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Should the Cardinals Look to Move on from Wong and Wacha?

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Considering a pair of moves it’s not at all clear make the team better, and the whys of each.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Morning, everyone. How are you today? It’s Monday, which even in our modern don’t-really-care-about-Garfield world tends to suck for most people. I hope the beginning of your week isn’t too bad.

So Kolten Wong got screwed out of a Gold Glove award, which is an interesting combination of comical, irritating,and satisfying, depending upon whether you’re looking at the award or the player or the reaction. You know the really nice thing about D.J. LeMahieu winning, though? It’s really managed to unite Cardinal and Cubs fans over something. Cub fans are convinced Javy Baez should have won, Cards fans believe Wong should have won, but they all firmly agree that LeMahieu is some bullshit.

As far as my opinion goes, I don’t particularly care. Postseason awards aren’t really my thing to worry about too much, and Wong did win the Fielding Bible award at second base, if you’re really concerned about him getting some defensive hardware. I do find it hilarious that the Rockies’ Twitter account just kept posting the same graphic over and over to troll people upset about the result, so that’s kind of fun.

I will say this: Wong not winning the award does reflect one of the biggest issues with his game. No, not the fact he didn’t hit well enough to win a fielding award, which does occasionally still seem to be a thing now and again. Rather, the fact is, Kolten Wong simply cannot stay on the field consistently. He was phenomenal when he was playing this season, but once again missed a significant chunk of the season. Wong came up to the big leagues in 2013, and took over as a more or less full-time player in 2014. We now have five years’ worth of data for him. In those five years, only once has he eclipsed 450 plate appearances. He played a full slate of 150 games and 613 PAs in 2015, but every other year of his career he has fallen below 450. There’s an argument to be made that some of that lost time was due to Mike Matheny messing with Wong’s playing time, but I think it would be way overstating things to try and blame it all on the former manager just not appreciating his second baseman.

If we’re looking for further proof of Wong’s fragility, we need go no further afield than a month ago, when Wong had an MRI on his knee to determine if he would need surgery. He had injured the knee rounding a base sometime in the middle of the season (I don’t recall exactly when, sorry), and was hampered the rest of the way. Now, the good news is that it appears Wong will be okay with rest, rather than surgical intervention, but it remains a fact that the Cardinals once again saw their starting second baseman miss time and/or be limited when he did play by an injury of some sort. When Wong has been on the field, he has been a solidly productive player. Not a star, but a solid producer. The kind of ~2+ win player the Cards have done such a remarkable job of stocking their system and major league club with, in fact.

But keeping him on the field has been a definite issue. Since 2014, Wong’s plate appearances per season go like this: 433, 613, 361, 411, 407. He has basically cemented himself as a slightly below-league average hitter, with a career wRC+ of 93 that probably underrates his offense by a few points. He has proven himself a solidly above-average defender at second base. Not an otherworldly one as he was this year, but a very solid presence with the glove. (If you’re buying Wong’s 2018 as his new talent level, I would point out his DRS numbers in his five full seasons are 9, 5, 5, -1, and 19. One of those looks like a giant outlier, and it’s actually not the one negative season.) I would argue he has also proven to be a player you do not count on for more than about 400-450 plate appearances each year.

Now, that’s not necessarily a negative. Or not necessarily a huge one, anyway. If you have a player who offers good value over limited playing time, then you need to find a player who can complement that. It’s not rocket science; teams have been platooning players since the late 19th century. Admittedly, this new era of giant ridiculous bullpens makes it exceedingly difficult for a club to focus on flexibility of the roster in any other way, but finding a complementary player to one who gives you good value, but only for part of the year, should still be a workable situation.

However, it’s also not necessarily an easy situation, either. Finding that complementary player isn’t always simple. Sure, it would seem like a Yairo Munoz would be an ideal complement to Wong at second, a right-handed yin to Wong’s yang, but Munoz has a whole lot of questions to answer in 2019 before anyone anoints him the solution to anything at the major league level. Perhaps an Andy Young forces his way to the majors, but that’s no sure thing. Greg Garcia was a very solid utility infielder, but between a down season in 2018 and arbitration raises on the way, it wasn’t shocking to see the Cards decide to go in a different direction.

Interestingly, the Redbirds have a similar situation to Wong on the pitching side, in the person of the man they drafted with their first pick of the draft one year after Kolten. Michael Wacha has been a postseason hero, a postseason goat, and a frustrating enigma in his career, and he hasn’t yet hit his 27th birthday.

Here’s the thing about Wacha, though: in the aggregate, he has been a solidly above-average pitcher, but he has not been a star. That 2013 bolt of lightning has never returned, and Wacha, through all the myriad ups and downs, has posted an ERA- of 95 and an FIP- of 93 for his career. In the five years he’s been a full-time big leaguer, Wacha has made 30 starts twice. He has also fallen short of 20 starts twice. The chronic shoulder condition that hampered him so much from 2014-’16 seems to be under control now, but he has still had durability issues in three of his five seasons in the majors, either missing time or having his performance clearly affected by injury.

As is the case with Kolten Wong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having Michael Wacha on your team. If you’re counting on Michael Wacha for ~140-150 innings of solidly above-average pitching, then you will probably get pretty much everything you could hope for. But relying on Michael Wacha has also, it has to be said, proved to be a pretty risky proposition in the past.

So what we have here is two Cardinal players who represent essentially the Platonic ideal of what the Cardinals currently are. We have two players who year after year produce slightly above average results, with varying inputs always leading to basically the same place. Both are good players. Neither are great players. Both represent part of what could be something great, but both need some complementary piece to go along with them, it would seem.

And so the question, I think, must be asked. Should the Cardinals be looking to move on from these players? If, year after year, we see a club with a roster that seemingly resists upgrades the way oilcloth pushes rain away, do the Cardinals at some point have to consider moving away from their solid-average safe production to try and open up some new avenues for improvement?

I’ll be honest with you right out front here: I have no real strong feeling one way or the other on this topic. I’ve been waiting alternately for Kolten Wong to break out and for the Cardinals to deal him for years now, and at this point I feel like neither of those things is really very likely anymore. On the Wacha front, I always feel like he’s falling short of where he should be, or maybe just could be, and then I have to remind myself just how few star level baseball players there are in the big leagues, and how hard it is to find even average production, much less Wacha-level production.

The arguments for trading Wong and Wacha are, interestingly, opposite impulses, and the arguments against moving them are therefore also opposites. In the case of Kolten, you would be moving him after one of the best seasons of his career, following an almost surely unrepeatable defensive performance, and just one full season removed from the best offensive year he’s ever put up, with on-base numbers that finally supported his desire to hit toward the top of a big league lineup. You would also be moving him just before he begins to make somewhat substantial money, though his contract is still club-friendly enough it has to be put in the ‘plus’ column for any team looking to acquire him. He’s signed for each of the next two seasons at $6.5 and $10.2 million, respectively, and has a club option at $12.5 for 2021. For just over $29 million total, if a team thought Wong would consistently give them 2.5-3.0 wins of production per season, he would have to be seen as a relative bargain.

And therein, of course, is the argument against dealing Wong. For all the drama, the ups and downs, the injuries and everything else, Wong has produced at right around a 3 WAR per 600 plate appearance pace. You do not, as a rule, trade away something you’re paying only about 40% of its market value for. Kolten Wong will be paid like a 1.1-1.2 win player over the remainder of his contract, and he’s produced at a pace nearly three times that.

Ugh. The space bar on my laptop is beginning to wear out, I think. It’s getting noticeable soft and lower on the right side where my thumb hits it all the time. That’s when you know you’ve written entirely too many words on a machine, I think.

Kolten Wong is a very valuable commodity, just like most of the other solid-average assets the Cardinals have produced over the past handful of years. It’s very hard to see trading away those good values as a long-term plus.

In the case of Michael Wacha, the argument for trading him would essentially be to bet on getting greater value, greater upside, out of his roster spot. For instance, if the club decided to move on Yusei Kikuchi, as I advocated for fairly recently, Wacha would be the most logical starting pitcher to move in order to open up a rotation spot. The same thing would be true in the case of a Patrick Corbin signing, or a Dallas Keuchel signing, or pretty much any trade for a high-end starting pitcher. Basically, you would be taking a rotation spot that has produced above-average but not great results year over year, with lower innings totals often depressing the value of some really solid performances, and hopefully filling it with a 4+ win stud. It would also seem to be a logical time to at least consider moving Wacha, as he is under club control for only one more season and the Cardinals don’t seem to have a ton of interest in exploring a long-term solution with him. Considering the pretty consistent health issues I outlined earlier, it’s not shocking that the club might see him as a bit too risky to extend over the long haul.

The argument against that, of course, is that it’s really frigging hard to find a 4+ win stud pitcher, and it’s very likely you would end up with a pitcher giving you equivalent production for a much higher cost. And here we run up once again against the same roster issue that bedevils so many attempts to upgrade this current Cardinal team. When you’ve filled your roster with a bunch of pretty good, it’s hard to find anything other than marginal upgrades. Michael Wacha is 27 years old, will make less than $10 million in 2019, and is pretty good. That’s pretty good! How much would you have to pay to go from pretty good Wacha to better-but-not-by-that-much Dallas Keuchel? Spoiler alert: it will probably cost you twice as much, and you aren’t getting anywhere near twice the production.

You would also, it must be said, be trading Wacha at something like his lowest ebb of value. He just missed more than half a season with an oblique injury, throwing just 84 innings in 2018. Now, the fact he didn’t miss that time with an arm issue should keep his value from dropping too very far, but he’s still coming off a season in which he simply didn’t take the mound enough to contribute much value to his club. When he was on the mound in 2018, he was pretty good. Occasionally really good. But he also wasn’t on the mound for over three months, and that matters.

So here’s the bottom line: I don’t know if the Cardinals should be looking to move on from Kolten Wong or Michael Wacha. I would like to say yes, I believe they should, because the upgrades to the roster have to come from somewhere, and I feel like the portions of the roster most calcified are those spots where you’re getting solid but unremarkable production for a value price. But on the other hand, I don’t know how much better you should really expect to do at those spots. Wacha is the easier move to my mind, simply because he’s not under contract much longer, but is Patrick Corbin or Yusei Kikuchi or whoever really going to be that much of an upgrade to justify moving Wacha for probably pennies on the dollar?

As for Wong, I would love to say yes, capitalise on his 2018 season and all the hype about his defense and move him to a club with a big second base issue (I hear the Dodgers are looking), but then to whom do you pivot? I advocated for Jurickson Profar for second base last year (and for third base this year), but how much better do I think he would be than Wong? That’s a tough one. I think he’s got a higher ceiling, particularly offensively, but the defense is unproven and I don’t know that I would expect even a full win to separate the two players in the future, even being a huge optimist on Profar. Andy Young is intriguing, but I’m not willing to hand the full-time second base job to him in a year when the team expects to compete. Yairo Munoz is not the answer, at least in his current form. Signing a third baseman and moving Jedd Gyorko to second would probably net you the same production ultimately, with a player in Gyorko who has also never really been a 500+ plate appearance sort of guy and whose defense at second has mostly looked pretty shaky in his career.

Do any of these moves really make you a better team? Maybe. Some probably do. But how much better? And at what cost?

So in the end, as I consider the Cardinal roster and look at the last first round pick of Jeff Luhnow era and the first pick of Dan Kantrovitz’s tenure, I see a lot of what has happened to the Cardinals to get them into this strange limbo of being good but not great, of falling short but never falling flat on their faces, of having value in spades but production in quantities that are just ever so slightly short of what is needed. The stories of Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha explain a lot about where the Cardinals are right now, and why they have had such a hard time pushing past that upper 80s win area where they’ve parked the last few years.

I also see a lot of why it’s so hard to find the way forward now, still. Tough decisions, like moving on from productive, valuable players in order to find opportunities for upgrades, for greater values, for greatness, are probably going to have to be made.

Should the Cardinals look to move on from Kolten Wong or Michael Wacha?

Hell, I don’t know. What do you think?