Jeff Gordon: Cardinals’ push for offensive improvement sends DeJong to Memphis
The Cardinals will have to hit a whole lot better this summer to hang in the playoff chase.
That’s why long-struggling shortstop Paul DeJong is heading back to the minors for remedial work.
That’s why Edmundo Sosa will get a “real shot” to play shortstop, as manager Oliver Marmol put it, once he returns from his rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Springfield.
That’s why ascending hitter Juan Yepez was back in the lineup Tuesday, hitting cleanup as the designated hitter.
That’s why elite prospect Nolan Gorman will get his first big league at-bats at some point this season.
During a recent 10-game span the Cardinals scored two or fewer runs seven times. They produced mediocre simple stats (.368 slugging percentage, .681 on-base-plus slugging) through 28 games and some dreadful fancy ones too.
“At this point I would like to think it’s more individual than collective,” Marmol said.
Along those lines, Tuesday afternoon DeJong got the news that he was heading back to Triple-A Memphis.
Why? “His at-bats just looked the same,” Marmol said.
And that’s not a good thing. After hitting .197 last season, DeJong was hitting just .130 this season.
The optimism he generated in the spring lasted four games in the regular season. He started 3-for-13 with three walks and a two-run opposite-field homer.
After that his spot in the batting order became a void, one magnified by hitting slumps up and down the lineup. These Cardinals could not afford having a Dal Maxvill play shortstop.
DeJong has been trying to locate his old swing for a few years now, like a guy searching for car keys lost in the woods. His return to the minors at age 28 is a last resort.
Compelling offseason arguments were made for the Cardinals to add one of the premium shortstops in the marketplace this winter. But this team was not eager to take that plunge, given the astronomical cost of free agency, the franchise’s pandemic revenue losses and the $17 million-plus left on DeJong’s contract.
Like it or not, the Cardinals will always prefer cost-efficient internal solutions on Bill DeWitt Jr.’s watch. Always! The front office felt it had some protection if DeJong continued to flail.
So it’s on to Plan B. Marmol should give Sosa several weeks to see what he can do. Sosa hit .294 with a .366 on-base percentage as starter last season and gave the team a jolt during their epic late push into the playoff bracket.
He can add speed and energy to the lineup. He can play a pretty good shortstop, too, when he’s not trying to make ill-advised, low-percentage plays.
As a starter this season Sosa is hitting just .191 with three hit by pitches in 24 plate appearances, but that easily clears the low bar DeJong has set.
If Plan B doesn’t work, then it’s on to Plan C: Call up Gorman to play some second base and slide Tommy Edman over to shortstop.
After falling into a brief rut (1-for-12 with five strikeouts in 12 at-bats) at Memphis, Gorman sent his OPS back up to 1.053 by going 5-for-15 with a walk, a double, a homer and four runs scored in four games.
Gorman has been transitioning from third base to second in the minors and Edman is taking some pregame grounders at shortstop. Going this route would not be optimal for a team built on pitching and defense.
Then again, playing Yepez in left or right field is not optimal since he is a corner infielder by trade. But Marmol made that call to add more offensive heft in the lineup.
Yepez went 9-for-19 with a walk, three doubles, a homer, four runs scored and three RBIs in the first five games since his call-up. He is one reason why the Cardinals offense has been less terrible lately. There are others.
Paul Goldschmidt suffered his usual cold start this season, hitting just .146 in his first 11 games. After that he delivered nine multi-hit performances in 16 games.
Dylan Carlson flopped as the leadoff hitter, batting just .196 with a .250 on-base percentage. Lately he has excelled lower in the batting order, producing an 8-for-20 surge with two walks, three doubles, a homer, four runs scored and four RBIs.
Edman flourished with his move to the leadoff spot. Through the weekend he had a .386 on-base percentage in that slot with nine walks, two hit by pitches and seven stolen bases.
Yadier Molina reported late to the abbreviated spring training due to personal matters. He struggled to gain his conditioning and hitting stroke while batting just .138 in his first nine games.
But he rode an eight-game hitting streak in this series. He went 10-for-32 during that span with a double, homer, four runs scored, two RBIs.
Tyler O’Neill hasn’t hit for average overall or for much power. But he has delivered with runners in scoring position, batting .381 with a 1.060 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The Cardinals need more from Harrison Bader, Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols, so the search for more offense continues. Presumably beleaguered hitting czar Jeff Albert is working on that.
In the meantime Yepez is getting his chance now. Sosa will get his soon. Gorman is moving on deck.
And who knows, maybe DeJong will finally find those keys.