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Paul DeJong sounds like everything the White Sox weren’t in 2023.
And for a team attempting a dramatic reimagining, that’s a good thing.
As for whether or not it will help them reverse their fortunes in any significant fashion from last season’s brutal 101 losses remains to be seen. But DeJong is the kind of player that Chris Getz has described as the type he wants throughout the White Sox’ roster.
“The biggest thing is the fundamentals,” DeJong said during a Wednesday media session. “It’s not trying to be flashy, not trying to force things. For me, it’s about making the plays and preparing, doing my work pregame, talking to the other infielders with our communication. If things happen in the game, going in the video room, deciding what needs to be done. ‘What did we do right? What did we do wrong?’ Just focusing on the little details.”
Sounds like that will be music to the new general manager’s ears, which is obviously why Getz inked DeJong to a one-year free-agent deal to come aboard as the team’s new shortstop, succeeding two-time All Star and one-time franchise face Tim Anderson.
Anderson was once the embodiment of what this team wanted to be, a fun-loving bat-flipper who brought swagger and a desire to beat up on the competition to go along with elite offensive skills. But as Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project failed to get off the ground over the past two seasons, Anderson became defined by the same things that plagued so many of his teammates: injuries, mistakes in the field and on the base paths and a failure to live up to expectations.
In at least one of those categories, DeJong has some experience, as he’s failed to recapture the offensive success that produced 30 home runs and an All-Star appearance while with the Cardinals in 2019. But he’s a steady defensive presence who talked an awful lot about the importance of fundamentals Wednesday, seeming to provide a sharp contrast to the mistake-filled play of the last two seasons and a shining example of how Getz and Pedro Grifol want to see this White Sox team evolve.
“I really take pride in my defensive abilities,” DeJong said. “That’s something I worked on in the Cardinals’ organization, playing the shortstop position, being a fundamental player, so I bring that steady (presence), make the fundamental plays, help our pitchers out, get outs, make double plays, just trying to be a staple.
“As a defender, you have to be fully locked in. You have to play on all sides of the ball. So when we’re out there on defense, we have to focus in. And when we’re on the bases, we have to focus on running. And when you’re at the plate, it’s that focus.”
DeJong was a mainstay in St. Louis, where the Cardinals established a reputation for “playing the game the right way,” not that it always yielded triumphant results. A trip to the NLCS in that big 2019 season for DeJong was followed by a trio of early playoff exits and a similar stumble to the one the White Sox made in 2023, when the Cardinals were woeful and lost 91 games en route to their first last-place finish in NL Central ever.
But DeJong is a believer in that style of play, one that sounds an awful lot like what Getz and Grifol want to see on the South Side. If DeJong, the Antioch native whose great-grandparents grew up in South Deering, can bring a little bit of that “Cardinal Way” up I-55, it seems like it’d be a step in the right direction as Getz tries to establish an organizational identity at 35th and Shields.
“I got to learn from a lot of great ones: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols for a little bit,” DeJong said. “I think what I’ve got most from them is the preparation with the attention to detail. … But I think the biggest thing with the Cardinals was really just talking the game over. Especially when (Paul) Goldschmidt got over there, a lot of the base-running stuff, he would be talking to the whole camp about certain plays, certain base-running techniques.
“It’s just really a focus and an accountability and really just a discussion about how we want to play this game. We are not all individuals. That was the team mentality. I’d like to, coming over to the White Sox, bring some of that as far as the discussions, getting all of us talking about certain topics and all on the same page. I think that can really help as things come up in the season.”
DeJong isn’t expected to be that long-term of a presence with the White Sox, who obviously wanted him aboard – he cited their offering a major league contract as one of the key reasons he signed – but might not require his services once top-ranked prospect Colson Montgomery is ready to take over at shortstop. Questions remain about whether that’s the position Montgomery will even play once he reaches the big leagues, but for now, that’s where he’s projected, making DeJong look like a placeholder.
But the veteran’s presence could still be valuable in Grifol’s clubhouse a year after the culture in there was thrust under a microscope by trade-deadline deals and post-deadline critiques.
“For me, it all comes down to breaking it down to a game and trying to do our best to win the game today and not focus on the road trip or the full season, your stats or anything like that,” DeJong said. “Everything has to be about, ‘What can we do today?’ If we can break it down as far as we can – even in what can I do this inning or this at-bat – if we keep that small focus on what’s right in front of us, that’s how good teams win.
“They pick each other up. They have that confidence in each other that we don’t have to hit 27 solo home runs to win a game. We can do other things. We can trust the guy behind us and just try not to do too much as far as an individual goes.”
For what Getz has prioritized as he embarks on transforming the White Sox, DeJong seems a perfect fit, someone who plays fundamental baseball, someone who takes pride in playing solid defense and someone who has recognized what makes a good clubhouse tick from his days in St. Louis.
Though the offensive numbers leave plenty to be desired and he might not rev up a frustrated fan base that’s not expecting to watch a contending club in 2024, DeJong seems to be exactly what the White Sox wanted this winter.
“I had a good talk with Pedro,” DeJong said. “He seems like he has the right idea as far as where he wants to take this team, playing more fundamental baseball. … He expected me to have some defensive stability for him and some sort of veteran leadership as far as kind of taking care of the young guys, being able to communicate certain things about the game and analyzing certain plays and being able to just really kind of be a leader on the field.”
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