St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop Paul DeJong almost wasn't a Cardinal after all.
The Illinois State University product was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2014 MLB Entry Level Draft, but he ended up back in college for another season. The Cardinals took him in the 2015 draft, and it didn't take long for DeJong to make his presence known
In Rookie League time split between Peoria and Johnson City that year, DeJong had a slash line of .316/.394/.516 in 66 games, adding 13 stolen bases to the juice that was gathering around his promise. But the 2016 stint in Springfield was the real test, being that it is the toughest pitching circuit in the minor leagues.
DeJong only .260, but he slugged 22 home runs and 29 doubles in 132 games, while striking out 144 times in 552 at bats. The strikeouts were higher than desired, but DeJong showed at the young age of 22 years old that he had what it takes to be a Major League caliber hitter. He also made the switch from third base to shortstop, making himself more appealing to a Cardinals team that had front row seats at the time to the rise of Aledmys Diaz.
How things can change in a year, because today Diaz is playing his days in Memphis and DeJong is slugging his way around Major League pitching with the Cardinals. It took a pair of Kolten Wong injuries for DeJong to catch some time with the big club.
After smashing 13 home runs with a .909 OPS in 48 games at Memphis this year, DeJong was called up to the big club on May 27 and made his debut in Colorado. He hit a home run in his first at bat. Less than two weeks later, he was sent back down to Memphis after hitting .263 with more stirkeouts than hits (13 to 10).
When he was called back on June 15, DeJong had a chance to make the case to stick around, whether or not Wong returned on schedule or not. What he did was provide refuge to the club when Diaz's play declined to a nasty degree, and a replacement was needed. DeJong is providing a spark to the infield in the same way Tommy Pham did for a limping outfield. What he was doing before Saturday's game was impressive.
During the 25 games since his second stint began, DeJong is hitting .338 with seven home runs and seven doubles. He's providing stable-if not great-defense at shortstop, giving the Cardinals something extra to think about with Wong close to returning.
Saturday, everything came into tune for the 23 year old Orlando, Florida native. He became the second Cardinal since 1948 to hit three doubles and a home run in a game. He became the first shortstop in the modern era to collect four extra base hits in a single game. He's quickly becoming a guy that is hard to keep out of the lineup.
Unlike Pham and Luke Voit, DeJong isn't a late bloomer who is running out of time. He's just a kid with a wicked bat who has hit at every level in this organization, and is making a surprisingly early rise.
Will it last? The answer is unknown, but there's hope in the trend of DeJong's bat. The 120 at bats and two stints in the Majors isn't an extremely small sample size, but there's a good chance DeJong could be the infield version of Randal Grichuk. Each player hits for a lot of power, strikes out a ton, and doesn't get on base a lot. DeJong is 23 years old and Grichuk will be 26 next month.
For the time being, it's safe to say DeJong will spend the rest of July with the Cardinals. Let Michael Girsch sort him out. If Wong comes back, DeJong is going to play somewhere if he keeps swinging the bat like he has the past three weeks. If the Cards trade for Troy Tulowitzki, DeJong will find at bats elsewhere. He is forcing the issue at a very young age, smashing more than mere singles in the heat of summer.
On Friday night, he cranked a home run off talented young Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom. On Saturday, he refused to stop hitting, giving Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes a workout in left.
Just think, all of this could have happened with Pittsburgh, a team that wanted DeJong, but didn't end up with his services. The Cardinals now get to watch him slug baseballs, a sight that is satisfying amid a disappointing season. Like an actor making the most out of a role in a misguided movie, DeJong has been impressive.
It's July 9, and Paul DeJong has 21 professional home runs on the season. Don't expect him to let it go to his head.
In December, DeJong told me on The Hollywood Casino Press Box about the things he needed to work on to get ready for the Majors: "It's just about continuing my development as a player..and to be ready when they need me."
After his big day Saturday, DeJong again preached the simplicity of preparation and doing his job: "I just ended up with four hits, just one of those days."
He's humble and he can hit. Sounds like a 2017 St. Louis Cardinals breakout player trend I can get used to.