With Kolten Wong finally back up and presumably recovered from his stomach illness, it's time for the manager of the Cardinals to utilize him correctly. With only 138 segmented plate appearances in his big league career, the organization still has relatively no idea what they have, at the plate at least, in their hopeful second baseman of the future. According to Baseball Prospectus, Wong was the 33rd best prospect in all of baseball and the second best in the organization coming into the season. He was basically anointed the starting role at second base when John Mozeliak traded away David Freese over the offseason. Obviously, none of this is new information, but I deemed it a necessary inclusion to set up the rest of this piece.
A very simple guide to utilizing a top prospect (with Kolten Wong as the template):
There are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to prospects, even the ones at the very top of seemingly all national lists. Jason Parks notes this by using the following phrase in many of his articles, "prospects will break your heart." Well, Mike Matheny needs to give Wong, basically a consensus top 50 prospect, a chance to "break our hearts." This may be a sinister way to look at the situation, but to be frank, I believe it is the only way possible when trying to reason with Matheny's tactical decision making.
Kolten Wong's hit 333/366/462 at AAA. That's why you don't demote player for a slump - you just miss out on the good part.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) May 8, 2014
Twitter was getting pretty contentious in early May regarding the state of the Cardinals, and it didn't get any quieter after Mr. Szymborski's tweet (embedded above). After having at least one hit in nine of his last 10 games with Memphis (including four multi-hit games; Ellis has had only two all season), Wong was able to improve on each of his AAA hitting components, finishing at .344/.382/.484 over 68 plate appearances. He struck out only three times during that span (4.4%). Of course, Triple-A pitching is not at the level of big league pitching, but now that he has over 1,300 minor league plate appearances, Wong has proven he has no trouble hitting down on the farm. If the team wants him to "handle adversity," it's best for him to do so at the big league level, and his roster spot should be independent from how those are performing around him.
A quick look at the current situation:
The Cardinals have $5.25 million invested in Mark Ellis this year. That's 4.5% of the team's 2014 payroll. Thus, financially speaking, it somewhat makes sense that the team doesn't want to "bury [Ellis] early in the year." However, someone much smarter than me when it comes to finances could probably form an argument as to why the team actually has more invested in Wong than they do in Ellis. The organization hopes Wong is the second baseman of the future, while Ellis is basically a decent one-year insurance option. Other than a dependable glove and a few prolonged plate appearances of late, Ellis really hasn't brought any more to the team than Wong is able to bring himself. Most importantly, Wong brings an aspect (speed) that Ellis most definitely cannot bring given his age and knee health.
I really wish Matheny would just throw away the matchups when filling out the second base starter for an extended period of time, unless absolutely necessary (i.e. a dynamite left-handed pitcher). Knowing Matheny likely won't do this, I looked ahead and according to the team schedule posted on ESPN, nine out of the next 12 games come against right-handed pitchers. Wade Miley, a lefty scheduled to start on May 21st, hasn't been overly effective against lefties this season—to the tune of a .358 wOBA. Yep, I just whipped out a small-sample-sized matchup after blatantly pleading with Mike to simply throw them out. I apologize, but either way, the decent matchup against Miley gives Wong the opportunity to make eight starts in row before likely getting the night off against Tony Cingrani on May 25th (which would be understandable from both a matchup and rest standpoint). The regular playing time will be extremely beneficial for both Wong and the team as a whole. Give Wong a legitimate chance to fill what has been a black hole in the lineup all season.
As we've learned from both his minor league and major league LD%'s, Wong's not going to lace line drives all over the field, but he doesn't need to in order to have value. The two dynamic aspects he brings to the club are speed (out of the box and on the base paths) and above-average defense. Sure, we don't really know what to expect from Wong at the plate in the big leagues, but now is the perfect time for us to find out. If he's raking, start him. If he's slumping, start him. If he's up and down, start him. Basically, if he is physically capable of donning the uniform and walking onto the field, start him.
I will end with the following tweet:
You want to make things easier for a top prospect? The idea that a couple bad weeks doesn't cost them their job is a good start.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) May 8, 2014