Small sample sizes can lead to the wackiest of slash lines, and this has definitely been the case for the recently-demoted Kolten Wong in his first four games with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Through 19 plate appearances, Wong is slashing .467/.579/1.000 with the highlight of his stint being a walkoff grand slam on June 9th against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers). By no means am I suggesting that Wong will maintain such a torrid slash line, but I fully expect him to perform well at the plate while with Memphis because frankly, his inherent batting skill is considerably above the level of a Triple-A hitter. Bottom line, Wong's bat belongs in the big leagues, despite a dreadfully slow start to 2016 (66 wRC+ through 144 plate appearances).
Wong just needs to get back to where he needs to be, both mentally and mechanically. Regular playing time will help with both aspects as he was already splitting time with Jedd Gyorko before Jhonny Peralta's activation from the disabled list, and after Peralta's return, his playing time was only going to dwindle further with the team's best player (Matt Carpenter) moving over to second base essentially full-time. Plus, beyond just regular playing time, some hitting success in Memphis will go a long way for the 25-year-old second baseman. Despite bouts with streakiness, Wong has proven he can be an effective MLB bat, and with time, I expect him to get back to that level of performance.
Regarding the suggestion of a possible transition to the outfield, I fully understand that Wong has zero experience at any position other than second base since becoming a professional in 2011. At the same time, the outfield is not completely foreign to Wong, either, as he started all 58 games in center field as a freshman at the University of Hawaii. In my opinion, if long-time infielders Ian Desmond or Howie Kendrick can make the transition, why not at least give Wong the opportunity while he is righting the ship down in Memphis? Let's face it -- being a left-handed complement to Randal Grichuk in center would be more valuable organizationally than tearing it up down in Triple-A.
Now, as Wong reacquaints himself with the outfield in hopes of becoming adequate enough to play it at the MLB level, I would not necessarily worry about Charlie Tilson and Tommy Pham receiving less playing time in center. At the respective stages in their professional careers, neither player will simply forget how to defend the position. Further, from a Triple-A playing time standpoint, if the Wong-to-Outfield project succeeds, he should receive a promotion because as good as the stories of Jeremy Hazelbaker and Greg Garcia have made us feel early in 2016, neither comes close to the Wong's ceiling, and neither carries a not-insignificant long-term contract, either.
Please note that I fully understand the reasoning behind Wong's demotion in the first place -- to get his bat "right." That being said, I don't buy the argument that the process of learning a new position will be detrimental to the process of finding his bat again. I would certainly understand this viewpoint if the position he was learning was catcher, but for as difficult as center field can be, professional infielders consistently make the transition to the outfield (more often in the corners than center, though). I would also hear out the argument if the position change accompanied an organizational promotion, but remember, we are talking about a demotion to Triple-A, a level in which Wong has slashed .317/.379/.489 over 558 plate appearances.
From a skill set standpoint, Wong appears to have all of the tools necessary to play center field. And before I hear an argument about his height (5'9"), let's make it abundantly clear that there have been shorter outfielders in the past, there are shorter outfielders at present, and there will be shorter outfielders in the future. Now that we are on the same page, let's return to the discussion of Wong's skill set and how it translates favorably to the outfield. While he doesn't always get the best jumps on stolen bases, there is no denying his quick reaction and first step on hard-hit balls in the field. The knock, whether this is fair or not, on Wong has always been his inconsistency on "easy" plays while he regularly making out-of-zone plays look easy.
Thus, the necessary reaction time and first step are present. Admittedly, there is a difference between reading the ball off the bat on the ground and reading the ball of the bat in the air, but with experience (and the fact that he has done it before), I don't doubt Wong's ability to pick up the difference. As we already know, he has the pure foot speed necessary as a promotion would immediately make him the fastest player on the 25-man roster. The last question mark is Wong's arm and considering the team is currently starting a center fielder with an elbow that limits his throwing ability, I would not even begin to worry about it. As we have seen on double play turns at second base, he possesses the necessary arm strength. It would just require some conditioning and minor mechanical tweaks to have it play in the outfield.
Will a historically conservative Cardinals organization even consider the attempt of such a drastic change associated with a player they view as a long-term part of their next "core"? Honestly, probably not, but with Brandon Moss and Matt Adams hitting, Matt Carpenter being Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta being healthy, Jedd Gyorko filling the utility role, and Aledmys Diaz remaining steady at the plate, there just isn't room for Wong on the infield.
While I don't believe contracts should define playing time (remember, the Red Sox are paying Allen Craig $9 million to spend time on the disabled list in the minor leagues), the talent evaluators within the Cardinals front office saw something in the cost-controlled Wong to even submit such an offer in the first place. If they want to get anything out of Wong at the MLB level this year, first and foremost, give him time to get his bat right with regular Memphis playing time. Simultaneously, it wouldn't hurt to at least try him in the outfield. It's not like he would be blocking playing time from some "can't miss" center field prospect. If after a week or so of games at the position, he looks utterly lost, slot him back in at second base and move forward.