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Kolten Wong and the future of the elite second baseman

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With the future of MLB's top tier at second base in doubt, could Kolten Wong reach the upper echelon? Should the Cardinals strive for that?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

By Fangraphs WAR, the best second baseman season in Major League Baseball in 2015 belonged to Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians. In the five seasons forming the first half of the 2010s, eighteen seasons by second basemen eclipsed Kipnis.

A handful of players had multiple seasons eclipsing the 5.2 fWAR of Kipnis. Robinson Cano had four; Ben Zobrist had three; Dustin Pedroia had two; Ian Kinsler had two. Along with the slightly older Chase Utley, these were the cream of the second base crop for most of the last decade. And while they are all still around, each is in the back end of his career.

Second base going forward across baseball looks to be relatively sparse. The top two projected second basemen according to Steamer aren't really second basemen: Matt Carpenter, who started only nine games at second in 2015, and Anthony Rendon, who is likely to primarily play third base after the Nationals acquired Daniel Murphy in the off-season. Of the next five names on the list, four are the aforementioned veterans who had the premium second base seasons so far in the 2010s.

Kolten Wong ranks 14th in the projections among second basemen. This elevates to 11th once players who are not everyday second basemen (Carpenter, Rendon, and projected Cubs shortstop Addison Russell) are excluded. Of the top ten, only two are younger than Wong: Joe Panik of the Giants, only 20 days Wong's junior, and Rougned Odor of the Rangers, who was a 2.3 fWAR player in 2015 during his age-21 season.

Here is a look at the recent performance levels of some of baseball's notable young second basemen, as well as their projections for 2016.

Date of Birth 2014 fWAR 2015 fWAR 2016 Steamer Projected fWAR
Jose Altuve May 6, 1990 4.8 4.3 3.4
Dee Gordon April 22, 1988 3.2 4.6 2.0
Rougned Odor February 3, 1994 0.5 2.3 2.4
Joe Panik October 30, 1990 1.6 4.2 2.8
Devon Travis February 21, 1991 N/A 2.3 1.6
Kolten Wong October 10, 1990 1.9 2.3 2.1

It probably requires Cardinal red-tinted glasses to view Kolten Wong as the best of the lot, but even those who appear better than Wong certainly have their concerns. Dee Gordon, in addition to being the oldest of the group, sported a meager 3.8% walk rate in 2015 with a .383 BABIP. Although Gordon profiles as a natural high-BABIP player, forecasting .383 going forward would be wildly optimistic. And while Jose Altuve improved dramatically at the plate in the last two seasons, he still isn't a beacon of plate discipline and his defensive results have been mixed.

So who is the heir apparent to Robinson Cano as the preeminent second baseman in the game? Will Altuve or Gordon sustain their recent excellence? Will Joe Panik build upon his promising career start to flourish as he enters his prime? Will Kolten Wong emerge beyond his status quo, perhaps consistently exhibiting the power which he has occasionally flashed as a Cardinal, or perhaps improving his on-base skills to a point where Mike Matheny can justify moving him to the leadoff spot that Wong himself has coveted?

It's improbable, though not impossible. For another perspective on the young crop of second basemen, here are their projected Wins Above Replacement Player per Baseball Prospectus for 2016 (each is a 50th percentile projection unless otherwise noted).

Player WARP
Jose Altuve 2.7
Dee Gordon 1.9
Rougned Odor 3.3
Joe Panik 0.9
Devon Travis 2.0
Kolten Wong 2.7
Wong, 60th percentile 3.1
Wong, 70th percentile 3.5
Wong, 80th percentile 4.1
Wong, 90th percentile 4.8

WARP is already more optimistic on Wong than Steamer, ranking him as equal to Altuve and behind only Odor among the top young second basemen. But this is only assuming each player reaches his 50th percentile projection. This is a fair approach: an honest assessment of the probabilities of each reaching a certain level requires that the two be placed on equal terms.

But it is not the only possible outcome, and if Kolten Wong reaches his 70th percentile projection and Rougned Odor reaches his 50th percentile, neither of which is far-fetched, Wong suddenly becomes the hot young second baseman in baseball.

In theory, this is a wildly optimistic Kolten Wong take. I don't blame anybody who thinks I'm being a bit too sunny about the Cardinals second baseman. But in actuality, the possibility that Kolten Wong might be a little bit better than most of us initially thought he would be brings a whole new set of concerns.

Now, to be perfectly clear, if Kolten Wong surpasses all of our wildest expectations and has the prime of Robinson Cano (who, through the age of 32, is a top ten second baseman of the World Series era by bWAR), I would be elated. But Cano has been a different type of hitter than Wong in his career. While, like most left-handed batters, Robinson Cano has hit better against righties, he has a career 109 wRC+ against lefties.

Meanwhile, here's Kolten Wong's career splits against righties and against lefties.

AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ ...the same career wRC+ as
vs. RHP .251 .309 .390 6.4% 15.7% 94 Ender Inciarte
vs. LHP .248 .282 .325 2.3% 17.2% 69 Brendan Ryan

Wong's numbers against righties have not (yet) been spectacular. But they are workable, given the current offensively suppressed environment and given Wong's solid fielding at an important defensive position. Against lefties, however, Wong has struggled. It's not quite a Matt Adams level righty/lefty split, but when your wRC+ matches that of a top-flight defensive shortstop that the Cardinals deemed such an offensive liability that they dealt him to make room in the everyday lineup for Ryan Theriot, that's not a great sign.

Enter Jedd Gyorko, Although Gyorko, acquired from the Padres in December for Jon Jay, has been a marginal MLB player for the last two seasons, he does have one particular skill that Kolten Wong has yet to demonstrate.

AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ ...the same career wRC+ as
vs. RHP, career .228 .278 .379 5.7% 23.2% 85 Tom Lampkin
vs. LHP, career .260 .335 .441 9.7% 23.0% 120

Carlos Beltran

Just as Wong performs noticeably better against righties, Gyorko is stronger against lefties. I've been banging the "platoon Wong and Gyorko" drum, literally, since day one. And while so-called "Mike guys", players for whom Mike Matheny shows a particular inclination to pencil into the lineup, have drawn (often negative) attention from fans, Kolten Wong was supplanted early in his MLB career by Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso.

Not that I believe Matheny has it out for Wong or anything of that nature, but the evidence that Wong holds a special place in the manager's heart is, to put it generously, sparse, and to put it less generously, nonexistent.

But while it is doubtful that Wong is in an untouchable position in his present form, suppose he improves. Even if the improvement is across the board, he is a long way from being even respectable against lefties. But if he goes from being regarded as a promising youngster to being regarded as a very good-to-elite second baseman, will the idea of Kolten Wong begin to surpass what he actually provides?

Kolten Wong had a moment. Not everyone gets that. Kolten Wong was the first position player for the St. Louis Cardinals born in the 1990s, and the first to become an everyday starter. Wong represented, and still represents, youth for a team that reputationally, if not in reality, is aging. He is the product of a draft-and-develop industrial complex in which Cardinals fans take immense pride, as though they are the ones personally doing the drafting and developing.

As much as even the most analytically-driven fan may not be willing to admit it, there is an emotional angle here. And emotionally, it's much more exciting for Kolten Wong to be an All-Star going forward than for him to be part of an effective platoon with Jedd Gyorko, even if the statistical results are the same.

Kolten Wong will be 25 throughout the entire 2016 season. He is still young and he still has room to grow, and this includes against lefties, and if he is benched against them, this will limit his opportunities to improve against left-handed pitching. But at the same time, it may not be worth the trouble.

And hopefully, the Cardinals will have the foresight to accept Kolten Wong's positive value in a somewhat smaller capacity rather than endangering the team by forcing him to become something he is not.