who was worth 1.4 fWAR in a wildly disappointing 2021 to be worth just over 1.1 fWAR over the next 1.8 seasons. And beyond 2023, the Cardinals still have control of the situation–sure, wanting to pay Paul DeJong $12.5 million and $15 million for seasons in his thirties may not sound all that appetizing right now, but he has had seasons in recent memory where he would be clearly worth that. Perhaps as important to the Cardinals, an organization that could be generously called conservative financially, is the cost certainty of it all–they committed a flat $26 million and do not have to worry about fluctuations on a yearly basis thanks to salary arbitration-fueled raises. And if he doesn’t bounce back to that level, an outcome I would say is more likely than not at this point, they can simply buy him out.
The Paul DeJong contract was bound to lead to revisionist history, because it was never going to look as good on the back end as on the front, even if we did not expect it to look this bad. But at the end of the day, the Cardinals locked down the shortstop position for six to eight years and only had to commit a total less than either of their starting corner infielders make in one season. The team signed DeJong after he had a Rookie of the Year finalist campaign, but because they were advancing him life-altering money, they did not have to pay him to be that level of player–DeJong simply had to be okay to be worth it, and between his excellent 2018-2019 seasons, his actual okay 2020-2021 seasons, and possibly awful 2022 and onward seasons, it looks likely to come out in the wash that way. The contract may go down in history as a net negative, but it will be incrementally so, and even with the recent downturn in DeJong’s productivity, it still very easily may come out ahead for the Cardinals.