The ascension of Kolten Wong to buoy the Cardinals flailing late season efforts in 2013 wasn't supposed to happen this way. It's an odd set of circumstances preceded by an odd set of circumstances. It's also impossible to tell whether the Cardinals are genius in their ingenuity or just crazy enough to get lucky. See Kolten Wong's arrival is because two other players couldn't man the field. Not at second base. But rather at third. And now that the player who was the starting third baseman is struggling ... well, it starts 6 years ago.
In 2007, David Freese was a nobody. Some kid who was (spoiler alert) from St. Louis but was old for his league playing in A-ball in the San Diego Padres system. Jim Edmonds was a folk-hero and borderline hall of fame candidate depending on how you view peak performance. Edmonds was well past his prime and the Cardinals had Rick Ankiel and Colby Rasmus in the system ready and willing to take over for the veteran. Rasmus was, afterall, the next great player in St. Louis but that is a story of it's own.
So the Cardinals traded Jim Edmonds in a rare veteran for prospect play. It was a ballsy move for a GM still new to his role. John Mozeliak was sending a beloved, if rapidly aging, veteran to a team for a no name prospect. It looked -- and was to some extent -- a salary dump.
David Freese was a Cardinal now.
He immediately leapfrogged the better hitting Allen Craig upon entering the Cardinals system. The bat wasn't in question for Craig but where the bat would stick defensively. The organization didn't like his arm defensively at third but Craig was a consistent offensive performer. Instead, David Freese came to lead the third base depth chart a year after being acquired. Suddenly he mattered in a big way to the organization.
There's a torrid history for Freese that's worth recounting but not worth recounting in detail. Battles with alcohol abuse, drunk driving and a series of injuries would cloud his future after having finally made the big leagues for the Cardinals. In short, Freese was fucking this up. In what still seems like an under-reported relationship, Matt Holliday took not-that-young David Freese under his
wing giant forearms. Freese turned things around.
Then 2011 happened. With a crack of the bat, David Freese wasn't just that kid from St. Louis anymore. He was that folk hero from St. Louis. The guy who saved the Cardinals in the World Series. He was David Freese, World Series MVP. No one remembers that Freese missed over a third of the season due to injuries in 2011. They remember a home run. THAT home run. Freese had 100% name recognition in St. Louis overnight. Even from people who don't care much about baseball. He had done it. He had cemented his legacy. Now he could look forward to a blissful career in his hometown for at least the next few years.
Meanwhile, making his way through the system was another player. Matt Carpenter was an odd duck. He was an unheralded draftee with an odd offensive profile. Watching Carpenter come up and be treated as a second tier prospect now evokes comparisons to Kevin Youkilis in Moneyball. How could everyone have missed on this player so badly? Even when he was in professional baseball they doubted. He rarely swung at pitches instead preferring to walk or drive "his" pitch when it finally came.
Carpenter suffered from the same lack of an obvious offensive position that Allen Craig did. David Freese was firmly entrenched at 3B and Carpenter was an average defender but not on Freese's level. Eventually the offense forced the issue and the Cardinals managed to come up with 340 PAs in 2012 for Carpenter. Some of those came as rest for David Freese. World Series MVP David Freese who walked on two glass ankles ceded time to Matt Carpenter.
Entering 2013, David Freese was bothered by a nagging back issue. When that subsided and he joined the big league club, he was bothered by a nagging lack of power and performance. The batting average on balls in play fell enough to exacerbate the issue. World Series MVP David Freese wasn't around anymore. Now it was underperforming David Freese. The same hitter who a year earlier had posted his best major league performance. That hitter was now scuffling ... badly at times.
So now Kolten Wong, comes up. Kolten Wong doesn't displace players like Allen Craig or Matt Carpenter. He doesn't replace the players whose bats had to find a home by default. Instead he displaces David Freese, former World Series MVP. A year ago, Wong was scuffling through his own middling performance in Springfield. A haven for left handed hitters, Wong's power was unremarkable and he wore down as the season wore on. Now he's starting at second base and David Freese is riding pine.
Baseball is a fickle thing. Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong will all tell you that. But, more than anyone else right now, I suspect that David Freese will tell you that. At 30 years old and headed into his second year of arbitration, Freese is still a few years removed from that big, life-altering payday. Performance matters now maybe more than it did a year or two ago when he was available on the cheap. Freese is watching the crush of talent make it's way through the system. The rising tide of prospects that has crested in the last year.
The Cardinals are a loyal team and David Freese certainly has bought himself some time with that one at bat. It was a glorious at bat and critical to cementing the Cardinals as the "it" franchise with GM John Mozeliak as the "it" front office personnel. But big moments doesn't buy as much time as it used to. Now that the Cardinals have judged Kolten Wong ready for the big show, David Freese is working with borrowed time. World Series MVP David Freese could easily become former Cardinal David Freese.
Baseball, you see, is fickle.