After years of declining offense, the Cardinals optioned Paul DeJong to the minors in early May. Since that time, he’s showed some improved results, relatively speaking. Through 37 games with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, he’s hitting .230/.276/.500. The resulting 95 wRC+ is still below league average, but is miles ahead of the 25 wRC+ he posted at the MLB level this year.
Even if DeJong were to take a step forward and get into a nice groove, it will be difficult for him to force his way back to the big leagues due to the success of those already there. John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, spoke to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the situation recently. “The way Tommy Edman’s playing, and we’re getting a lot of production out of our second basemen, (DeJong) is going to have to hit his way back,” Mozeliak said. “It’s really been a situation where he would go down, get himself right and then come back. In the meantime, there’s been a little bit of a Wally Pipp situation where the players who have taken over those positions have been thriving.” For those unfamiliar, Wally Pipp was a Yankees first baseman who was once replaced by Lou Gehrig, who then went on to play 2,130 consecutive games. Since then, Pipp’s name has become synonymous with a player’s job being stolen and never relinquished.
As Mozeliak mentioned, Edman is indeed playing well. The positional switch doesn’t seem to have slowed him down at all, as Statcast currently pegs him as having provided five Outs Above Average at both second base and shortstop, totaling ten on the season. DRS and UZR are similarly bullish on his glovework at both positions. At the plate, he’s hitting .274/.347/.407 for a wRC+ of 119. That’s just shy of the 124 from his rookie season and much better than the 91 he posted in each of the past two seasons.
As for the second basemen that were alluded to, since Edman moved to primary shortstop duty, the keystone has been manned by rookies Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman. Both of them are having great seasons at the plate, with Donovan hitting .311/.422/.416 for a wRC+ of 146 and Gorman slashing .255/.317/.455 for a wRC+ of 120. With the Cards getting that type of production from their middle infield, it’s understandable that they’re going to making DeJong show another gear before giving him another shot. DeJong is turning 29 in August and still under contract through 2023 at a $9M salary. There are also club options for 2024 and 2025, at $12.5M and $15M, though those seem sure to be bought out, barring a major turnaround in the meantime.
Elsewhere on the roster, Mozeliak notes that Steven Matz has recuperated from his shoulder issues enough to throw a bullpen session and seems lined up to start a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Signed to a four-year, $44M contract in the offseason, Matz has only been able to make nine starts so far, with diminished results. His 6.03 ERA is certainly unsightly, but there’s likely some misfortune in there. Matz actually improved his strikeout and walk rates compared to last year, but has a .350 BABIP, 67% strand rate and 21.1% HR/FB rate, all of those being worse than his career averages. As such, all of the advanced metrics believe him to be much better than that ERA, with xFIP going so far as to place him at 2.98. When Matz returns, he will likely join Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson in the rotation, leaving Andre Pallante as the odd man out. Pallante has a 2.03 ERA through 48 2/3 innings thanks to a healthy 62.7% ground ball rate. However, his 15% strikeout rate and 10.2% walk rate are both worse than league average, with a .282 BABIP and 91.3% strand rate helping him keep that ERA down.
One member of the team who doesn’t seem close to a return, however, is franchise catcher Yadier Molina. Hummel relays that he has returned to his home in Puerto Rico while rehabbing his knee, with no timetable for his return. Turning 40 in a just over two weeks, Molina has already declared that this will be his final season. However, knee soreness has limited his production to a line of .213/.225/.294 on the year for a 47 wRC+. Andrew Knizner has gotten the bulk of playing time in his absence, though he’s hitting just .185/.281/.244 on the season for a 60 wRC+. With just over a month to go until the trade deadline, the health of Molina’s knees and the status of Knizner’s bat could compel the team to consider outside options before the August 2 cutoff.