photo: Aledmys Diaz and Paul DeJong (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
When the St. Louis Cardinals signed free agent Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal in November 2013, many assumed the then-31-year old would not finish the contract as the team’s starting shortstop.
Enter Aledmys Diaz, signed to a four-year contract by the club the next March. In Diaz, who still needed minor league seasoning, the Cards appeared to have brought Peralta’s eventual heir apparent in house.
Though that ultimately came to pass, there were a lot of twists and turns for Diaz, who initially was rusty and struggled with injuries and poor performance. His low had to be in July 2015, when while at Double-A, he was outrighted off the 40-man roster and passed through waivers unclaimed by the 29 other organizations.
Soon after, Diaz’ hitting shot upward. After 2016 spring training injuries to Peralta and recently-signed replacement Ruben Tejada, Diaz was called up. Behind an amazingly-fast start with St. Louis, Diaz was a National League All-Star by mid-season.
The bubble burst in 2017, however.
On June 28, the struggling Opening Day shortstop and second-place hitter was sent down to Memphis, replaced by rookie Alex Mejia – a surprise on both ends of the transaction. Three months into his slump, the Cuban native was leading the Cardinals in hits (71) and doubles (16) while batting .260, but he was also dead last among all Cardinals regulars in on-base percentage (.293), slugging (.396) and OPS (.688).
Diaz would not return to St. Louis until very late, September 20th, and on December 1st, was traded to Toronto.
Meantime, Paul DeJong, a hard-hitting third baseman drafted in 2015, was quickly making his way through the system. The former Illinois State star excelled at Peoria in his first partial season, earning a jump over Palm Beach to open 2016 with Double-A Springfield, where he was a Texas League All-Star. For his stint in the 2016 Arizona Fall League, DeJong was moved to shortstop and the experiment was deemed successful enough to continue in 2017.
On May 28th, a month before the club gave up on Diaz, what would become one of the biggest moves of the Cardinals season occurred. With Kolten Wong heading to the disabled list, St. Louis added DeJong to the 40-man roster and promoted him to St. Louis. That night, as a pinch-hitter, DeJong hit the first of his team-leading 25 home runs.
After shuffling around the infield initially and a brief return to Memphis in mid-June, DeJong soon settled in at shortstop and at the plate. In fact, in July, the right-handed hitter became the Cardinals’ first National League Rookie of the Month in over three years.
The 24-year old went on to tie for the 2017 NL rookie lead in doubles (26), was second in slugging (.532), and fourth in home runs (25), RBI (65) and hits (119). Among all Cardinals, not just first-year players, DeJong led the way in 2017 with his 25 round-trippers, the first rookie to lead the club since Albert Pujols (37 in 2001) and was second in fWAR at 3.0. He also broke the Cardinals rookie record for home runs (20) as a shortstop and his .857 OPS is fifth all-time among Cardinals rookies (minimum 400 at-bats).
There is still work to do, of course. Of particular concern is his high strikeout rate (28.0 percent), second only to Randal Grichuk on the roster, and team-low walk rate (4.7 percent).
Following the season, DeJong finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and seems set at his position for the foreseeable future.
Then again, we felt the exact same way about Diaz the year before, so perhaps the best thing to say now is that time will tell how DeJong’s play in his sophomore season evolves.
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