The transition to professional baseball for St. Louis Cardinals' 2015 fourth-round pick Paul DeJong did not seem to affect him coming into his first full-season assignment for 2016.
DeJong, 22, was one several high picks from last year's amateur draft class to instill raw power into a power-starved Cardinals farm system. The former Illinois State standout had earned first-team All-MWC (Missouri Valley Conference) honors while playing four different positions for Illinois State University as a super-utility, everyday player last spring.
Instrumental in the evaluation and signing of DeJong was Cardinals Midwest area scout Tom Lipari.
“Paul fits the mold of what the Cardinals scouting department looks for in amateur prospects,” said Lipari. “His makeup on and off the field is off the charts and everything he does, he handles in a professional manner. Paul is a cool customer. Tremendous young man. He's got that even-keel approach to the game. Very level, special player."
That was also noticed last fall by then-Cardinals minor league coordinator and now-Major League assistant hitting coach Derrick May.
“The first time I met him, you could just see the confidence in which he carries himself,” May said. “He just has a very simple approach. He has great straight away power and stays on the ball.
“I can remember watching him. In one game, he hit a hanging curveball. He said he was not really looking for it. He was just reacting to it. I just thought that was great. He is more advanced - and you like to see that."
After tearing through the lower levels with a .316/.394/.516 line between Class-A (short season) State College and Low-A Peoria, that success garnered DeJong an aggressive assignment to Double-A Springfield this season, bypassing High-A Palm Beach.
DeJong opened the year as manager Dann Bilardello's three-hole hitter but he has struggled in his immediate acclimation to Double-A and as a result, plummeted in the batting order. However, the third baseman is coming on of late with nine hits in his last six games coming into Thursday, including his first three Texas League home runs.
Through 23 games, DeJong has slashed .244/.327/.407 with 14 RBI and 10 runs scored. He fanned 33 times against only nine walks in 86 at-bats, and is continuing to make adjustments and learning by the day.
As mentioned, DeJong played numerous defensive positions in his collegiate career. The Cardinals are trying him at third, and the early results are on the plus side of the spectrum. He has taken to the position, and shown to be a fine defender in the early going.
In this exclusive interview below, DeJong discusses his emotions when drafted by the Cardinals, improvements he can make at the plate, and his goals for the new season.
Derek Shore: Could take me back to draft day and put into words those emotions to hear the Cardinals draft you?
Paul DeJong: "I will start with the day before the draft - that Sunday before round one started on that Monday. The Cardinals brought me out to Busch Stadium for the pre-draft workout. I was still on the shelf with a broken thumb at the time, and I didn't get to work out, but just being there and being there in the stadium with all the guys was just an amazing experience.
“Going into the draft, I had a really good feeling about the Cardinals and just knowing about the history and all that with the team. I was super excited to be picked by them. I was hoping I was going to go on that second day. When the Cardinals called my name, it was a dream come true."
DS: Along with your teammate Harrison Bader, you two just both jumped right into professional baseball and started hitting right away. How was the transition from Illinois State to the pros?
PD: "I think the transition from college to Low-A was pretty close. In a way I would compare it, would be like facing a Friday night starter every day in Low-A. That jump wasn't so bad. I just try to go about my business, in the same way, every day and have that same mindset of 'get your work done and whatever happens, happens - stick with the process.'
"This jump has been a little tougher for me at times (skipping over High-A to Double-A), but you just got to keep going, keep grinding through it, and learn from the games."
DS: You had the opportunity to play in some big-league spring training games. What did you take away from that?
PD: "It was great to have some experience with some of the big-league guys and meet Mike Matheny. I got to play up for six games with the big-league team. The way they welcome you with open arms, 'it wasn't like a 'we're better than you' it was more like, 'let's include you in what we're doing and teach you how we do things up here.'
“I took a lot away from talking with the staff and players. It was just awesome."
DS: You once played at Hammons Field in college. What is it like to hit here?
PD: "It's a great park to hit. Usually, the wind is blowing out and that can get in your head a little bit. I try to stay gap-to-gap. I think I have power to all fields, but if you try to force balls to hit out with that short porch in left, you can get yourself in trouble real quick. I really just try to stick with the same approach, no matter what park I'm in.
"It's a beautiful stadium. Great playing surface. Great fans. I couldn't be happier."
DS: You haven't gotten off to an ideal start, but are there any adjustments your making at the plate?
PD: "I think I'm missing pitches early in the count that I should be hitting. I'm getting myself in tough pitchers' counts and forcing me to chase some balls out of the zone. Really for me it is about getting the fastball early in the count and putting a good swing on it.
"I'm making adjustments day to day with my hitting coach (Ramon 'Smokey' Ortiz). I'm just trying to learn from my at-bats and just trying to stick with it. It's a long season and a long way to go."
DS: There's a consensus that the ball comes off your bat differently than most. Have you ever noticed this?
PD: "I think when I'm at my best, I'm able to hit doubles in the gap and gap-to-gap, especially to right-center. And when I can hit those doubles to right-center, that's where I feel like I get the backspin and where I want to be and I can adjust to most pitches in the zone if I stick to my approach from gap-to-gap.
"Sometimes, if I get a little pull happy, I get into trouble, but I try to stay relaxed in the box and get my pitch."
DS: You alluded to hitting balls to right-center and you've hit quite a few balls to the opposite field this year. Would you consider that your natural stroke?
PD: "Yeah, I think that's more my natural swing (to opposite field). A lot of times we say as hitters 'look away and adjust in', so when I look away, and I'm able to take that middle out pitch to take to the right field. I think that's where I want to be. If I'm able to get that middle in fastball, I'm able to turn on it a little bit better if I'm thinking to the right side.
"If I'm just thinking pull, and they pitch outside, then I think I'm in some trouble."
DS: You played all over the field in college, but the Cardinals have stuck with you at third base. How would you describe yourself as a defender there?
PD: "I played a lot of positions in college with third base probably being the least experienced. I'll do anything to play and get in the lineup at whatever position I can play. I feel comfortable at third and each game, I'm learning more about the position and myself. I think I've made some big improvements."
DS: Defensively speaking, has the game picked up any from the lower levels?
PD: "I would say pitchers have a little bit more of an idea of what they're doing out there. They're not just throwing the ball; they are setting up things or a pitch or two. Really, it's the same game and what I found out in big-league spring training games.
"You may think these guys are superstars; they are. But, it's really the same game we've always been playing. That's the way I see it and sometimes we do adjust a little bit to the speed of the game. Overall, it's still baseball; you still have to get three outs every inning, and twenty-seven outs to win the game."
DS: With all that said, do you have any goals set for this season?
PD: "I want to make it through the season healthy all the way through and try to keep that same level-head. Just try not to avoid the ups-and-down of the rollercoaster. I want to keep it as even-keel as possible. That will set me up for the best chance I have to be successful."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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