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The Cardinals Strange Handling of Kolten Wong

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Kolten Wong has had a disappointing season after signing a contract extension before the season began. What happened?

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

No matter what happens the rest of the way, this season is going to be a disappointing one for Kolten Wong statistically. Wong started slowly, and there simply is not enough time left in the season to hit his way out. Add in a demotion to the minors, and the season has been a bit of a lost one in Wong’s development thus far. While it is impossible to know how things could have gone differently this year for Wong, it isn’t hard to imagine a realistic scenario where Wong isn’t completely buried on the bench.

This is not the first time Wong has found himself on the wrong end of the playing time spectrum during Mike Matheny’s tenure as manager. Back in 2014, Kolten Wong began the season as the starting second baseman, but after a few-game mini-slump, Mike Matheny handed the starting job to Mark Ellis, necessitating John Mozeliak’s move to stick Wong in Memphis so as not to stunt his development. Wong was recalled, then hit the disabled list, but recovered that season after the DL stint with a solid 103 wRC+ the rest of the way and added three playoff homers.

The next season, Wong lacked any semblance of competition for his job and got off to a great start, with a 114 wRC+ in the season’s first half. In 2015, Wong experienced the other side of Matheny’s managing as the everyday starter, rarely getting rest. In his first full season at the major league level, Wong at one point played more than 30 straight games in the July and August heat. His play in the second half suffered, but he still managed a 96 wRC+ on the season, and along with solid defense and baserunning, he was an average player.

In the offseason, the Cardinals front office sent a couple messages about their thoughts on Kolten Wong. First, they traded for Jedd Gyorko as someone who could take plate appearances from Wong. Then, they awarded Wong with a contract extension, rewarding his solid play and signaled his future as the starting second baseman of the Cardinals.

This season, Kolten Wong started 14 of the first 17 games, but did not hit well, with a 39 wRC+, albeit in only 56 plate appearances. He was then benched for six straight games. He hit a homer in his next start and over the next three weeks started 14 of 21 games, hitting .268/.359/.411 for a solid 110 wRC+, albeit in only 64 plate appearances. He got on base in all but two starts, and in both of those games, he was pulled in the seventh inning.

On May 26 and May 27, Wong went 0 for 3 in both games. He started just three of the next eight games, getting hits in two of those three starts, and was demoted to the minors so he could get playing time.

When Wong came back, he got decent playing time, starting 19 of 35 games. Hardly a full-time player, but playing regularly and Wong held his own. Over 107 plate appearances, he walked more than he struck out and hit .277/.364/.372 for a very average 99 wRC+ to go along with solid defense.

After an off-day August 1, Wong went 0 for 4 on August 2 and was then benched for six of the next seven games, only started six of the past 24 games and went 10 days without a start before last night. Much of Wong’s dent in playing time can be attributed to the very good play of Jedd Gyorko, however, that alone is not a full explanation.

Despite the Cardinals depth, which has proved to be very important this season with so many injuries, Mike Matheny has still seemed incapable of mixing and matching lineups to keep players fresh. Tommy Pham disappeared when Randal Grichuk finally got an extended run. Aledmys Diaz was in danger of wearing out earlier this season. Jhonny Peralta, who has been relegated to third base, has started 19 of 22 games since his return and Gyorko has started 38 of the last 40 games.

The Cardinals have had a few extra days off this past month, providing extra rest, but that doesn’t mean Wong needs to be buried. Greg Garcia, who has struggled worse than Wong with the bat since the beginning of June (61 wRC+), received 15 starts during Wong’s latest benching. Consider the following alignment over the last 24 games:

  • Gyorko starts 21 times instead of 23
  • Peralta starts 16 times instead of 19
  • Garcia starts 10 times instead of 15

Shifting those starts to Wong means he gets starts in 16 of 24 games, about the same rate he was getting when he was still contributing a solid pace in June and July. We can look at Wong’s overall batting record this year and say he’s been terrible, but it certainly looked like he was contributing when he was getting regular playing time. It really isn’t that hard to keep Wong active without sacrificing playing time for other players who might be priorities. Given the Cardinals difficulty on defense, Wong’s defense should be an asset over other options.

For his part, Wong is saying the right thing, but he clearly hasn’t been communicated with about what he has done wrong or what he needs to do to earn playing time—enough so that he wondered about his future with the Cardinals. We just went through this situation with Randal Grichuk and Matheny admitted his role in Grichuk’s failure to develop. The disconnect between the front office and on-field staff given Wong’s contract and his lack of playing time remains pretty clear.

Kolten Wong has not played well enough to make a big push for playing time and there are those who think he is fine right where he is. There is a middle ground between sitting for two straight weeks and starting everyday, and that is right where Kolten Wong deserves to be.

Wong earned his contract in past seasons, and he has earned more starts with both his track record and his play after getting demoted this year. Starts could be even tougher to come by if Aledmys Diaz recovers, but hopefully Wong is not forgotten and buried by Mike Matheny like he has been of late and Wong can help the Cardinals down the stretch and potentially into the playoffs.