PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Cardinals’ starting shortstop Tommy Edman got off a plane from Tokyo, Japan, where he’d been competing in the World Baseball Classic, and his most likely backup has seen only limited playing time in the two and a half weeks Edman has been been gone.
Paul DeJong, who Edman supplanted last season, spent a significant amount of time and energy this offseason retooling his swing and approach at the plate. But arm fatigue forced his initial appearances in spring training games to come as a designated hitter.
He has only played three games and 19 innings at shortstop this spring, including a WBC tune-up game against Team Nicaragua (those statistics do not count as part of Grapefruit League play).
Now, DeJong will be sidelined at least a few more days due to lower back tightness that caused the Cardinals to scratch him from Tuesday’s starting lineup and replace him with highly regarded prospect Masyn Winn.
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That leaves the Cardinals with their starting shortstop returning and ready to claim regular playing time which creates even fewer at-bats in game situations for DeJong when he’s healthy.
Meanwhile, the heir apparent Winn continues to grab as much playing time as they’ll dole out to him and continues to impress in those opportunities.
“Paulie is feeling better this morning,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “He’ll be sidelined for a few days. It mainly hurts when he’s bending over for groundballs. Rotation, as far as his swing, not so much. So that’s where he felt it (Tuesday) and kind of called it a day.
“We’ll give him a few days and see how he responds to the treatment and overall work in the weight room and go from there. But he’ll be down a couple days.”
A former All-Star and the franchise single-season record for home runs by a shortstop (30 in 2019), DeJong struggled badly last season when he slashed .157/.245/.286 and struck out at a 33.3-percent rate.
While he has gone 2 for 16 at the plate this spring, he has also drawn seven walks and struck out three times.
Earlier this spring, DeJong expressed confidence with how the adjustments have been translating.
“I feel like I’ve been seeing the ball pretty well,” DeJong said earlier this month. “So far, I feel like I’ve been in good counts. So it seems like early in the count, even though I’m thinking aggressively, I’m still seeing the ball well and taking good pitches for balls.”
This spring should have been a platform for DeJong to show off the swing changes he’d made and the work he put in to set the stage for a bounce-back performance while dominating the playing time at shortstop.
Instead, he’s had just 19 plate appearances and seems to be running out of time to get at-bats.
“It’s not ideal,” Marmol said. “Obviously, he worked really hard this offseason to address certain things with his swing. Our hope was that he would get a decent amount of at-bats, especially with Edman going to the WBC. Unfortunately, that’s not the way this has worked out.”
Edman returned to Florida after playing for Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic, and was back at the Cardinals’ Jupiter training facility on Wednesday. He’d start ramping back up to playing in spring training games as soon as this weekend.
When DeJong feels healthy enough to return to game action, his chances may depend upon Edman’s playing time. While simulated games, “B” games or minor-league games on the back fields might provide the most readily-available playing time.
“There’s opportunities for at-bats,” Marmol said. “Is it ideal? No. But it’s what we have.”
The Cardinals have slotted in Winn and allowed the talented 20-year-old on the rise to take advantage of the playing time vacated by Edman’s departure and DeJong’s ailments, but Winn’s development is best served by everyday playing time in the minors once the season starts.
Winn, who has batted .264 in 217 career games in the minors, went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts — two against New York Mets star pitcher Justin Verlander — on Wednesday.
With Edman garnering everyday playing time and second base occupied by the combination of Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman, the available role is as a backup.
The Cardinals can exercise their option on DeJong’s contract after this season and make him a free agent. But he’s still currently on their major-league roster and has surpassed five years of service time, which means he’d have to consent to being sent to the minors.
The Cardinals also don’t have another proven shortstop on its spring training roster, and they optioned infielder Jose Fermin to the minors last week. That would seem to further cement the idea that DeJong is the backup shortstop.
Left-hander Thomas tossed a highly-efficient outing in his third start of the spring. He pitched four scoreless innings, allowed just two hits and struck out two. He didn’t walk a batter, and he needed just 38 pitches (28 strikes) to get through the outing. Of the 10 balls put in play against Thomas by Mets hitters, eight were groundouts, one pop-up and one lineout. … Relief pitcher Ryan Helsley retired the side in order on three strikeouts on 14 pitches in the seventh inning. He has now recorded six consecutive strikeouts in his last two appearances. His hardest pitch on Wednesday registered a velocity of 98.4 miles per hour. … Following Wednesday’s game, the Cardinals announced they’d assigned non-roster pitcher Tink Hence to minor league camp. Baseball America ranked Hence the No. 48 prospect in the minor leagues entering this season. The Cardinals’ spring training roster now sits at 50 players.