As we roll into the first weekend of the MLB lockout, it’s hard not to be disappointed with the Yankees’ course of action so far. Roughly $1.7 billion was spent in the free agent frenzy that preceded the expiration of the previous CBA, but the Yankees were conspicuously absent from the headlines. Despite clear needs at multiple spots on the roster, New York’s only piece of business before the transactional freeze took effect was the re-signing of reliever Joely Rodríguez to a one-year, $2 million deal.
The most maddening aspect of it all is the quality of players who the Yankees have declined to pursue. Shortstop is the only position that GM Brian Cashman has publicly acknowledged as an area of need, which seemed to line up perfectly with the historic class of shortstops all hitting the market this winter. And yet, they watched Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Javier Báez all come off the board, with reports suggesting that the team would rather target a stopgap while waiting for highly-touted prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza to graduate to the bigs.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Andrelton Simmons and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are the names to which they are most heavily linked. However, there may be an alternative stopgap option who represents a clear upgrade over that pair: Paul DeJong.
2021 Statistics: 113 games, 402 PA, .197/.284/.390, 14 HR, 49 RBI, 4.5% BB%, 24.7% K%, 96 OPS+, 96 wRC+, -4 OAA, 1.0 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Entering fifth year of six-year, $26 million contract; two years, $15 million remaining on deal as well as $12.5 million club option ($2 million buyout) for 2023 and $15 million club option ($1 million buyout) for 2024.
Between 2017 and 2019, DeJong was the ninth-most valuable shortstop in baseball with 10.6 fWAR — ahead of even the likes of Seager and Carlos Correa. His best season came in 2019, when he put up 4.2 fWAR and blasted 30 home runs en route to his lone career All-Star selection, all while playing 91st percentile defense at short per Statcast’s OAA. Much of DeJong’s value over that span was propped up by the stellar glovework, although he did grade out slightly above average offensively with a 108 wRC+.
Unfortunately, that offense has dried up over the last two seasons. Between 2020 and 2021, DeJong appeared in 158 games totaling 576 plate appearances — in other words, the equivalent of a full season. Over that span, he only managed an anemic .213/.295/.378 triple slash line and 86 wRC+.
Much of this downslide is due to DeJong’s perennially-poor exit velocity, which really took a nosedive in 2021. Additionally, despite not having the flashy exit velo of the real mashers in the game, DeJong managed to make consistently-solid contact in 2018 and 2019, sitting in the top third of the league in hard-hit rate. However, in 2019 and 2021, that hard-hit rate dropped to the bottom quartile.
Contrary to the groundball woes that plagued the Yankees in 2021, DeJong is an extreme fly ball hitter. Since entering the league in 2017, he is tied for the 23rd-highest average launch angle (18 degrees) and 26th-highest flyball rate (44.4 percent) in the majors. Hitting so many fly balls is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it mitigates the aforementioned deficits in exit velocity, allowing him to post a career-high barrel rate of 10.6 percent in 2021 despite a career-low exit velocity of 86.3 mph. On the other hand, he’s given a much smaller margin for error such that when he doesn’t pair his increasingly-infrequent hard contact with an elevated launch angle, it produces an easy-to-catch flyout.
DeJong also doesn’t get on base enough to compensate for his weak bat, routinely striking out in over a quarter of plate appearances while never managing a walk rate over 10 percent. This all sounds pretty dire, so for the eternal optimists, there is some evidence that suggests DeJong suffered from a bit of bad luck in 2021, with a .216 BABIP well below his career average while underperforming his expected wOBA by roughly 20 points. And interestingly, DeJong seems to have suffered from the de-juiced baseball, as his hard-hit fly balls and fly balls in general travelled about 12 feet shorter than they did in from 2017 to 2019.
The one part of DeJong’s name that teams know that they can bank on is his defense. Since 2019, he has been worth 30 DRS, 7.4 UZR/150, and 9 OAA at shortstop. That’s an enormous upgrade over Gleyber Torres and the rest of the candidates the Yankees have rolled out at short over the last few years.
The biggest problem for the Yankees is the difficulty they may face in trying to pry DeJong away from the Cardinals. They have stated their intention to hang onto DeJong, as well as their lack of interest in this winter’s shortstop free agent class (although it is hard to square these statements with the logjam of middle infielders on their roster, with DeJong potentially competing for playing time with Tommy Edman, promising youngster Edmundo Sosa, and top prospect Nolan Gorman). In addition, DeJong is on an extremely team-friendly deal, being owed $15 million over the next two seasons with a pair of affordable club options following. All this adds up to a hefty prospect price needed to land the 28-year-old shortstop, perhaps too steep for the Yankees’ blood.
If all of this sounds rather unappetizing ... well, that’s what you get with prioritizing a stopgap over a star. However, I would contend that DeJong is an upgrade over the other two stopgaps mentioned. Since 2018 (Kiner-Falefa’s rookie season), DeJong is the clear offensive favorite of the trio, with his 97 wRC+ outpacing IKF’s 81 mark and Simmons’ 84 mark. DeJong’s 1 OAA since 2018 is also an improvement over IKF’s -7, and although it pales in comparison to Simmons’ 49 OAA over that span, the bat more than makes up the difference, with FanGraphs crediting the St. Louis shortstop with about three more wins.
If there’s no convincing the Yankees to deviate from the stopgap route, they may be best served pursuing DeJong over Simmons or Kiner-Falefa.