Okay, so right off the bat, I have to add a disclaimer to this post. I realise that by this point I have become somewhat well known for trading away Kolten Wong, in a variety of hypothetical trades. Some have been decent ideas, others decidedly less so. But I am not writing this post solely for the purpose of suggesting the Cardinals trade Kolten Wong. This time.
However, there are a couple of things happening right now in Redbird Land. The first, and most pressing thing, is that the team...kinda sucks. They don’t really suck, of course; this franchise has made an art form out of never really sucking. However, the Cards hit the midpoint of the season a game below .500, and though they got back to even with a really nice, hard-fought and beautifully pitched game yesterday, the fact is they’re still a .500 team yet again this year, even after making significant offseason upgrades, only some of which have paid off.
The second thing that’s happening, and is at least tangentially related to the overall struggles of the team as a whole, is the fact Kolten Wong is having a very mediocre year. Wong started off the season like a house on fire, socking dingers left and right like he wanted to be the new Jose Altuve, but if we check up on his overall numbers now, we find...something decidedly disappointing. For all the early-season heroics and the narrative about Kolten Wong blossoming now that he was playing for a manager who really had his back, the fact is right now Kolten’s 2019 wRC+ stands at 83. He hit only a single home run in the month of June, and his season ISO is .134, slightly down from last year’s supremely uninspiring .139. A sub-.700 OPS in this offensive environment, even with plus defense at a very tough spot, isn’t going to get you very far.
There is also, interestingly, some disagreement amongst the metrics about how good Wong has been with the glove this year. DRS still thinks he’s an outstanding defender, though not up to last year’s otherworldy standard, while UZR actually sees him as a below-average glove this season. The reason for UZR’s disdain is Wong’s penchant for throwing errors this season, which is an old bugaboo that has cropped up on him again. (He currently leads all major league second basemen with seven errors.) To my eye, he still makes plays very few other second basemen are capable of, and you just have to put up with the occasional wild throw to get those plays.
My point is this: Kolten Wong is what he is at this point. He had everything lined up going his way this season, seemingly on the verge of a major breakout, and now he’s on pace for something like his usual 2.5 win campaign. The best parts of Kolten Wong taken individually might still add up to something like a 4+ win player, but I just don’t think we’re ever going to see that.
There is also the fact Wong is currently 28 years old, will play the 2020 season at 29, and is no longer on such a bargain contract that it’s tough to imagine moving him. He’s still a bargain relatively speaking, certainly, but there’s also the matter of timing to consider. Wong will be 30 at the end of his current deal (if, that is, his 2021 option is picked up), and it’s tough to really see the Cardinals looking to keep him around. He’s been a fine Cardinal, but he’s basically the position player equivalent of Lance Lynn. You’re glad to have him around, but you don’t fall all over yourself to keep him at all costs. At the trade deadline this season Wong will have two and a half years of contract left. I think there’s a fair argument to be made his value is only going to decrease going forward, and if that is the case then moving him may begin to make some sense.
More than anything, though, the reason I feel Kolten Wong’s days in Cardinal red may be numbered is really nothing to do with him — or at least not a ton to do with him, as he can only underperform enough for one person — and everything to do with where the Redbirds as a franchise are right now.
Here’s the thing: the Cardinals are, right now, heading for a rebuild/reset/retool, whether they like it or not. I’ve advocated in the past for the club to take that step back, regroup, and come back stronger after a fallow period, but the franchise has refused to do so. And honestly, as much as I may have believed they should take advantage of what they had and try to rebuild, I respect the fact the organisation never has. I admire the fact the Cardinals always try to win, always try to plan for both today and tomorrow, and never choose voluntarily to lose now in order to try and hopefully win later. Admittedly, there have been multiple occasions when I have felt as if they’ve handicapped themselves both by trying to win and not trying hard enough, if that makes sense, but it is an admirable thing, I think, to watch an organisation try to thread the needle year after year without ever missing a beat.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. The half-measures didn’t work, leaving the club in limbo without stars around which to build and concentrate value. And then, the whole measures didn’t work either; the Cards’ willingness to enter the top of the market the past two offseasons has yielded a solid left fielder and a declining former stud at first base. Andrew Miller has been fairly remarkable since a rough first couple weeks, but those first couple weeks were doozies. None of the moves have been transformative as was hoped. The Cardinals have used up a lot of resources trying to keep this window propped open, and it is nonetheless creeping lower and lower all the time, it seems.
With all this in mind, it’s not so much that I think the Cardinals are going to be sellers this year; I believe they will likely ride this hand to the bitter end, hoping against hope that the design which seemed so wise both in the offseason and all the way through April will come back around to looking brilliant in the chill gold dusklight of October. Rather, I think this franchise will be forced, finally, to retool by simple failure, and exhaustion. The collapse of the rotation, with no real reinforcements in the immediate offing thanks to the fragility of arms in general and one arm in particular. An offense without an engine, made doubly sad by the expenditure to purchase one and the creeping age which has stolen the chance. And a failure to launch — or at least to blossom and break out — on the parts of multiple young players the franchise was counting on. These are the bells which toll doom for the Cardinals’ window.
And that, dear friends, is why I think we should consider long and hard what players remain and who becomes expendable. Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt are going nowhere; either they regain previous forms and become that engine we believed they could be and are thus too important to move, or else they remain their current, diminished selves and serve only as millstones around the neck of progress, immovable contracts as hourglasses counting down the days ‘til forward progress resumes. Paul DeJong, recent slump and all, is still a huge part of the future of the team. He is not going anywhere. As inconceivable as it may seem, there will come a day when Yadier Molina will not be squatting behind the plate. And that day is probably not as far off as one might think.
The outfield is interesting, as I have to believe the club will do everything possible to move Dexter Fowler at some point, paying as much of the freight as they have to to open up the playing time and opportunity. Dex’s seeming rebirth this season was exciting, but too short-lived. Harrison Bader is still the defensive wunderkind we all so admired last season, but his bat has failed to mature and it is now an open question whether he will be just the next in line on the Cardinals’ outfield carousel of recent years, moved to make way for the next promising-but-flawed talent the organisation has in the pipeline and is hoping will finally stick.
The Redbirds have a new wave of talent just beginning to build in the mid levels of the minors right now, but it’s looking more and more likely we may have to wait for said wave to crest before the club is ready to begin winning in earnest again. Which leads me back to the very interesting decision the club will have to make in regards to Kolten Wong in the relatively near future. As much as it pains me to say it, I’m not sure Wong’s short-term contract status matches up well with the organisation’s window of contention. As I said, I’m certain they will try to win right up until the moment they don’t this season, but after this campaign concludes I really do wonder what the organisation will do. There was so much riding on this year’s edition of the club, and it hasn’t worked out. They could try to run it back for 2020, I suppose, but that doesn’t look like a great option. A hard sell would seem out of the question, maybe even impossible. Some sort of transition to the next club would seem the most sensible way forward, and that means some hard decisions will need to be made.
If Wong doesn’t match up with the club’s window of contention, it would make sense to try and move him while his contract gives him real value. You won’t get a star’s ransom for him, as he is not a star, but holding on would seem a worse idea. So what would a post-Kolten Cardinal team look like at the keystone position?
It is, of course, interesting to see Tommy Edman forcing his way into the picture, if only as a utility consideration for now. In his brief big league shot, Edman has looked good, but more than that what he has done in the minors suggests we should have a relatively high confidence in the sort of player Tommy Edman is likely to be. In 2018, his wRC+ in Double A was 108. He moved up to Triple A and posted a wRC+ of...108. This year, in a return to Triple A, his wRC+ was 109. Right now he’s riding a 20% HR/FB rate to a big number in the wRC+ column, but that won’t last. Ultimately, he looks like a little better than league average hitter, and a solid defender at second base. It’s not star material, but then again, he probably won’t be asked to replace star production, so it’s fine.
There are other potential options, of course. Ramon Urias has had an odd season, posting the best plate discipline numbers of his career, but his power has evaporated at the same time. Kramer Robertson is making noise as a future utility player, making it to Triple A this season after beating up on Texas League pitching. He is a solid enough defender at short and should be a plus at the keystone, should that prove to be his path to the big leagues. Irving Lopez has made it to Triple A as well, and has never posted a wRC+ below 118 in his minor league career. Edmundo Sosa, um, still has a good glove. None of these names are slam dunks to be good, but we’re also not talking about trying to replace Albert Pujols, either. Particularly if we’re talking about a transitional period beginning in the near future, those names are all worth at least taking a look at, even if none appear to have star level upside.
This season, in many ways, was supposed to represent a new start for this organisation, or, if not a new start, the perhaps a return to form. Instead, it has served as a reminder that the game has moved on, gotten tougher, and the Cardinals are going to have to get smarter if they want to push back up to the top of the pile. It also feels like both a wasted opportunity and a waste of resources the organisation could ill afford to lose, setting the scene for a forced, rather than invited, period of non-contention and reconstruction.
Kolten Wong will not be the most important player about whom a decision will have to be made in the near future. He’s not even the first one, most likely, seeing as how this offseason will see Marcell Ozuna hit free agency. However, Wong is maybe the most interesting case to me, because what the organisation chooses to do — or not do — with him will tell us much about what direction they will try to pivot toward following this season, regardless of how it ends. He seems to be the bellwether for this current group, and whether the club will continue trying to prop this window open, Mike Ilitch style (only with financial discipline, which isn’t really Mike Ilitch style at all, now that I think about it), or give in to what feels almost inevitable at this point and succumb to the strengthening trend in major league baseball right now toward the up and down cycle which seems to define the modern game.
Kolten Wong’s days in a Cardinal uniform, for better or worse, are likely numbered. And what that number dictates will tell us a whole lot about the future of this currently-troubled franchise. It seems only appropriate that the potential replacements for Wong are beginning to bubble up to the surface now, as the club seems to be approaching a moment of crisis in the fairly near future.