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The long-term benefit of Kolten Wong learning to play outfield

how Kolten's new positional flexibility can help the Cardinals over the next several years.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks the first time I've written about the same player twice in a row, so I guess you can say I have Wong on my mind. On Saturday, I wrote about Wong's return from the minors. I noted that before the demotion, Wong's GB% and Hard% were out of wack with his career rates, and explained a lot of the reason for his lack of success this year. I also noted that in the very small sample since his return, despite not recording an extra base hit since returning, those two stats were suddenly back in line. Baseball is apt to make writers look either very smart or very dumb, and against all odds it managed to make me look smart, as Wong managed two extra base hits in the first two games he played in after publication. With those two games we're still stuck in small sample size theater, but since returning, Wong is hitting right around where he usually has, at a 96 wRC+.

I haven't been a big fan of Kolten Wong moving to the outfield to get time that could have went to Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham. It just didn't seem to make a lot of sense. Both Wong and Grichuk have struggled at the plate, but Grichuk has been a bit better, with a 78 wRC+ to Wong's 73. That's not a big difference. Over a year that's about a third of a win, and your opinion of both probably has more to do with how you think each will bounce back, rather than which one is in a worse slump. But Grichuk has been the better hitter, and you know, also actually plays center field regularly, and pretty well in my opinion. With Grichuk in the minors, Pham has been Wong's main competition for CF, and he's been a league average hitter over his very small sample size of 37 PA, where he's shown the same .200+ ISO power he showed last year. He's also, however, striking out and walking less in, again, a very small sample of plate appearances. Matheny is a small sample type of guy though, and in those, Pham has been just a bit better than Wong has been since the call-up, with a 100 wRC+. You'd think, again, with Pham being an actual center-fielder, that would be enough for him to play over Wong everyday. I would guess getting Wong started, or perhaps rewarding him for making a position change, takes priority over those concerns for the Cardinals.

Moving Wong to the outfield isn't all that bad of a plan. It seems like moving from the infield to the outfield is easier than moving from the outfield to the infield. Ian Desmond of the Rangers is a great example of the success than can result, whereas it is very rare to see a outfielder move to an infield position that isn't first-base, the lowest spot on the defensive spectrum. Tracking and running down fly balls is just an easier skill to learn than cleanly fielding grounders and all the associated mechanics involved in both that and throwing a strike to the first-baseman in time to get a runner. We've seen Wong's arm strength and range at second, and can assume those will translate to the outfield.

Of course, that doesn't mean playing the outfield is easy by any means, and Kolten has showed us that. For instance, this play on Sunday was not exactly the best way to play a ball going into a corner. If you're going to go for a ball like that, you better be very sure you're going to get there. There's also this one. Here, there's a runner on second with no outs, and on a lazy fly to right-center, Wong takes a ball away from Piscotty, who had his momentum going towards third and could have stopped the runner from tagging up. These are mistakes not from a lack of physical tools, but from a lack of experience, and I'd expect Wong to make those at a lower and lower rate the more innings he accumulates in the outfield.

Because of his struggles, Wong hasn't shown to be a better hitter than the other center-field candidates, and he also comes with a lack of experience that would make the transition trying at times. His production at the plate wasn't exactly demanding a lineup spot. So when thinking short-term, I just didn't see the point of this change in position. However, looking at the long-term picture, Wong's ability to play both second-base and the outfield (including center) could be a real benefit to both the Cardinals' front office plans and Mike Matheny's lineup card.

Let's review the outfield situation: Holliday, currently, is only guaranteed a salary through next year, but with him hitting as well as ever (with the exception of a clearly unsustainable low BABIP), the Cardinals are very likely to pick up his option. Then there's Stephen Piscotty, who is still above average at all four core hitting stats: limiting strikeouts (K%), drawing walks (BB%), hitting for power (ISO), and turning balls in play into hits (BABIP). With Holliday and Piscotty, the Cardinals have the corner-outfield situation set, but Piscotty is the only long term fixture. Then there's Grichuk, who the Cardinals currently believe is not good enough to give consistent plate appearances to at the major league level. His low-contact% profile will always make him a streaky player, and right now we're seeing the downside of that. Pham is also present, but with his constant ability to injure himself, it doesn't ever seem right to actually count him on the depth chart.

There is one bright spot on the farm in Harrison Bader. Here's his stats with the Springfield Cardinals at the Double-A level:

With this being his age 22 season, he's young for the league as a whole, but not exactly all that young for a prospect at his level. This performance is great, what one has to wonder though, is how much that K% trends up, and the BB% trends down, when facing major league pitching. He was just starting his professional baseball career at this point last year, which can lead one to think he has some development to go. According to VEB's own prospect guru The Red Baron, Bader may be below-average in center but may be playable there, or he could be average to above average in a corner.

So the Cardinals have one long-term option in the outfield, and one sure thing while he's here in Matt Holliday. After that, the hope is that Bader pans out and Grichuk gets things figured out. I think that is where this whole Kolten Wong in the outfield thing helps out. When I last wrote about Matt Holliday, I mentioned how the free agent outfielder market is weak the next two years, and thus the Cardinals may not be able to find one at a price of their liking.

Don't get me wrong: I think Wong profiles best at second, and will no matter how comfortable he gets in the outfield. I don't think the plan should involve Kolten Wong being a regular starter out there. However, if the Cardinals can field three better starting outfielders, Wong can be the fourth outfielder, at least during the large chunks of the year that Tommy Pham figures to be hurt. That would allow the Cardinals the option of bringing an infielder off the bench such as Jedd Gyorko (guaranteed through 2019, plus an option for 2020) or Greg Garcia (controllable through at least 2021, as long as he doesn't need to be sent through waivers after this year). It could be Paul Dejong. Dejong isn't producing as much as Bader but is still doing well at Double-A. He's not without his concerns though: he's running a .193 ISO and a 7.9% walk rate, but also a 29.4 K%. With a .310 BABIP his wRC+ on the year comes to 111.

For 2017, Wong's versatility would be quite the boon. Even with Moss leaving, the team would be in a position to use any combination of eight players in order to cover the seven non-battery positions:

Grichuck (CF)

Holliday (COF)

Piscotty (COF)

Carpenter (3B/2B/1B)

Wong (2B/OF)

Diaz (SS)

Peralta (SS/3B)

Adams (1B)

With the above position flexibility in mind, there's no way not to take seven of those eight and not have each player at a position they can realistically play. Notice that this doesn't even count Gyorko, Garcia, or Pham, who do a lot to round out the team's depth, but are also players you don't really want playing everyday on a competitive team. It also doesn't count the fact that Piscotty and Holliday both have experience at first, which could allow another RHH, Pham, to replace Adams in the lineup against LHP. Gyorko would continue with the same role he was acquired for: keep Wong away from left-handed pitching. With Peralta's contract up at the end of next year, and Adams' last year of control coming in 2018, the team may need the depth after 2017.

The team has had a lot outfield depth from 2015 to now, and it has served them well. With Moss departing at the end of the year, and Holliday the year afterwards, Wong could end up being a point of stabilization in the outfield. Of course, with Jhonny and Adams both possibly departing relatively soon, the infield isn't exactly a guarantee to be as stocked in the future either. If Wong can be capable of playing an above-average position both on the infield and in the outfield, he'll be a dream come true for roster building.