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Kolten Wong, Matt Adams, and breakout potential

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With youth and inexperience comes upside (and downside—but it's spring, so we aren't going to talk about that).

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We recently examined the MLB teams' cores—their ages, projected production levels, and salaries. By the quick-and-dirty, projected-production-based definition I used, the Cardinals had one of the oldest five-player cores in the majors. Of course, a major-league team is more than five players. Each roster consists of 25 active players. Today, we're going to focus on the position players and then focus more closely on a couple of those.

The Cards have a lot of experience in their starting eight. I put together a chart of the Cardinals' anticipated primary position players at each of the eight positions.

  • "Service" is MLB service time. There are a maximum of 172 days in an MLB service year for service time computation purposes even though there are over 180 days a player could potentially be on the 25-man roster. A player with 5.000 years worth of service like Jason Heyward has been on a major-league roster for exactly five full 172-day MLB service years.
  • Player age is determined by his seasonal age, which is how old he is at midnight on June 30 of that season. Jhonny Peralta is 32 right now; his birthday is May 28; so 2015 is his age-33 season. By contrast: Yadier Molina is 32 at present; he was born on July 13; 2015 is his age-32 season. Thus, the seasonal age is similar to the results of the kindergarten cutoff age. Peralta is fairly young for his seasonal age while Molina, whose birthday is a couple weeks after the cutoff date, is old for his.
  • "D Innings" shows how many total innings in the field a player has lodged regardless of position. Consequently, even though Matt Carpenter is listed as the third baseman because that will be his primary position in 2015, his D Innings total includes those he spent in the outfield, at first base, and at second base.
  • Each of the "Games" (games played), "Starts" (games started), "D Innings" (fielding innings), and "PA" (total plate appearances) are regular season totals only.
  • The chart is sorted by MLB service time accrued to date.
2015 Cardinals: Projected Regular Position Players

Player

Pos

Age

Service

Games

Starts

D Innings

PA

Matt Holliday

LF

35

11.000

1,590

1,540

13,343.1

6,786

Yadier Molina

C

32

10.123

1,328

1,251

10,950.0

5,046

Jhonny Peralta

SS

33

10.118

1,540

1,477

13,136.2

6,308

Jason Heyward

RF

25

5.000

681

637

5,721.0

2,458

Jon Jay

CF

30

4.134

678

531

4,857.0

2,424

Matt Carpenter

3B

29

3.012

436

380

3,416.1

1,785

Matt Adams

1B

26

2.033

277

218

1,955.1

973

Kolten Wong

2B

24

1.045

145

110

998.0

495

The Cardinals' position players are pretty old. Some are old and experienced. Heyward is young and experienced (he has more PAs than Jon Jay despite being five years the slap-hitter's junior). Matt Carpenter is older than one might think and not as experienced as he seems. But I want to hone in on Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, the youngest and most inexperienced players among the likely position-player starters.

To put Adams and Wong's youth and (in)experience in context, I thought we could compare them to their MLB positional peers. I went to the Fangraphs depth charts, plucked the top player at first and second base for each team, and put them in a chart to see how the two Cardinals compared. I used the same stats as those in the Cardinals-centric chart above.

MLB 2015: Projected Regular First Basemen

Player

Team

Age

Service

Games

Starts

D Innings

PA

Albert Pujols

LAA

35

14.000

2,117

2,079

16,815.1

9,241

Mark Teixeira

NYY

35

12.000

1,635

1,616

13,670.1

7,129

Miguel Cabrera

DET

32

11.101

1,810

1,746

15,059.0

7,811

Joe Mauer

MIN

32

11.000

1,298

1,246

9,214.1

5,578

Justin Morneau

COL

34

10.168

1,438

1,385

11,122.2

5,992

Ryan Howard

PHI

35

9.145

1,331

1,259

11,245.0

5,666

Adrian Gonzalez

LAD

33

9.108

1,492

1,450

12,501.0

6,331

Prince Fielder

TEX

31

9.068

1,364

1,324

11,373.1

5,790

Ryan Zimmerman

WSH

30

9.032

1,198

1,170

10,219.1

5,183

Mike Napoli

BOS

33

8.151

985

894

7,445.2

3,731

James Loney

TB

31

8.012

1,239

1,087

9,850.1

4,733

Mike Morse

MIA

33

7.114

704

603

4,772.0

2,509

Adam Lind

MIL

31

7.058

953

875

4,388.0

3,726

Joey Votto

CIN

31

7.027

952

922

8,158.0

4,062

Chris Davis

BAL

29

5.061

723

684

5,465.2

2,842

Ike Davis

OAK

28

4.155

585

501

4,444.1

2,138

Carlos Santana

CLE

29

4.115

650

642

4,806.2

2,761

Pedro Alvarez

PIT

28

4.085

592

552

4,825.1

2,293

Justin Smoak

TOR

28

4.077

566

535

4,582.1

2,218

Logan Morrison

SEA

27

4.069

462

429

3,632.0

1,844

Freddie Freeman

ATL

25

4.033

633

603

5,438.1

2,616

Eric Hosmer

KC

25

3.146

570

552

4,928.2

2,388

Lucas Duda

NYM

29

3.137

503

439

3,760.0

1,878

Brandon Belt

SF

27

3.128

419

344

3,111.1

1,487

Yonder Alonso

SD

28

3.116

405

321

2,845.0

1,409

Paul Goldschmidt

ARI

27

3.059

1,953

443

3,985.2

1,953

Anthony Rizzo

CHC

25

2.168

436

420

3,746.1

1,827

Matt Adams

STL

26

2.033

277

218

1,955.1

973

Jose Abreu

CHW

28

1.000

145

134

957.10

622

Jon Singleton

HOU

23

0.119

95

86

770.20

362

Adams is the 26th oldest (or fifth-youngest) starting first baseman in the majors entering 2015. Whether measured by MLB service time (28th), games (28th), starts (28th), fielding innings (28th), or PA (28th), Adams is also one of the most inexperienced projected starting first basemen in MLB. (And there's a very good argument to me made that Abreu—who played professionally in the Cuban league for multiple seasons prior to defecting and signing with the White Sox last offseason—has considerably more experience than Adams.)

In addition to his age, the path Adams took to the majors and becoming a big-league regular is a big reason for his inexperience. Adams began the 2012 season in Triple-A, was called up after injuries landed Allen Craig and Lance Berkman on the DL, and then relegated back to Memphis after St. Louis activated Craig. In 2013, Adams was a part-time player until Craig suffered a regular-season-ending Lisfranc injury. Last year was Adams's first as a primary position player.

Thus, Adams is a young player, whether measured in years or playing time. That means there's upside potential that perhaps isn't as likely as with a more established player with a longer track record of production. (Of course, where there's upside due to inexperience, there is also downside. But I'm going to turn a blind eye to that and focus on the positive because it's springtime.) Adams could develop further as a hitter due to a real change in underlying skill in any number of ways.

The areas that seem untapped to my eye are patience at the plate (as reflected by BB% and OBP) and power (Isolated Power and SLG). MLB non-pitchers worked a walk in 7.8% of their PAs last year, but Adams drew a base on balls in just 4.6% of his PAs. Better selectivity and more power might be intertwined. If Adams develops a better plate approach, he might unlock some of the potential he flashed in the minors—or vice versa, as pitchers become more tentative due to Adams's power-hitting.

When Adams won the 2011 Texas League Player of the Year award on the strength of a .300/.357/.566 batting line that included a 7.8% walk rate and .266 ISO. This is not to say that Adams will be able to post offensive numbers in the majors while playing his home games in the pitcher-friendly Busch that are on par with the eye-popping line he produced in the hitter-friendly Texas League while calling the lefty haven of Hammons Field home—just that he has shown a bit more patience and more power in the past. His 2013 MLB stats as a part-timer offer hope. Adams posted a 7.2% walk rate and .220 ISO while playing the complement to Craig and Carlos Beltran.

Take the ZiPS projections system as an example. The 2015 ZiPS projections for the Cardinals can be found at Fangraphs. Dan Szymborski, the creator of ZiPS, has also made a Google spreadsheet available for free online that contains not just the projections, but player comps and percentage likelihoods of various statistical benchmarks being reached. ZiPS projects Adams to put up the following offensive stats: .281 BA, .317 OBP, .457 SLG, with 17 homers—which works out to a 112 OPS+ while calling Busch Stadium III home.

The ZiPS projection is a mean projection, that which the system forecasts as the most likely outcome given the skills Adams's stats reflect up to this point in his pro career. But there are other potential outcomes and ZiPS recognizes this. ZiPS gives Adams the following odds to reach certain benchmarks:

  • 35.7%: OBP greater than .325
  • 27.1%: OPS+ over 120
  • 25.6%: Over 20 home runs in 2015
  • 20.2%: BA over .300
  • 11.2%: SLG above .500
  • 9.8%: OPS+ of 130 or higher
  • 8.2%: OBP finishing above .350
This isn't to say that Adams will break out in 2015. It's just to say that it, given his relatively limited amount of major-league exposure, it isn't a stretch to foresee him outperforming his ZiPS projection and posting something like a 125 OPS+, production output that lies somewhere between his .284/.335/.503 (129 OPS+) line in 313 PA two years ago and last season's .288/.321/.457 (115 OPS+). The chances of this occurring are considerably higher than Lloyd Christmas winning Mary Swanson's heart.

MLB 2015: Projected Regular Second Basemen

Player

Team

Age

Service

Games

Starts

D Innings

PA

Omar Infante

KC

33

11.120

1,344

1,173

10,438.1

5,094

Chase Utley

PHI

36

11.027

1,478

1,403

12,404.2

6,335

Maicer Izturis

TOR

34

10.038

909

765

6,706.2

3,350

Brandon Phillips

CIN

34

10.022

1,460

1,417

12,544.1

6,154

Robinson Cano

SEA

32

9.153

1,531

1,509

13,068.2

6,456

Aaron Hill

ARI

33

9.136

1,284

1,247

10,733.0

5,355

Ian Kinsler

DET

33

9.000

1,227

1,217

10,441.1

5,517

Howie Kendrick

LAD

31

8.091

1,081

1,049

9,172.2

4,419

Dustin Pedroia

BOS

31

8.041

1,151

1,131

9,938.1

5,157

Stephen Drew

NYY

32

8.038

1,021

972

8,356.0

4,218

Ben Zobrist

OAK

34

7.134

1,064

1,014

8,907.2

4,478

Yunel Escobar

WSH

32

7.121

1,074

1,026

9,055.2

4,418

Daniel Murphy

NYM

30

5.109

773

677

5,989.1

3,081

Neil Walker

PIT

29

4.166

685

654

5,775.0

2,823

Jose Altuve

HOU

24

3.072

514

502

4,311.1

2,243

Jason Kipnis

CLE

28

3.069

466

555

3,965.2

2,035

Dee Gordon

MIA

27

2.154

329

286

2,548.1

1,319

DJ LeMahieu

COL

26

2.128

376

314

2,778.1

1,281

Brian Dozier

MIN

28

2.100

387

377

3,348.1

1,670

Josh Rutledge

LAA

26

2.022

266

207

1,820.2

947

Jeff Gyorko

SD

26

2.000

236

229

2,051.1

968

Scooter Gennett

MIL

25

1.084

206

166

1,454.2

704

Kolten Wong

STL

24

1.045

145

110

998.0

495

Jonathan Schoop

BAL

23

1.027

142

130

1,180.1

496

Nick Franklin

TB

24

0.162

130

114

1,030.0

502

Rougned Odor

TEX

21

0.144

114

107

933.0

417

Joe Panik

SF

23

0.100

73

66

579.0

287

Jace Peterson

ATL

25

0.058

27

10

157.0

58

Javier Baez

CHC

22

0.055

52

52

465.0

229

Carlos Sanchez

CHW

23

0.045

28

27

240.2

104

Compared to first base, the keystone is a young man's position. Perhaps this is because quite a few clubs have up-and-coming second base prospects that they want to hand the reins over to full-time. Maybe clubs are willing to accept glove-first youngsters with light offensive production in order to pay just the league-minimum salary they receive. It could be that clubs are more willing to give slugging first basemen long contracts that cover players' mid-to-late 30s. Most likely, it's some combination of these factors.

Even with a young group of second baseman, Wong is relatively young and inexperienced. His age makes him the 24th oldest (or seventh-youngest) two-sacker in MLB entering 2015. In the experience stats, he ranks 23rd in MLB service time, 23rd in games played, 25th in starts, 25th in defensive innings played, and 25th in total PAs.

Like Adams, Wong has upside potential (accompanied by the same downside caveat). One way that Wong's offensive profile from a year ago is similar to that of Adams is a relative lack of patience. Neither batter walked very much for whatever reason. Wong's 4.8% walk rate is ugly (though not quite as unsightly as the one Adams posted). Wong posted walk rates of 9.5%, 7.6%, and 8.9% in Low-A, Double-A, and Triple-A from 2011 through 2013. Perhaps comfort in the big leagues will lead to a better approach that includes more patience and a resultant increase in walks and OBP.

ZiPS forecasts Wong to put up a .264 BA, .310 OBP, .389 SLG, for a 93 OPS+. That's an uptick in walk rate of 0.8% and a decrease in power as measured by ISO of .013. But there's also potential upside as with Adams, only more so. ZiPS gives Wong the following odds to reach the following benchmarks in 2015:

  • 49.4%: OBP of .325 or more
  • 45.5%: OPS+ of at least 100
  • 33.7%: SLG higher than .400
  • 29.3%: BA greater than .275
  • 18.0%: OPS+ of 110 or more
  • 13.1%: OBP of at least .350
  • 6.6%: BA over .300
  • 4.6%: OPS+ of 120 or greater

ZiPS projects Wong as a better upside bet than Adams. But both players offer the chance of a breakout. With an aging core, the Cardinals will need one of them to emerge in the years to come. If both can, look out.

Correction: The original version of this chart listed Omar Infante as a Marlin. He is a Royal. The chart has been corrected.