For the first time in his career, Kolten Wong had combined his elite defense, his good eye, his health, and a manager willing to trust him to put together his best season of his career in 2019. Neither he, nor the fans, nor the Cardinals would have predicted that the Cardinals would be declining his $12.5 million option following the 2020 season. And the crazy thing is, I still look at his 2019 season and think “There’s still a chance he could have a better season than that.”
That this is an indefensible move goes without saying. That this will make the 2021 team worse also goes without saying. When people posed fears that the Cardinals would not bring back Wong for 2021, I honestly did not share their concerns. I didn’t expect the Cardinals to do anything in the offseason. But I expected them to hold the course, lose some payroll and retain everybody except for a lower salary for Yadier Molina, and the Cardinals would call it a day. This is much worse than that.
I remember when Kolten Wong was drafted. It was my first year following this blog. Wong was not a well-liked pick. I can tell you that because in his writeup of the pick, danup started his post with this: “Here’s why the Kolten Wong pick is better than the Pete Kozma pick.” That is not exactly what I would describe as an inspiring way to begin your defense of a 1st round draft pick.
I skimmed through the comments of that post. Nobody is excited. I see one person who likes the pick, and most are some variation of “ I don’t hate this pick, but I’m not real happy with it.” So danup had good reason to start his post with a comparison to Kozma, a player who was pretty much immediately hailed as a bad pick. If conventional wisdom wasn’t necessarily grouping him with Kozma, then he was uncomfortably close to that level.
He also said “Wong is all the way in the safe-pick direction, but safe picks have value when they actually seem safe.” The description of safe pick usually comes with the disclaimer that the player also has very little upside, which would have held true if Wong’s defense was as expected. It was much better. His defense single-handedly propelled him from a likely average player and no better to a solidly above average one with All-Star potential. If only all safe picks were as safe as he was.
Exactly as expected, Wong blew through the minor league system. In concept, that’s what safe picks are supposed to do. There’s a difference between what is supposed to happen and what actually happens, and as it turns out, there was no difference with Wong. He was sent to Peoria after signing, obliterated the ball there, and skipped to AA for his first full professional season. He was more solid than good there, but he improved his numbers in AAA in 2013, and the Cardinals saw fit to call him up in the middle of August in 2013.
It’s here where the story of Kolten Wong can turn into a story of mistreatment, because his manager panicked to small sample sizes. Because he was not good in the 32 games he played to end 2013. But he also had just 62 PAs, which do the math, means he didn’t start anywhere near 32 games. He also had a catastrophically fast rise to the big leagues, so it’s understandable he didn’t get off to the greatest start. Going into 2014, he was hailed as the starter, and they signed Mark Ellis to bat against left-handed pitchers for a platoon.
To Wong’s detriment, things did not work as expected. Because there was a little voice in Mike Matheny’s head that took too much of what happened in 2013, and carried that over to his performance to start 2014. Ellis started the year injured. This gave Wong some relief. When he returned in the middle of April, Wong lost playing time to the 36-year-old veteran. Enough that John Mozeliak felt compelled to send him down just so he could get regular playing time.
He wasn’t down long. In the three weeks he was down in AAA, Wong hit for a 145 wRC+. In about the same amount of PAs that Wong had before he got sent down, Ellis had shown even less than Wong. Wong showed marginal improvements from there, but got injured in June for a short time. After a couple weeks away, he had a 106 wRC+ for the rest of the year.
That was apparently enough for him to get a full slate of games in 2015. He improved his walk rate, lowered his K rate, and had a slight boost in BABIP to lead to what remains his third best season of his career, although a lot of that is simply staying healthy and playing in 150 games, which remains his career high in games played. He enjoyed the security of being a full-time player and signed a 5 year, $25.5 million deal next March. Despite this, his security lasted all of 2 months.
He got sent down to Memphis for his second and as it turns out his final time in June in 2016. What happened that year? Well, I’ll actually defend the Cardinals on this one. Because he wasn’t exactly competing against Mark Ellis this time. Aledmys Diaz emerged out of nowhere, Jedd Gyorko proved to be much better than expected, and the Cardinals still thought Jhonny Peralta had something left (understandably I’ll point out). Brandon Moss was also not quite terrible yet, with most of his terribleness coming towards the end of the year. Add in Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams and that is a lot of infielders.
Meanwhile Wong had a 65 wRC+ before he was finally sent down. Once again, Wong hit the ever living crap out of the ball in AAA and it only took a week before he was sent back up. Only problem was that Wong couldn’t quite get back that starting spot. See: above. But Wong returned to form once he returned. He had a 99 wRC+ for the rest of the season. But he had just 217 PAs from the middle of June to the end of the year, so his career low in MLB PAs for his career came purely because he wasn’t played, not because of injuries.
In the spirit of constantly being the same value player, but always in a different way, Wong’s wRC+ hit a career high in 2017. But he was hit by the injury bug a few times and for the only time in his career, UZR thought he was a marginally below average fielder, so he has a moderately unimpressive 2.2 fWAR. The walk improvements he made from 2015 to 2016, despite a career low with the bat, remained and he had a career high BABIP. But injuries forced him to only play 108 games.
Wong hit the injured list twice again in 2018 as well, so when his defensive numbers finally showed him to be an elite fielder, his WAR number was still lower than it could have been. And unfortunately his BABIP also declined 56 points from his previous season and 20 points below what is now his career average BABIP. Despite that, he had his best ever fWAR up to that point.
And then last year, Wong finally had a fully healthy season with no bad luck, no injuries, no defensive blips, and no surprise emergent infielder to take his place. Because all of these factors came together, he finally won an overdue Gold Glove and had what will honestly probably be his best ever season in baseball at 3.7 fWAR. This year, something pesky came along again, this time in the form of having absolutely no power, but he still managed a 92 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR in this limited sample of a season.
Despite what I said above, Wong does have the potential for greater than a 3.7 fWAR season. Because his UZR number last year was actually lower than you’d expect, though not by much. He has a career 5.9 UZR/150 and had a 4.9 UZR/150 last year. But there is some reason to believe he’s better than his career number, because he kind of seems like a better fielder than when he started his career. He never seems to make dumb errors anymore and I imagine that is mighty important in overall defensive value.
And that’s what the Cardinals are losing. They are losing the safest of safe bets, but who doesn’t carry the usual downside of having no upside. It’s not like his upside is sky high, but he still has genuine 4 WAR upside. Even in the ups and downs of his career, he has been a 3 WAR player per 600 PAs. The Cardinals are giving that up. And for nothing. They’re just declining a 1 year, $12.5 million because they “can’t afford it.”
This is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt several times. It’ll hurt again when he wins his second consecutive Gold Glove. It’ll hurt when he signs with his new team, probably close to spring training in what is surely to be a monumentally horrible free agency. It’ll hurt when the Cardinals enter spring training with no real replacement of the money not spent, making his loss truly for nothing. And it’ll hurt when he gets his first hit against us, maybe next season, maybe later.
Tommy Edman is not actually a terrible replacement for Wong. His defense will be the real problem, because I suspect his bat will not be far from Wong’s. Wong was a below average hitter in five of his seven full seasons and has a career 96 wRC+. Edman is not far from that, and he may even be able to duplicate that. But his defense is not Wong’s. So he’ll be a worse player.
But really the problem isn’t with Edman replacing Wong, at least not in concept. Edman at league minimum in Wong’s place so that you can spend those $12.5 million on something else is also not bad in concept. The problem is that the Cardinals won’t spend that $12.5 million. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina do not count in that calculus. You cannot claim that you can now afford Wainwright and Molina with that money. You need to actually spend that money on something that makes Wong’s loss count.
That will be literally the only thing that will make me feel better, but it won’t make me feel good about this whole situation. If this is somehow just the Cardinals way to sign a free agent that they otherwise couldn’t sign, well at least that makes sense. I don’t agree with it, but again at least the dropoff from Wong to Edman might be worth the improvement a free agent could make over whoever they’re replacing, whether that be an outfielder, infielder, or pitcher.
But I doubt it. I don’t see that move coming. I’ve defended the Cardinals for a lot of things they’ve been criticized for, but I can’t defend them on this. Just take the hit for two years. Profits will come back and you can swim in money again. And fans will be more inclined to come back if they don’t think you’re the Cleveland Indians, getting worse on purpose because you don’t want to spend as much money. That’s a bad look and I suspect will make a difference, especially if it results in less wins on the field.
So Kolten thank you your time here in St. Louis. We will miss you. I’m sorry that your stay here was cut short by one year, because if what was happening in the world wasn’t happening, you’d surely be back. And I’m also kind of bummed for you, because despite being a 3 WAR player when healthy, I suspect you won’t do that well in free agency. Which I suppose at least gives us Cards fans some hope you may come back, but I feel really shitty about rooting for you to come back on a significantly reduced salary, so I’m not doing that. But I wish you success for your next team, and just know that just about no Cards fans wanted you to leave.