Part of the reason that the St. Louis Cardinals were comfortable declining Kolten Wong’s option in the offseason is because they had Tommy Edman. Edman had bounced around the field when Wong was on the team, spending time at every position except first base and catcher. His ability to hit the ball and play defense at every position made the team comfortable that he could take over as the everyday second baseman. This has worked well so far in 2021. In fact, Edman has become almost a carbon copy of Kolten Wong this season.
To begin with, both players are excellent fielders. Wong, the reigning Gold Glove winner at second base, has accumulated four outs above average (95th percentile), and five defensive runs saved. Edman has accumulated five outs above average (98th percentile) and five defensive runs saved. This puts Edman on a similar level to Wong, and it should put him in the Gold Glove conversation if he can continue his stellar play over the course of the season.
Both players are also similar at the plate. They do not hit for a lot of power, but they avoid strikeouts and make plenty of contact. Edman is in the 98th percentile in both K% and Whiff% while Wong is in the 86th percentile in K% and 92nd percentile in Whiff%. Both players also rank in the bottom 25% of qualified hitters in average exit velocity and walk rate.
As a result, it is not surprising that their numbers are so similar.
Edman - 241 PAs, 6.6% BB%, 9.5% K%, .122 ISO, 106 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
Wong - 171 PAs, 7.0% BB%, 15.2% K%, .130 ISO, 108 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
Following Wong’s success from 2017-2020 with the Cardinals and Edman’s below average season at the plate in 2020, it seemed that the team might experience a drop in production at second base once Wong left. However, that has not been the case as Edman has been able to mirror Wong’s production.
Edman’s production also appears to be sustainable. He does not have enough power to be much more productive that he is right now. However, his elite contact ability pairs well with his 91st percentile sprint speed. As a result, his .321 wOBA is very close to his .326 xwOBA. Additionally, his BABIP is below his career average and the league average, so there are no obvious warning signs there.
The Cardinals ability to replace Kolten Wong with near-identical production for a fraction of the cost is a win for the front office. The ability to gain financial flexibility without losing production allows the team to explore and acquire upgrades (Arenado) at other positions without getting worse at the position of turnover.
Declining a relatively inexpensive option on a back-to-back gold glove winner with decent production at the plate is uncommon. The Cardinals managed to do it without getting worse, though, and this is because they trusted Tommy Edman to be the Gold Glove caliber leadoff hitter that he has become.