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.