St. Louis this week surprised the baseball world by signing sophomore shortstop Paul DeJong to a six-year, $26 million contract. Setting aside the small sample size the Cardinals used to justify DeJong’s contract, the transaction could hurt their chances at keeping one of the game’s most exciting players, outfielder Tommy Pham. Pham was offered a two-year deal that insulted him, and was simply renewed by the Cards for 2018 at just $570k the same day DeJong’s contract was signed. This will certainly haunt them as Pham goes to arbitration next season.
However unexpected, the DeJong signing follows a pattern that the Cardinals have employed before by signing young players to long contracts which has had some success (Carlos Martinez at 5 yrs./$51 mil) and some big failures (Allen Craig at 5 yrs/$31 mil). In previous cases, the players had at least a few seasons under their belt before the front office has to address a contract. The DeJong deal at its signing was the largest ever given to a player with less than a year of service time.
DeJong hit .285/.325/.532 with 25 home runs and 65 RBI as a 23-year-old rookie in 2017, but struck out 124 times in 443 plate appearances with an alarming 5.9 SO/W ratio. In an era where power-hitting middle infielders are no longer rare, the rush to allocate so much to a player years away from arbitration just doesn’t make sense. It should also be noted that the aforementioned Craig deal was signed after his 2012 season of .307/.354/.522 and 22 home runs—he was out of the majors 3 years later and never came close to matching that year.
Pham, on the other hand, led the Cardinals with an outstanding 6.4 WAR in 2018, hitting .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers and 25 steals. Unlike DeJong, he had also played well over parts of two previous seasons and in the minors, even though he couldn’t see perfectly until surgery to correct keratoconus after the 2011 season and ditching contacts in 2016. With another big year (Pham is shooting to be the first 30/30 Cardinal), he could be in line for a big payday in 2019.
Though the Cards could certainly have the money to pay both DeJong and Pham down the road, the message sent by the DeJong signing and Pham renewal is likely to create some bad feelings. Pham told St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Gold, “I wouldn’t sell myself short like that.”
Time will tell if the gamble the Cardinals have taken with DeJong pays off. But locking up DeJong and not Pham may go down as one of the biggest front office mistakes of the 2k-teens if it costs them their star centerfielder a few years down the road.
Featured photo of Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham by Joe Sargent/Getty Images.