JUPITER, Fla. • In a visiting dugout last week on the other side of Florida, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer raved about Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, and he appeared.
The Baltimore broadcaster sat in the Cardinals’ dugout at Ed Smith Stadium and, to anyone within earshot, complimented the “kid” who debuted last season — his power and poise. DeJong emerged from the clubhouse tunnel and walked over to the former pitcher at the same time and extended his hand, “Mr. Palmer, I’m Paul DeJong.” Palmer took it and responded with a question.
He wondered why DeJong played so many positions in college.
“Anywhere to get in the lineup,” DeJong replied.
Those nomadic beginnings of DeJong’s career — from his upward mobility through the minors to his all-around agility in the field — ended Monday as the Cardinals and their opening day shortstop agreed to a six-year, $26 million contract extension. The deal includes two options that could keep DeJong with the Cardinals through 2025. Security brings welcome certainty. That’s true for a team that has cycled through 10 shortstops in the past 11 years, and for DeJong, who can now mothball those MCAT study guides.
“Waiting out just to see, to me, that seems so uncertain and so far away,” said DeJong, who could lose two free-agent years. “This is much more calming, a calming deal. It gives me a sense of security, and I think overall it’s going to give me an edge on the field. You work so hard at this game and, God forbid, something catastrophic happens. This takes that out. The rest is icing. I can focus on winning and playing and being a good teammate and becoming a leader, and not have to worry about going to med school or where I’ll have to work.”
DeJong and his agent, Burton Rocks, pursued a multi-year deal with the Cardinals, and in the past week negotiations gathered momentum. DeJong, 24, passed a physical Monday morning to finalize the deal, which could be worth as much as $51.5 million, a source confirmed. The salary escalates to mimic the arbitration process, and the two club options are for $12.5 million for 2024 and $14 million for 2025. DeJong’s guarantee is the largest for a player who has less than one year of service time, and it is a first for the Cardinals to do an extension that early.
The mutual interest in such deal began as a “kernel of an idea” when the two sides discussed DeJong’s salary for 2018, general manager Michael Girsch said.
The long-term commitment to DeJong contrasted Monday with the forced renewal of center fielder Tommy Pham, at $570,000. The two players were revelations in 2017 as DeJong led the team with 25 homers and Pham had a season unlike any other in 127 years of Cardinals baseball. He stole 25 bases, hit 23 homers, and hit .306 with a .411 on-base percentage and .520 slugging average. Only Jose Altuve and Mike Trout could match or surpass that collection of statistics.
The Cardinals approached Pham about a two-year deal, but he declined. He also did not agree to a contract, so the Cardinals, as is their right, imposed a salary on him.
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It is the first time they’ve used a renewal since Anthony Reyes, in 2008.
“It just wasn’t strong enough for me,” Pham said. “If you look at what I did last year, I didn’t think there was a great amount of appreciation, so I took the renewal. Nothing was right. I wouldn’t sell myself short.”
Each spring, all clubs work through the process of signing their players with less than three years of service time. The Cardinals announced agreements with 24 such players Monday, including Greg Garcia, Jose Martinez and starter Luke Weaver.
Pham barely slipped under three years, and he pointed that out in his discussions with the Cardinals. Teams have all the leverage. The Cardinals use an algorithm that has been fine-tuned over time to determine the salary for “zero-to-three” players. The salary offer and formula are provided agents, but there’s little room for negotiations. Teams have the final say.
Pham will be arbitration eligible next offseason.
The Cardinals and DeJong agreed to a one-year deal, but from it sprang further talks. An agreement with a young player on an extension during spring is almost as annual an event as the Cardinals’ search for a shortstop. They got both in DeJong.
“The impressive part of Paul is just the impact he can make from a defensive standpoint with that balance of power. It’s a rare combination,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “From our international market, we haven’t hit on (a shortstop). From the draft standpoint, it’s been lean. So, I think a lot of time we’ve tried to outsource that. Our confidence in him in being that everyday player is very high. Hence, the commitment.”
Although proficient in using them, the Cardinals have had mixed results with the long-term extensions. A year ago, the Cardinals signed Stephen Piscotty to a long-term deal and then traded him this past offseason. Allen Craig agreed to a spring-time extension and was moved soon after. Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn are the last of the pre-arbtitration extensions to complete their deals with the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong all signed extensions before reaching arbitration, and are still on them.
Craig and Piscotty did bring returns, as Craig was moved in a deal that shed salary and acquired John Lackey. Piscotty became two middle infielders, including Yairo Munoz, who has had a strong spring.
This is all part of the plan, hatched when the Cardinals went homegrown.
“The idea is to draft and sign internationally and develop players that when we find out how they perform, we extend and keep them,” Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “That’s always been the strategy. There are clubs that have good young players and just sort of play it out and then they’re in a situation where if they do well, maybe as they get closer to free agency things can change.”
DeWitt enjoys wading into the minor-league reports for gems about future players, and it wasn’t long after the Cardinals drafted DeJong in the fourth round of 2015 that he started hearing about the Illinois State grad. DeJong was the versatile athlete the Cardinals sought, and he had latent and potential power they needed. Reports started referencing his “studiousness” and “intelligence.” A coach recently said that DeJong “could hear instruction once and apply it.” What DeWitt and others heard about DeJong as he rose toward the majors was what the clubhouse saw in 2017.
He arrived in late May, was the starting shortstop by late June, and had been hitting third for the Cardinals by late July. Manager Mike Matheny remarked “how quickly he’s earned the respect of his teammates (with) a professionalism, a reliability, a toughness, mental toughness, some of those qualities that demands the respect.” That, and the 38 homers he hit total in 2017. DeJong finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting and would have been a blue-chip stock entering arbitration with similar production.
After moving around and moving up, DeJong knows where he stands.
“The Cardinals are committed to me,” he said. “I’m committed to them.”
The Cardinals are wagering on DeJong.
Pham is wagering too, on himself.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “I know what numbers I need to put up to reach whatever. I’m betting on myself, man. I’m from Vegas. I’m a betting individual.”