Column: Wong’s comments further illustrate communication problems

Kolten Wong is an honest guy. Perhaps to a fault. He also carries his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps to a fault as well. You ask him a question, you’re likely to get a straight up answer, whether that is wanting to play every day or become the team’s leadoff hitter.

This is the same guy who, after getting picked off of first base in the 2013 World Series as a rookie who had spent less than a month and a half in the Majors, stood at his locker with tears in his eyes and answered every question.

This is the same guy who felt he needed to double down and moved to St. Louis this winter, leaving his warm and sunny Hawaiian winter base for the cold and snowy midwest. But it’s what he felt he needed to do.

The Cardinals had already shown their commitment, locking him up for $25.5 million over five years, four of which remain. Both John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny spoke highly of him as an exciting player who can provide gold glove defense. Much of the organization’s desire to improve on defense was tied up in the idea of Wong playing every day.

Then with a week remaining in spring training, Matheny tells the media that Wong is likely to start the season in a platoon share with Jedd Gyorko.

Being who he is, when asked about Matheny’s comments, Wong was emotionally honest about it. But as we typically learn in situations like this, despite how much fans may say they want players to be more honest and less cliche, being honest with the media is not the best policy. His reactions came across like an ultimatum to many: play me or trade me.

And that of course did not play well with a fanbase who would have much rathered Wong say something to the effect of, “I’m just happy to be here and help the team however I can.”

To his credit, Wong did not let it stew. He followed up to provide more context to his comments. He wants to stay in St. Louis and be the guy here, but he understandably wants to play everyday. And if that can’t be in St. Louis, he’d like to save everyone four years of hassle and do it somewhere else.

In pure baseball terms, he has not done enough to secure a full time job. But in the larger picture, I totally get it.

Over the years the organization has not shied away from the suggestion that Kolten Wong is their second baseman of the future. But he has yet to get the full support of his manager, despite Matheny’s insistence that there are “exciting things ahead” for Wong. That relationship has always prompted questions.

The question now is whether it can be salvaged or whether Wong and the organization should move on.

It all started in Wong’s first season, 2014. Wong was hitting .225 on April 26th when he was demoted to the minors because Matheny wanted to get more playing time for Mark Ellis, who was hitting .125 at the time. Ellis would finish the season hitting .180 and retire after generating little interest in free agency. Wong would hit .254 after returning on May 16th.

Wong’s second year, 2015, saw Wong left unimpeded at second base and he responded. He hit .280/.343/.434 with 9 home runs in the first half and was widely considered an All Star snub. He slumped after the break though, hitting just .202/.264/.264 while starting 32 consecutive games. Greg Garcia came up, Wong got a night off, and then he finished the season hitting .287/.331/.398 from the middle of August through the end of the season.

But the damage was done. What was a solid finish to the season and an improvement over his rookie year turned into a story about how he was now a question mark. All from a four week stretch in the middle of an otherwise All Star caliber season.

Over the winter the team acquired Gyorko, a three year starter at second base for the San Diego Padres. At the same time, the organization committed to Wong with his five year deal. It was an endorsement for Wong, but he once again had to look over his shoulder.

As many predicted, Wong struggled to open up the year. Once again he found himself demoted midseason. When he returned on June 18th, he would hit .251/.351/.401 to end the season. The return brought a fresh mindset, more than anything, but he still lacked the feeling of freedom to play aggressively.

Why do I think that? He only tried to steal four bases after he returned. For a guy who might be the fastest one on the roster, that’s a problem. It tells us something. Especially when Matheny gets up at Winter Warmup and tells us that he gives the green light “more often than not.”

To me, those Winter Warmup comments point to a problem stirring in the organization.

When Matheny told the media that he was likely to play Wong and Gyorko in a platoon, ultimately he was saying that he needs to play Gyorko at some point and it makes sense to see him when he has the platoon advantage. That seems a perfectly acceptable and defensible statement. But Wong’s reaction makes it obvious that he and Matheny had not talked about the manager’s ideas for playing time distribution early in the season.

After 3+ years of being Wong’s manager, Matheny should know better.

Whether or not you like the way that Wong’s wired or not, we have yet to see him play with Matheny’s full support. And he is the kind of player that needs to have that. He needs to have the confidence instilled in him that he is free to make some mistakes by being aggressive and that it won’t leave him riding the bench for the rest of the week.

That’s the kind of manager we have been led to believe that Matheny is, but there seems to be mounting evidence to the contrary.

We have seen the player Wong can be when he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. I like that player. That player is worth having. That player is worth playing every day at second base.

But the lack of communication between Matheny and Wong illustrates a problem I’ve been seeing. Instead of being an obvious comment about playing time distribution, it’s seen as a warning shot from a player who perceives his manager doesn’t believe in him.

Ask yourself why organizations make such a big deal about wanting to personally inform a player that they’ve been traded or released before hearing it from the media. Ostensibly it is so they hear it first hand and face-to-face rather than second hand where the message may not be as accurate.

But they don’t seem to have the same qualms about a manager talking about playing time distribution without having discussed it with his players. That seems just as important to me.

If this was the first time I saw communication breakdowns, I might be able to give it a pass. However, they gave Matt Carpenter a heads up that they intended to use him as their everyday first baseman in 2017. But according to Randal Grichuk, he had not been told of the team’s hope to sign a center fielder and move him to left field. Neither had Michael Wacha been told anything about how to prepare to potential roles the team had in mind for him, all while they talked to the media about his potential in a multi-inning relief role.

Good communication skills are a key to success in anything that involves more than one person. A misinterpreted message can lead to misunderstanding or worse. Misunderstandings and the resentment they can leave is not something you want in a clubhouse.

I know that many will fire back to my opinion on this with an argument that the player’s job is to whatever they’re told to do, whether that is play second base, left field, or sit on the bench. And that’s true. But if you want them to actually buy in to your plan rather than just follow it, as Matheny commented about at Winter Warmup, you have to communicate the plan. They need to know.

The sooner you tell them, the quicker they can get over any potential objections or hurdles and accept it and buy in. That way they can come to spring training ready to be bought in. Instead, it seems guys are being left to figure out the plan on the fly and that will create it’s own set of issues.

Kelly among cuts as Cardinals further trim spring roster

The Cardinals announced today that they have optioned catcher Carson Kelly and pitcher Mike Mayers to minor league camp, as well as assigned infielder Patrick Wisdom and outfielder Adolis Garcia. The moves leave 37 players remaining in major league camp including 9 non-roster invitees.

Kelly, 22, is at the center of everyone’s attention these days as the organization nears a potential extension with Yadier Molina. Kelly, the #1 catching prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, is considered to be Molina’s eventual replacement with his path to the Majors being complicated by such an extension.

Kelly hit .286/.387/.455 between Springfield and Memphis last season and was 2-for-13 in a brief appearance in St. Louis last September.

With Molina playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, Kelly got an opportunity to see more time working with the big league club in spring training. Unfortunately, he struggled at the plate, hitting just .182/.300/.182 over 16 games. He will be the everyday starter in Memphis as he waits for an opportunity behind Molina.

Mayers, 24, got his first opportunity in St. Louis last season as he was called up to make a start for the Cardinals. But over one start and four relief appearances, Mayers was hammered, allowing 16 earned runs over just 5 innings. Otherwise, he pitched well in the minors, posting a 3.19 ERA over 25 starts and 144 innings between Memphis and Springfield.

It was going to be difficult for Mayers to do any worse that he had last season with the big league club, but he rebounded nicely. Over 11 innings of work in 7 apperances, Mayers had a 1.64 ERA on a 1.00 WHIP. He is likely headed for what is shaping up to be a stacked rotation in Memphis.

Wisdom, 25, hit .233/.303/.374 with 5 home runs last season with Memphis in a disappointing season. He had hit 43 home runs over the previous three seasons. He hit .300/.405/.667 with 3 home runs this spring with the big league club. It was an impressive start to a player who should be knocking on the door and is about to get some pressure from behind in the organization. He heads into 2017 as Memphis’ third baseman.

Garcia, 24, was just signed by the Cardinals and has only been in camp and eligible to play in Grapefruit League games for a little over a week now. He went 2-for-13 with a walk and three stolen bases in his brief time with the big league club. He is expected to begin the season in the Memphis outfield.

Pham optioned out, likely settles roster battles

The Cardinals announced this morning that they have optioned outfielder Tommy Pham to Memphis. The move leaves them with 41 players in major league camp and likely ends the battle for the final bench spot on their Opening Day roster.

Pham, 29, hit .250/.359/.403 with 4 home runs last season in 37 games between Springfield and Memphis. He also spent most of the season in the big leagues, hitting .226/.324/.440 with 9 home runs in 78 games. He ended the season with a 39% strikeout rate which kept him from seeing the field down the stretch.

He has put together some very good stretches in the big leagues, hitting .303/.379/.532 with 4 home runs and 5 triples over the final month and a half of the 2015 season and hitting .244/.353/.479 with 7 home runs in July and August last year. Leaving some clamoring each time for a larger role on the club.

But has also struggled, as evidenced by a 40.5% strikeout rate in the second half last year. He finished out 2016 going 3-for-18 in September with 10 strikeouts.

Pham admitted this spring that he had had some vision issues last season, which would help explain the strikeouts, perhaps related to his keratoconus diagnosis, but those are corrected now.

Regardless, Pham struggled to find traction this spring, hitting .209/.320/.379 over 21 games. His option to Memphis means he will join a talented and crowded Memphis outfield picture that is expected to include top prospects Harrison Bader and Adolis Garcia.

At 29 and injuries getting in the way each time he has an opportunity to stick in the Majors, his time with the Cardinals is seemingly approaching it’s end.

The move leaves Jose Martinez as unchallenged for the final bench spot now. He has told media that he will be on the big league roster to open up the season. Martinez hit .367 this spring while playing both outfield and first base. He will likely join Jedd Gyorko, Matt Adams, Greg Garcia, and Eric Fryer as bench players on the team’s Opening Day 25 man roster.

Cardinals option Tuivailala

The Cardinals announced today that they have optioned right handed pitcher Sam Tuivailala to Memphis. With 10 days until Opening Day, the move reduces the number of players in Major League camp to 42, including 11 non-roster invitees.

Tuivailala, 24, is one of the pitchers I identified in my most recent column as a contender for the final spot in the bullpen. The decision on him appears to be made, however.

Outside of one appearance, Tuivailala had a solid spring for the Cardinals. On March 12th against Miami, Tuivailala pitched 0.2 innings and allowed 4 runs on 2 hits, 2 walks, and a hit batter. He made five other appearances for the big league club this spring, pitching 6 scoreless innings with a 1.00 WHIP.

But on the bright side, he did strikeout 12 batters over those 6.2 innings of work. The only pitcher in camp with more is Michael Wacha with 15, who has also pitched 10 more innings.

That leaves Tuivailala in Memphis to start the season where he struggled last year with a 5.21 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 47 innings of work. He’s broken his curveball back out in and effort to add more weapons to his arsenal, but Tuivailala will be out of options next spring, so this is the year for him to show the Cardinals he deserves a spot in the 2018 bullpen.

With Tuivailala being optioned out and Tyler Lyons not likely to be ready for Opening Day, it looks like the final bullpen spot will likely go to Miguel Socolovich.

Cardinals send three more to minor league camp

The Cardinals continued paring down the roster, this time optioning infielder Breyvic Valera to Memphis and assigning catcher Gabriel Lino and outfielder Todd Cunningham to minor league camp following the Cardinals’ 12-6 victory against the Astros. The moves leave the Cardinals with 44 players in major league camp, including those playing the World Baseball Classic.

Valera, 25, had a solid season last year, hitting .304/.363/.362 between Springfield and Memphis. He has gained a reputation for being a good fielder wherever you put him, which has been reflected in the fact that over his 7 seasons in the Cardinals’ organization he’s played multiple games at every position on the field, except pitcher or catcher. His minor league statistics are an oddity, in that, he has hit well at every level except Double-A in the hitter friendly Texas League. But they still protected him from the Rule 5 Draft in November by adding him to the 40 man roster.

He continued that steady production this spring, hitting .304 with a walk and a triple in 15 games. He will likely start the 2017 season with Memphis.

Lino, 23, reached as high as Triple-A for the Phillies in 2015, but was shuffled back to High-A last season as he was passed by other prospects. He hit .236/.312/.357 with 5 home runs over 58 games between Clearwater and Reading. The Cardinals signed him to a minor league deal over the winter.

He appeared in five games for the big league club this spring, going 2-for-7 with an RBI and a walk. Added primarily as organizational depth, Lino could start the season at almost any level, as high as Carson Kelly‘s backup in Memphis or further down the chart.

Cunningham, 28, was signed to a minor league deal. He spent last season with the Angels, hitting .278/.378/.387 with 6 home runs for their Triple-A club and then .148/.179/.259 in a 20 game cup of coffee with the big league club. He’s spent time in three of the past four seasons with a big league club, batting .207 over those 67 games.

He appeared in 16 games for the Cardinals this spring, sporting the rare .182/.333/.227 batting line where his OBP is higher than his slugging. Given his age and experience, he is likely headed to Memphis this year.

 

Four more players trimmed from major league camp

The Cardinals optioned pitcher Rowan Wick and outfielder Anthony Garcia to minor league camp and assigned pitchers Josh Lucas and Zach Phillips there as well. That leaves 47 players in major league camp, including those playing the World Baseball Classic.

Wick, 24, is entering his second season since transitioning from position player to pitcher. He posted a 2.44 ERA over 44 innings between Palm Beach and Springfield last season. Over the winter he was added to the Cardinals’ 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but also means we could see him at some point on the big league roster.

This spring he made three appearances for the big league club, allowed 4 runs on four walks and one hit in just over 2 innings of work.

Garcia, 25, was an 18th round pick by the Cardinals in the 2009 draft and was added after a stellar 2015 years ago to the organization’s 40 man roster. But he struggled last season, hitting .238/.308/.388 between Springfield and Memphis.

With the depth at outfielder in the organization between the three big league starters, Harrison Bader, and Magneuris Sierra, Garcia may be the most vulnerable member of the 40 man roster. He hit .250 this spring with 2 home runs while appearing in 16 games for the big league club.

Lucas, 26, is a right handed pitcher drafted in the 21st round of the 2010 draft by the Cardinals. He posted a 3.25 ERA over 53 innings of work for Springfield last season. He also had some cups of coffee with Memphis where he struggled with a 9.39 ERA over 8 innings of work.

He took advantage of his opportunity this spring, throwing 5 scoreless innings of work, allowing 2 hits and a walk with 3 strikeouts.

Phillips, 30, is a left handed pitcher. He made 8 relief appearances for the Pirates last season, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 7 innings of work. Over 62 innings in Triple-A between the Pirates and the Orioles organizations, he had a 4.35 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

He had some mixed results this spring, posting a 5.06 ERA and 1.69 WHIP over his 5 innings of work in 6 appearances.

Weaver and Harris optioned to minors

The Cardinals continued trimming their roster today, announcing that pitchers Luke Weaver and Mitch Harris have been optioned to minor league camp. That reduces the number of players in major league camp to 51.

Luke Weaver, 23, dominated the minors last season, posting a 1.30 ERA over 13 starts between Double-A Spingfield and Triple-A Memphis. However, he struggled to find traction in the Majors when called up to step into the Cardinals’ rotation last summer, posting a 5.70 ERA over 8 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 36 innings.

He was likely always going to be ticketed to open the season in Memphis and was more or less jockeying for a position on the depth chart for a midseason callup. But he will need to continue to work, as this spring he struggled in his 4 appearances for the big league club, posting a 12.60 ERA on a 3.00 WHIP in 5 innings.

Mitch Harris, 31, did not pitch last season for the Cardinals after undergoing UCL reconstruction surgery. In 2015, he had a 3.67 ERA on a 1.59 WHIP over 27 innings in St. Louis and a 3.38 ERA on a 1.50 WHIP over 27 innings in Memphis.

Harris made just two appearances for the big league club this year, posting a 9.00 ERA and 3.00 WHIP over 2 innings of work. He will likely start the season in Memphis again and be on the list for a midseason callup in the need of relief help.

Cardinals option Sierra as minor league games begin

Cardinals outfield prospect Magneuris Sierra was optioned to Single-A Palm Beach today as minor league spring training games begin. The move trims the Cardinals Major League spring training roster to 54 players, including those playing in the WBC. With about two weeks until Opening Day and minor league games starting, roster moves should pick up shortly.

The 20-year-old Sierra entered this spring as a player to watch. After struggling in 2015, he rebounded in 2016, hitting .307/.355/.395 for Single-A Peoria. MLB.com responded by putting him #7 on the Cardinals’ Top-30 prospects list. More importantly, the Cardinals responded by putting him on the 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

Most consider Sierra ready to play in the Majors from a defensive point of view. The speedy outfielder is capable of manning all three positions. But the bat still needs work.

The question for the organization is where Sierra will start. He was optioned to the Palm Beach roster, but that can change. With Harrison Bader (MLB.com’s #5 Cardinals prospect) and new signee Adolis Garcia expected to start the season with Memphis, there would seem to be an opportunity in Springfield and the Cardinals have had players skip Palm Beach before. However, being just 20 years old, Sierra has time on his side still when it comes to moving through the system. And the organization, with Dexter Fowler, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk in the Majors for the foreseeable future as well as Bader and Garcia ahead of him, aren’t under pressure to produce him to the Majors.

But one thing is clear, the Cardinals love his skill set.

He, along with fellow outfield prospect Bader, have really been given an opportunity to play a lot early this spring with the big league club and have responded. It creates some interesting scenarios for the team going forward as to figuring out how Sierra, and really even Bader, fits on the big league team.

 

Column: Who takes Alex Reyes’ bullpen spot?

It might be the question that’s not been asked this spring by almost anyone. The focus has been on Michael Wacha whose hold on the fifth starter spot is now virtually unchallenged, but Alex Reyes was always most likely headed to the bullpen if he ended up in St. Louis this season. So instead of talking about Wacha, maybe we should be asking who is in line to take Reyes’ spot in the bullpen. Or at least an easier path to do so.

There are typically seven spots in the bullpen, two for lefties and five for righties. But with Brett Cecil and Kevin Siegrist expected to play heavy roles regardless of the handedness of the batters their facing, that rule of thumb is probably out the window when it comes to bullpen composition.

Cecil and Siegrist, along with Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, and Matthew Bowman are likely secure in their positions on the Cardinals’ roster entering 2017. That leaves one opening that, until pitchers reported a couple weeks ago and Reyes reported elbow troubles, likely had Alex Reyes’ named penciled into it.

There are likely four pitchers now who have their hats in the ring for the final spot in the bullpen.

Tyler Lyons. Tyler Lyons is the first player on my list. Lyons is returning from a knee injury and may not be ready on Opening Day, which complicates matters. But I’ve been a big believer in Lyons’ ability as a reliever, thinking he can be a reliever near to the level of an Andrew Miller. Over the past four years for the Cardinals, Lyons has worked 90 innings out of the bullpen with a 2.69 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.

However you want to cut his stats, a WHIP around or less than 1.00 is pretty dominant in baseball today. Lyons’ 1.02 WHIP last season was 30th among 196 Major League relievers who threw 30+ innings last season. And second on the Cardinals only to Oh.

But he still needs to prove his health and is still not yet cleared to play in games.

Miguel Socolovich. Miguel Socolovich is the second player on my list, mainly due to the path of least resistance. Socolovich has no options remaining and will either need to make the club or pass through waivers. Socolovich has been nothing but effective when he’s been with the big league club over the past two seasons, posting a 1.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 48 innings of work for the Cardinals.

He has carried that dominance into this spring, throwing 6 innings so far this spring with a 0.33 WHIP, including a 1-2-3 inning where the ball never left the infield in the only spring training game I watched. He’s been getting work closing out games and has been dominant in that role. He allowed a hit to the third batter he faced this spring and has faced his next 15 batters without allowing anyone on base.

The fact that Socolovich has pitched as well as he has and hasn’t been able to elbow his way into more important innings doesn’t bode well for him. Especially as he was the Cardinals’ best reliever last September.

Sam Tuivailala. The third option is Sam Tuivailala. Tuivailala has been a reliever all of his minor league career and the last few seasons has been groomed to close. However, he’s also struggled to find his way in the Majors and last season was by and large a disaster at every level. He has a 5.47 ERA and 1.87 WHIP over 25 career MLB innings.

This spring started well, but turned disastrous over the weekend as he was pounded for four runs over 2/3rds of an inning of work on Sunday. A spotless ERA jumped to 6.35 and his WHIP this spring went to 1.59 over 5.2 innings this spring.

The former third round pick does still have an option, which makes it easy for the organization to send him back to Memphis for a third season. But this season is the last best opportunity for Tuivailala to settle in and put his name on the list of potential 2018 bullpen members. And that list is already stacked.

John Gant. John Gant may be another guy who can put his name in the mix as well. Gant was acquired from the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade and brought along his spot on the 40 man roster. Gant pitched 50 innings for the Braves last season, posting a 4.86 ERA on a 1.50 WHIP. He also threw 56 innings for the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate last year, posting a 4.18 ERA on a 1.43 WHIP. He was versatile for the Braves, starting 17 games and making 15 relief appearances.

He has had a good spring, posting a 1.13 ERA and 0.38 WHIP over 8 innings of work. His latest appearance came on Saturday against his former team where he started the game and threw three perfect innings with three strikeouts.

Gant would have a leg up if his three closest competitors for this role didn’t already have spots on the 40 man roster. I expect that he’ll begin the season with Memphis in their rotation, but if he pitches well, could be the first guy in line if and when one of the big league starters goes down.

Jordan Schafer. A fifth guy on this list was supposed to be Jordan Schafer. However, given this week’s news that he will be undergoing either Tommy John surgery or UCL reconstruction, the Jordan Schafer experiment seems to have come to an end, at least for this year.

Schafer’s two way experiment hits a snag

The Cardinals announced today that left handed pitcher/outfielder Jordan Schafer will have surgery on his throwing elbow on Friday. He had an MRI of his left elbow yesterday and after consulting with doctors and the team, has elected for strategy.

Schafer, 30, had been hoping to make the Cardinals roster as both a reliever and outfielder. He has played 463 MLB games as an outfielder, batting .228/.308/.307 in his career, but pulled the reverse Ankiel before last year and starting pitching. He posted a 3.38 ERA last season over 49 innings of work between three levels in the Dodgers’ organization.

He was 0-for-3 at the plate while playing 3 innings in center field this spring. On the mound, he had equally struggled over his 3.2 innings of work in 5 appearances with a 2.73 WHIP while allowing 4 earned runs.

The Cardinals were intrigued at the possibility of using Schafer as a reserve outfielder and a left handed specialist and brought him to camp as a non-roster invitee with a midseason opt out. Now he may not even be back on a mound by the time that opt out comes to bear.

They are undecided whether he will need to undergo a full Tommy John surgery or whether he could have reconstruction like Seth Maness and Mitch Harris had last season that would have a quicker recovery time. Either way, his 2017 season is over. Dr. Paletta will determine that after taking a look inside his elbow on Friday.