Before the start of the 1996 season, in what would be Tony La Russa’s first year at the helm, the Cardinals traded Allen Watson, Rich DeLucia, and Doug Smith to the Giants for soon-to-be 26-year-old shortstop Royce Clayton. If the trade didn’t end the Ozzie Smith era in St. Louis it certainly accelerated it as fast as possible. Smith, who was approximately 15 years older than Clayton at the time of the trade, wasn’t thrilled with the situation and that was only exacerbated when he was told spring training would determine the starter and it was given to Clayton even though Smith felt he had played better. RetroSimba (because of course he did) wrote a thorough account of the situation back in December 2015.
Most of us know the story from here. A rift developed between Smith and La Russa that probably still exists today in some form. Fans were divided. I’ve often heard there are Cardinals fans who never accepted La Russa because of this feud, and though I’ve never met a single one of these fans it would not surprise me if they exist. Smith is a Cardinals legend - personally speaking, I will never like a baseball player more than I liked him - and fans like to hold on to their legends tightly.
But my position on this has always been that Smith and La Russa were both right and wrong and picking sides was and remains unnecessary. From Smith’s standpoint, he was still a quality player - even past 40. Here’s what I wrote about him back in November:
A bit lost in his legacy is that Smith was an athletic freak of nature. Since the league integrated, only ten position players in MLB have a higher fWAR after the age of 30 than Smith’s 42.4. They are as follows: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Edgar Martinez, Stan Musial, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, and Roberto Clemente. That puts Smith ahead of Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Ichiro Suzuki, Rafael Palmeiro, and Carl Yastrzemski - all of whom had at least 600 more plate appearances than Smith after the age of 30.
Even in his final season Smith was getting on base at a near-.360 clip and played good defense. He was on pace for a 3-win season had he been the starter and logged his usual 600 plate appearances (Clayton, meanwhile, had a 1.9 fWAR in 531 plate appearances). Want to know how many shortstops at age-41 or older have been 3-win players since 1950? Zero. Smith was simply an incredible talent, and he had earned the right to be miffed.
On the other hand, he was 41-years old. A succession plan was necessary no matter how many backflips Smith could still land in his later years. And La Russa was not brought in to prolong some nostalgic roadshow. He had the right and the resume in 1996 to mold the team as he pleased. Looking back, Smith may have been the better choice on the field and to put fans in the seats, but I can hardly blame La Russa for giving a majority of the starts to the 26-year-old who had built up a superb defensive reputation in San Francisco.
And that’s what I mean when I say both Smith and La Russa were right. It’s possible, even when the two sides are in direction opposition.
All of this long-windedness brings us to Kolten Wong and his reaction to the news that he would be platooned at second base presumably with righty Jedd Gyorko. In the event you missed the stir yesterday, Ben Frederickson of the Post-Dispatch had several long quotes from Wong venting his frustration. Here’s a just a small sample from the article:
Last March, Wong and the Cardinals agreed to a five-year deal worth a guaranteed $25.5 million. He wondered aloud if that contract will reach its end in St. Louis.
"I don't think you give somebody a contract for no reason," Wong said. "When you are given a contract, you are expected to get a chance to work through some things and figure yourself out. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, all these guys never figured their stuff out until later on down the road. It's the big leagues. It's tough, man. For me, the biggest thing is I just need people to have my back. When that comes, it will be good. But, I think right now, it's just staying with my play, understanding I'm working toward getting myself more consistent, understanding what kind of player I can be. If that's going to be with another team, so be it."
And when asked if he would rather be traded than be a part-time player, Wong replied:
“One hundred percent. I don’t want to be here wasting my time. I know what kind of player I am. If I don’t have the belief here, then I’ll go somewhere else.”
Later, Wong walked back his comments just a bit stating that he wasn’t demanding a trade, but made it clear that the platoon situation caught him off guard and that he wasn’t happy with it.
First, these comments were pretty over the top. But second, Wong is upset because he should be. The “return to fundamentals” offseason sound bytes focused largely on defense. Wong is the best defensive second baseman on the roster and if he was listening to the narrative the last couple of months from the higher-ups then I don’t blame him for expecting 550 to 600 plate appearances in 2017. If, as indicated, that was jeopardized by a poor spring at the plate then that is wrongheaded on the team’s part. Wong has been dreadful at the plate this spring but if we’re being honest with ourselves no one knows exactly what that means. Spring is when players hone their swings and work on other parts of their game, and any stats derived from which are from small samples anyway.
Also, the team’s handling of Wong from day one has been atrocious and I don’t know how else to phrase it. From the demotions to Memphis, to always having a backup breathing down his neck when he endures a mini-slump, the team has never articulated much faith in the player they pegged early as the future second baseman. I’m sure that hasn’t been lost on Wong.
Still, Wong probably should be platooned. He has yet to show that he can hit lefties (71 wRC+ in 336 plate appearances) or that he’s a very advanced hitter. If he’s ever demonstrated any power to the opposite field then I missed it. And Gyorko, his would-be platoon partner, led the team in home runs last season and needs at-bats this season with Jhonny Peralta having all but wrapped up third base. Getting those against lefties where Gyorko has a career 113 wRC+ in 524 plate appearances is a fine place to start and an obvious improvement over Wong that is likely not to be cancelled out with defense.
Wong will still be in line for plenty of playing time, too. By my count, of the 70 starting pitchers on the other 14 teams in the National League, only 20 (29%) are left-handed, and only four reside in the NL Central (Jon Lester, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed) where the Cardinals will play 76 games. Assuming Wong gets the start about 75 percent of the time (122 games), and conservatively speaking that he bats in the eight-spot which averaged around 3.88 plate appearances per game in the NL in 2016, Wong is still looking at around 475 plate appearances for the season. And that sounds about right for a player of Wong’s talents with a hefty bat like Gyorko on the bench.
Bottom line, Kolten Wong is a proud player and he should be angry. The team’s handling of him up to this point has been less than ideal and their publicly stated offseason goals were not consistent with a platoon at second base. And yet, it’s a move that probably makes the most sense for this team. Like Smith and La Russa over twenty years ago, neither side is really in the wrong here but it would be best for all parties if they can somehow get on the same page by Sunday.