DeJong battling injuries in crucial spring
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In a perfect world, Paul DeJong would have been in the batter’s box and facing Mets superstar pitcher Justin Verlander on Wednesday while using his newly designed minimal-stride approach to show the Cardinals that he can again be a useful hitter.
But as has been the case for much of the past three seasons with DeJong, little has gone perfectly for the onetime All-Star shortstop.
A day after DeJong was scratched from the lineup because of back pain, Cardinals manager Oli Marmol revealed that the shortstop will be “sidelined for a few days” with discomfort that prevents him from bending over to field grounders. With a little more than two weeks remaining before St. Louis opens the regular season, DeJong is still sitting on 19 plate appearances and 13 at-bats in what was tabbed as a make-or-break Spring Training for him.
“Yeah, it's not ideal,” Marmol said after the Cards' 4-1 win over the Mets on Wednesday. “Obviously, he worked really hard this offseason to address certain things with his swing. Our hope was he would get a decent amount of at-bats, especially with [starter Tommy] Edman going to the [World Baseball Classic]. Unfortunately, that's not the way things worked out.”
Coming off a 2022 season in which he hit .157 and was demoted to Triple-A Memphis on May 10, DeJong spent most of his offseason at the team’s Florida complex reworking his approach at the plate. He emerged from those sessions with a more balanced swing, newly confident that he could get back to being the player who smashed 74 home runs from 2017-19, finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting in '17 and played in the All-Star Game in '19.
However, the Cardinals' plans to showcase DeJong fizzled almost from the start when he was unable to play shortstop because of a case of “arm fatigue.” With Edman playing for South Korea in the WBC and DeJong nursing an injury, an unexpected opportunity has emerged for Masyn Winn, the No. 2 prospect in St. Louis' system, per MLB Pipeline. Winn, Wednesday’s starter, is batting .276 with an .870 OPS this spring. However, the flashy rookie had his troubles with Verlander on Wednesday, striking out in each of his first two plate appearances.
DeJong, 29, almost certainly would have gotten those at-bats -- and would have fielded the four groundouts to shortstop over the game’s first four innings.
The Cardinals do not believe that DeJong's back injury is serious, but it is another setback. It could be that Edman -- who returned to camp on Wednesday when South Korea did not advance out of WBC pool play -- returns at shortstop before DeJong takes the field. Marmol said the Cards have a plan that includes weight room work and conditioning exercises to ease Edman back into Spring Training following his 16-hour flight from Tokyo. As for DeJong, it could be next week before he returns.
“Pauly's feeling better, but he'll be sidelined for a few days as [his lower back] mainly hurts when he's bending over for ground balls, but rotation -- as far as his swing -- not so much,” Marmol said. “We'll give him a few days and see how he responds to the treatment and overall work in the weight room, and then go from there.”
Following an injury- and illness-filled 2020, DeJong clubbed 19 home runs in '21, but he lost his starting job to Edmundo Sosa. When DeJong struggled mightily to open last season, the Cardinals sent him to Triple-A and shifted Edman -- a Gold Glove winner at second in 2021 -- to short. DeJong swung the bat well enough at Triple-A to get back to St. Louis, where he had home runs in his first two games and drove in the winning run with a double against the Yankees a few days later.
However, after more late-season regression, DeJong decided to tear his batting stance down and start from scratch. He replaced the high leg kick that he used early in his career with a more balanced stance, in which he keeps his weight back and barely lifts his foot.
That new stance seemed to be paying off for DeJong in early March when he hit a long home run off the batter’s eye against the Nationals. However, he’s been unable to carry over the momentum from that moment because of multiple injuries.
“For me, it’s about breaking every situation down and not getting ahead of myself,” DeJong said. “In the past, when things went wrong, I was thinking too far ahead. Losing focus of what I’m doing has been my biggest enemy. It’s about sticking with things moment to moment. It’s a revitalized feeling.”