You know the old saying: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there’s probably Kolten Wong.
Lately, the Cardinals’ young, embattled second baseman has been the regular center of controversy. First, there was Wong’s unexpected trip to the minor leagues, with a brief stint in AAA Memphis the result of a poor opening to his season. Many speculated that manager Mike Matheny felt differently about Wong’s importance than did general manager John Mozeliak. Wong’s trip to AAA was a signal that Mo was intent on finding Wong consistent playing time, wherever he might have to do that.
Then, there were the controversial comments Wong made to Rob Rains, comments that were very poorly received by many in the St. Louis Sports media.
But the offseason saw new hope for Wong. With Mozeliak emphasizing added speed, athleticism, and defensive skill for the 2017 season, it became clear that Wong’s everyday presence was a major pillar of Mozeliak’s path forward.
And yet, suddenly, Wong is back in hot water. Today, in an interview with Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Wong was questioned about the news that he might be asked to platoon at second base with Jedd Gyorko. Wong readily expressed his frustration, saying:
“I was told that I was going to be the starting second baseman. If that’s what they want to do, then that’s their decision. The thing with me, and my frustrations is that, I think when you give someone a contract and you expect him to be the guy, you should have belief in that guy. It’s hard when you don’t feel that belief. But it is what it is. If that’s the case, then I’ll be ready to do what I gotta do to help the team win.”
When asked, more directly, whether he would sooner be traded than be demoted to a timeshare yet again, Wong was even more explicit:
“One hundred percent. One hundred percent. I don’t want to be here wasting my time. I know what kind of player I am. If I don’t have the belief [of the manager/front office] here, then I’ll go somewhere else.”
Even before these comments, Wong had already been labeled as something of a “problem child.” A “hothead.” Someone who didn’t fit right into the “Cardinal Way.” Now, with this new controversy, Wong’s image with many Cardinals fans will sink lower than ever before.
And not without reason. While Wong knows how to talk the talk, he is still learning to walk the walk. In Spring Training, Wong is slashing an abysmal .182/.265/.250, numbers that make Brendan Ryan look like a capable MLB hitter.
Wong has an explanation, though: “I’m not having the greatest spring training. But I don’t really care about spring training. Spring training is about getting you ready for the season.”
While Kolten may believe that, the fact of the matter is that managers are making their decisions based on what they see in Spring Training. And what Matheny has seen in Wong is a young player who isn’t hitting at a major league level.
But we should be careful to consider things from Wong’s perspective as well. As a 26 year old player, Wong’s last year was filled with head-spinning inconsistencies and mixed messages. First, Mozeliak gave Wong a 5 year/$25.5 million contract. Then, in June, that same GM sent him down to the minor leagues. But the drama wasn’t over. The Cardinals decided to try and find playing time for one of the best defensive second basemen in MLB by moving him to center field. But just as Wong was learning to play center, Randal Grichuk finally found his stride and began to play there regularly. Every time Wong prepared to zig, the team hit him with a zag.
More frustratingly, Wong has never had the support or trust of manager Mike Matheny. While Mozeliak can talk until he is blue in the face about how this team needs Wong to shore up the middle infield, Matheny will always prefer an experienced player over a young one. If someone is going to struggle in Mike Matheny’s lineup, it’s going to be a veteran.
This would be more palatable if Wong’s offensive numbers where the whole story, but they aren’t. Wong performed much better after his demotion than before, with a .341 OBP and a .401 SLG. He walked more and struck out less. And even with better numbers, Wong had a very low BABIP (batting average on balls in play, a statistic which estimates “luck” by seeing how often a player succeeds once he puts a ball in play). Wong’s BABIP was .273, far below the typical average of .300.
But Wong does not shine brightest as a hitter. Wong is an incredible base runner, certainly the best on the Cardinals (at least, before the arrival of Dexter Fowler). While fans may rush to remember his pickoff in the World Series, over the past three seasons, Wong has led the team with 10.4 base running runs.
And when Wong says: “on defense, I’m one of the best second basemen in the league. I believe that and I know that,” he isn’t wrong. He ranks fifth amongst second baseman from 2014-2016 with 19 defensive runs saved.
So while fans may rightly ask that Wong let his play do the talking, they should also acknowledge that Wong has a point. He’s receiving mixed messages from the front office and the manager’s office. And uncertainty is not the environment in which a young player blossoms. Wong does need consistent playing time, and the consistent trust of his skipper, to fulfill his potential.
If that is not available to him, then perhaps it is best for Mozeliak to find a new home for him. The whole situation is reminiscent of Colby Rasmus’ issues with manager Tony La Russa. The Cardinals seem to struggle with top prospects transitioning into successful major leaguers. And trading Rasmus was the move that led to the Cardinals winning the 2011 World Series. So perhaps trading Wong is the right decision.
I for one hope that doesn’t happen. Finding strong middle infielders is very difficult in the Majors, and Wong has the potential to be a five-tool player. He just needs to figure himself out, and perhaps learn when its best to keep his mouth shut.
For a valuable (albeit older) perspective on Wong, and the source of many of the statistics quoted above, see Bernie Miklasz’s article about Wong here.