If you’re still reading, congratulations on making it through the second week of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series! Yesterday I profiled San Francisco’s first baseman Brandon Belt, keying in on the swing adjustments he made prior to a big second half of 2013. And while Belt’s continued success will certainly be needed if his team are to make it back to the postseason this year, the output of today’s subject is far less crucial to his squad’s chances; forecast to begin the year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ second baseman, Kolten Wong is projected as the team’s weak link after an inauspicious debut last fall. With his rookie error still seared in the minds of the doubters though, Wong is out to prove the doubters wrong.
The name of Kolten Wong means very little to the casual baseball fan; if it weren’t for an unfortunate slip, the general public might not have heard of him at all. Instead, Wong is now known in the collective consciousness as the pinch-running rookie who was picked off at first by Koji Uehara, ending Game 4 of the World Series with the tying run at the plate. And if his mistake weren’t bad enough already, the batter in question was none other than Carlos Beltran – he of the 1.128 postseason OPS. It would be the last action Wong saw in 2013, capping off a miserable start to his big league career, with Boston going on to win the next two games and besting St. Louis in the race to become the first three-time World Series Champions of the millennium.
Over his 103 games at Triple A Memphis prior to joining the big league club, Wong boasted a .303/.369/.466 line – complete with 10 HRs and 20 SB (in 21 attempts it must be added) – showing off the tools that Baseball Prospectus had envisioned preseason: “At full maturity, Wong could becoming a .280-plus hitter with some doubles, some triples, low double-digit home runs, 15-25 steals, and a good glove. That’s a fine all-around player”. When called up to the St. Louis roster in mid-August in an attempt to revitalize a scuffling lineup, Wong initially did just that, notching 5 hits in his first 18 at bats, even stealing 3 bases for good measure. Pressed into a pinch-hitting role for the first time in his career though – at one point going 24 days without starting, and rarely finishing the games he did – Wong struggled immensely over his last 41 at-bats, tallying just a further four hits. His final line of .153/.194/.169, with a wRC of -1, and more strikeouts (12) than total bases (10), did not make for pretty reading.
So when the Cardinals traded away third baseman David Freese and announced they would be moving the incumbent second baseman Matt Carpenter to the open spot at third, in order to – in the words of general manager John Mozeliak -“give Kolten a very good opportunity to play every day”, fans expressed anxiety regarding the ‘premature’ elevation of Wong, disregarding the tiny sample size of 62 overmatched PAs; as put by Fangraphs, “it’s difficult to expect any player, not to mention a 22-year-old rookie, to produce much of anything with such inconsistent usage”. While the ultimate image of a distraught Wong sufficiently encapsulated the Hawaii product’s first experience of the majors, the rookie’s final statistics were wholly unjust in their representation of his true potential. His performance at Memphis alone, where Wong had initially scuffled – his lowest OPS (.689) coming in April as he made the initial adjustment to Triple A pitching – before going on to rake, indicates a player capable of adjusting to higher levels of competition given the playing time. Wong knows it too – “What they saw last year was an embarrassment for me… I’m fired up to show I can play at this level.”
Wong has been saying all the right things ever since his unfortunate slip, vowing to bounce back, and heads into Spring Training with his team’s confidence, Mozeliak having stated “The snapshot you got of Kolten Wong is not necessarily what’s going to be his DNA… I think he’s going to hit.” St. Louis then, appears ready to give their Minor League Player of the Year every opportunity to right the wrongs of last fall; their shuffled infield is a mark of faith in the rookie. In fact, the elevation of their young second baseman is just the latest step in their enviable ‘next man up’ process, and with the NL’s best offense surrounding him, they don’t need Wong to be Albert Pujols (they have Oscar Taveras on the way for that), just simply an upgrade on the banjo-hitting Pete Kozma whose lineup spot he will fill. If the Cardinals aren’t worried about sample size of a player they believe in long-term, even if they committed their biggest mistake under the brightest spotlight, you shouldn’t be worried either. Kolten Wong will be just fine.
I for one, as a Reds fan, am terrified of the confidence they have in that pinch-running rookie who got picked off last October.