Two days before Halloween, the Cardinals announced a surprising decision: They were declining Kolten Wong’s $11.5 million option for 2021. Just like that, Wong was a free agent. And unless there’s an unlikely reunion in the form of a new contract for Wong, the second baseman will be taking his gold-glove defense, above-average onbase skills, and plus speed to another team.
Hey, I realize this happened nearly two months ago, but I wasn’t writing/working at the time. I’ve had plenty of time to think about the Cardinals’ call on Wong, and l remain perplexed. I’m not losing sleep over this, and I’m keeping an open mind about management’s plan to reorder the infield for 2021.
No, Wong is not a superstar. In seven full seasons he’s never been selected to the National League All-Star team. His career OPS (.717) is nothing special. No, Wong isn’t a power hitter, but he brings other attributes to the lineup.
Wong has won two gold gloves, and deserved to have three. He’s been one of the better base runners in the majors. He doesn’t strike out much. He reaches base at a positive rate. And Wong’s offense has improved since Mike Shildt became St. Louis manager a day before the 2018 All-Star break.
Wong is 30. His athleticism remains intact. And here’s the thing … well, more than a few things actually.
1. Wong was a fit for Shildt’s emphasis on strong defense, smart and opportunistic base running, and an enhanced contact rate. Despite their mediocre batting attack, the Cardinals made the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 and did it with run prevention. With a shortage of homers, it was imperative to generate runs by getting guys on base to set up more RBI opportunities.
Wong personified that template.
If your offense can’t bomb the other side with a barrage of homers, it’s imperative to support your pitching staff with run-saving defense. It’s important to put the pressure on the opposing pitcher by grinding at-bats, make him work, and find a way to reach base. And once you’re on base, it’s vital to push it with cunning aggressiveness and lure opposing defenders into making mistakes. So with such a limited offense, why would the Cardinals weaken the strengths that led them into the playoffs for two consecutive seasons?
2. In a response to that question, some will say this: go improve the offense. Power up, and no one is whining about Wong being sent away by the Cardinals front office. The Cardinals can take Wong’s salary and use the money to spend for an impact bat. Here’s what I say to that: this shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. The front office could still keep Wong and go fortify the offense. And we’re talking about one more year (2021) of paying Wong. It’s not as if he was a declining player with a burdensome contract. The Cardinals already were stuck with guys like that. Wong ain’t one of them. Is anyone really buying into the spin that the Cardinals needed the Wong dollars to upgrade the offense, and there was no other way to get that done? If so, I’m sure ownership would like to thank you.
3. Wong’s offense must be viewed in the proper context. He isn’t a slugging corner outfielder. He isn’t a herculean first baseman. He’s a gold glove second baseman who rates very well offensively when compared to the overall performance at the position.
Since the All-Star break of 2018 — a turning point for Wong — here are his key offensive numbers in relation to the overall statistical profile turned in by MLB second baseman.
+ Batting Average: At .284, Wong is 30 points above the average. As a group second baseman have hit .254 over this stretch of time.
+ Onbase Percentage: Wong has a .361 OBP — 43 points above the average. Over the past two-plus seasons Wong’s OBP is tied for No. 1 among second basemen. And he’s third in batting average.
+ Slugging Percentage: Wong (.401) is a tad below the overall .405 rate.
+ OPS: Wong .762 … and that’s 39 points above average.
+ The wRC+ metric: MLB second basemen, collectively, are eight percent below league average offensively over this time. And Wong is seven percent above average; he’s outperforming the position by 15 points.
4. Now, please ponder those numbers for a minute and factor in Wong’s defense for added context. Covering the past three seasons, Wong has been credited with 41 Defensive Runs Saved overall. That’s 15 runs better than the next second baseman on the list. Wong is also the first second baseman to win the Fielding Bible Award for three consecutive seasons.
5. Let’s recap: The Cardinals had a second baseman who (A) is well above average offensively in comparison to the overall performance at his position; and (B) is clearly superior defensively to anyone playing the position; (C) and since 2018 is rated No. 3 among 2B in the BsR base-running metric.
Only three full-time MLB second basemen have more fWAR than Wong since the beginning of 2019. And at $11.5 million, Wong’s 2021 salary would have been the sixth highest at his position. The organization invested so much time, so many years, waiting for Wong to become the player they believed in. After his false starts — and stunted development under former manager Mike Matheny — Wong settled in. He was peaking.
(Sidebar: I don’t care about his faint slugging percentage in last season’s shortened schedule. He played 53 games. That isn’t a representative or even useful sample. There were so many off-key showings by MLB players in 2020 … look, this was a bizarre season that messed up the normal pace and flow of competition.)
Earlier in this piece I said I’m keeping an open mind about the Cardinals’ plans going forward. And I will do that. If John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch can save money and come up with a player who provides more value for the dollar than Wong — I’m good to go with that.
Tommy Edman presumably takes over at second base. He’s been a plus defender at second base when used there since coming to the majors. Edman will provide the Cardinals with more power than Wong did … but Tommy probably won’t get on base as often as Wong did.
There’s the Matt Carpenter factor. The third baseman is an aging, fading hitter. If his offense remains in the free fall mode in 2021, then what’s the alternative at third base? If the Cardinals kept Wong for one more season, Edman could play third base. So much for that.
The Cardinals could turn to prospect Edmundo Sosa as “Plan B” to Carpenter at third base. And Sosa has potential. But in 2018 and again in 19, he was about eight points below league average offensively at Triple A Memphis (based on wRC+).
If the Cardinals are willing to fund a contract for DJ LeMahieu — the top second baseman on the free-agent market — great! That seems more of a fantasy than realistic possibility.
Or how about trading for Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado? Pardon my sarcasm. but that’s an extreme longshot, at best. And the same goes for this feverish hope that the Cardinals will part with elite prospects to rent Francisco Lindor for the 2021 season. I’m sorry to be the damn Grinch … but c’mon now.
Boffo third-base prospect Nolan Gorman is on the way; perhaps the developing slugger will graduate to the majors ahead of schedule. But 2022 seems more realistic.
Sitting here on Christmas Eve, I disagree with the Cardinals’ decision on Wong. But if they emerge from this strange winter with a substantially more capable lineup — without weakening their defense — I’ll be happy to offer my compliments.
Thanks for reading…