Optioning Wong was the best call

I had a piece outlined for today that was going to argue that optioning Kolten Wong to Memphis was not only the best decision for the Cardinals to make to create room for Jhonny Peralta‘s return, but the only one that really made sense. The two other obvious possibilities for the Cardinals were Greg Garcia and Jeremy Hazelbaker. But then Mo had to go and ruin it as the team announced that Wong was headed for Memphis with Peralta expected to be recalled tomorrow.

When it comes to those other two possibilities to be optioned to the minors, Garcia has carved himself out a role with the club and Hazelbaker’s stay was dictated by the organization’s comfort level with having just three outfielders on the roster. That left Kolten Wong.

It’s no secret that Wong has struggled mightily in 2016. With his 61 OPS+, Wong was worst offensive performer among the position players on the Cardinals’ roster given whatever playing time they’ve had.

Let’s take a quick look at where Wong has been in his first three full time seasons with the Cardinals after 57 games.

2014: .268/.333/.325, 0 HR, 4.4% xBH%
2015: .308/.359/.464, 6 HR, 8.7% xBH%
2016: .222/.306/.286, 1 HR, 2.8% xBH%

And to compare, how he finished those seasons:

2014: .240/.273/.416, 12 HR, 7.7% xBH%
2015: .234/.298/.338, 5 HR, 6.0 xBH%

This is clearly the worst couple months of baseball that Kolten has put together in his big league career. And being in the muck of this season’s 2B/SS/3B situation certainly isn’t helping things.

Already known as a guy that puts too much pressure on himself, the Cardinals added fuel to that fire in November when they acquired Jedd Gyorko who was signed through 2019 and plays second base. In February, the Cardinals signed Wong to an extension with the organization that locked him up through 2020. They showed faith in Wong and likely part of that was to demonstrate a vote of confidence in Wong going into the season.

It doesn’t quite appear to have worked as planned.

Second base is really a position where the Cardinals are stacked with players like none other. There are probably ten different ways I can come up with to not play Wong. And if Matt Carpenter, Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Gyorko, and Garcia are all playing well, why would you? Because of that, Wong was on the verge of drowning in a sea of competition without the time to get right.

And it’s not going to get easier either. All six of those players are under control for next year too.

Luckily for the Cardinals (and really for Wong too), Wong has options and doesn’t become eligible for optional assignment waivers until August 16th, so he can freely move to the minors without an issue. So Wong gets his first class ticket to Memphis with some homework: Get right.

There’s been lots of talk that he’s made some changes to his swing. He will get plenty of reps required to get it right and once again become a productive offensive player, but I believe that for his longterm future in St. Louis, he needs to add another tool to his tool box. Versatility.

In 2011, when Matt Carpenter lit up spring training, only to find himself sent back to Memphis. He played seven games for the big league club that year during a cup of coffee in the summer. Over the winter, he decided to add to his versatility to create more value for the team to keep him in the Majors. It worked. He made the team in 2012 and played 114 games as a utility player. He parlayed that into learning second base and became the team’s starting second baseman in 2013, a decision that is playing out quite nicely now in 2016 too.

There are holes in the organizational depth chart where Wong could make himself useful too. I personally think he could get a quality center fielder. He has the speed and the ball tracking ability to play the position. The arm should be serviceable out there too. All that he’d need is the experience to make a successful transition.

But I don’t expect that to happen.

There has been plenty of talk today about Wong’s extension and how it is a bad deal for the Cardinals. I still believe in Wong and I still think that it’s a good deal. He’s only two months into what could be a six year deal. It’s like watching the first inning of a game and turning off the TV. Last year, even with the horrendous second half, Wong was still a league average second baseman on offense on the whole. Somewhere inside him is the guy who was widely considered an all star snub last July.

To see how such a demotion could actually benefit him, he doesn’t have to look far. About this time last year, San Diego optioned Jedd Gyorko to Triple-A to get right. Through the Padres’ first 59 games last year, Gyorko had hit .210/.282/.311 with 2 home runs. He spent three weeks in the minors before returning to the big league lineup on June 30th, hitting .262/.303/.430 with 14 HR in the remaining 83 games.

The move created new life for Gyorko who was acquired by the Cardinals that winter and is currently having the best start to a year since he was a rookie in 2013 and mashed 23 homers.

Wong will get another chance. If not this season, then next. His contract will guarantee that. And I can’t wait to see what he can do.