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St. Louis Cardinals vs Chicago Cubs

St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong (12) singles in the eighth inning during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

The offseason chatter pertaining to the Cardinals’ lineup has centered mostly on what effect recently acquired Paul Goldschmidt will have and whether Marcell Ozuna’s right shoulder will be healed enough for him to generate more power this season.

Generally pushed to the back burner is shortstop Paul DeJong, who fairly quietly has hit 44 home runs in basically 1½ big-league seasons (223 games).

“Maybe I’m going under the radar again,” said DeJong, who hit 19 homers and drove in 68 runs but batted just .241 in 2018 after hitting 25 homers and batting .285 in his rookie year.

“Physically, I have the abilities,” DeJong said. “Last year, mentally my approach kind of fell off.”

Exhibit A might be his unusual split between hitting with men in scoring position, where he had a creditable .288 average and .876 OPS (slugging, plus on-base percentage). With nobody on, DeJong was more or less a statue, batting just .210 with a .669 OPS.

These two contrasting figures account for the fact that DeJong batted only .228 after the All-Star break, yet was third in the National League behind Christian Yelich and Michael Conforto in runs batted in with 49.

DeJong related recently that Jose Oquendo, a big-league coach in 2018 but a minor league instructor this season, had told him last year “that I was taking too many pitches. When there was nobody on base, I was taking fastballs and that certainly is not me.

“I remember distinctly that when I got guys in scoring position, I was going up there hacking,” said DeJong. “I was ready to swing early because when you’ve got guys in scoring position, pitchers are coming right after you.

“I just have to find that fine line between being aggressive early in the count and making a pitcher work.”

To that end, DeJong already has spent time with new hitting coach Jeff Albert at the Cardinals’ spring training site in Jupiter, Fla.

“I really love his approach to the game and how he tries to keep it simple,” said DeJong. “He doesn’t get into the pitch percentages and things like that. He’s more about trying to help a guy find his clean-swing mechanics.”

DeJong certainly is not a Matt Carpenter, who often wrangles a full count out of his at-bats. The 25-year-old DeJong walked only 36 times this past season and 21 the year before. But he will be a vital part of a Cardinals lineup that is projected to go after pitchers from the jump.

Carpenter and Goldschmidt, who split 69 home runs in 2018, could be the top two batters in the order. Ozuna, who had 23 homers in an off-year, and Yadier Molina, who had 20, are likely to be 4-5.

This leaves DeJong, whose 44 homers in his first two Cardinals seasons is tied for second in franchise history behind Albert Pujols (71), in the vital third spot.

“Front-loading our lineup is going to help us,” said DeJong. “Guys are going to put up runs in a hurry.”

There should be many runners in scoring position during early-game DeJong at-bats. If DeJong produces, his name will be front and center.

“I don’t love the attention, directly,” he said. “I’d rather just prove it and earn it, if that makes sense. For us, it’s just about hitting for power consistently through the lineup and probably speed (Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong) at the bottom and then cycle it back. I really like how I fit in at either three or five (in the order).”

In 2018, DeJong batted .223 as a No. 3 hitter, but the year before he hit .292 with 11 of his 25 homers and an .855 OPS while third in the lineup.

DeJong missed 45 games in May and June last season with a fractured finger on his right hand, as a result of being hit by a pitch from Philadelphia’s Luis Garcia. He had a pin in his finger for the balance of the season and he said he didn’t feel normal until the Cardinals’ August run, in which they were 22-6.

“We were all playing well as a group and we were winning,”DeJong said. “I realized it wasn’t about me.”

Before that, “It was more mental, managing expectations (after) coming off the DL. I was wanting to try and catch up for all the time I had missed and, what I had done my rookie year, expecting to do that and more.

“It was a very valuable learning experience for me and I’ll definitely remember those times,” DeJong said.

While DeJong’s offense was erratic, his defense, called into some question in his first season, was much improved in 2018 when he had 12 errors while appearing in 115 games and finished high in many metrics.

“Another year of experience helped,” he said. “I always felt that when I transferred to shortstop (from third base) that I was a more natural defender — the way I saw the ball off the bat and my angles.”

DeJong said he also found himself playing deeper and more up the middle laterally, with the guidance of Oquendo. The result, DeJong thought, was greater range.

“This year I want to keep expanding that range factor,” he said. “There were plays I could have anticipated a little better, with a little quicker timing off the bat.

“Defense has become one of my favorites. When I played third, I never really loved defense. At short, I’m excited to go out there and make plays. You’ve got Kolten out there making diving plays and, with Harrison in center, that’s kind of inspiring. Playing defense can be fun.”

Oquendo will be available to DeJong mostly just in spring training now and DeJong said, “I really liked working with Oquendo. I think the results really showed, with all the stuff I learned from him, like the positioning.

“I’m pretty good at working on the mechanics with Ollie (Oliver Marmol, now the bench coach) and now Stubby (first-base coach Stubby Clapp), but Oquendo had that invaluable player experience and he could always relate to what I was doing in the game. He always had an experience to explain.

“Just practicing with him always brings a smile to my face.”

The addition of Goldschmidt, who has earned three Gold Gloves, will also help DeJong defensively. “He brings the veteran leadership, the experience, obviously the physical skills. Hopefully, he saves me a couple of errors in the dirt,” said DeJong, laughing.

“He’s just going to round out our infield. Most (infielders) who win a Gold Glove seem to have a really good first baseman.”

Where he once was considered a future third baseman, DeJong says,“I don’t want to play third ever again. Shortstop is my position and I want to stay there.”


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