Five things about the Pirates Series

The Pittsburgh Pirates quickly strangled any hope of coming out of the break with some momentum as they managed not one, but two come-from-behind, walk-off victories against the Cardinals this weekend at PNC Park to win the series. As much as I want to say it was a surprise, since most expected the Cardinals to come to Pittsburgh and handle their business, it really wasn’t. Since the Pirates became relevant again, they have consistently given the Cardinals fits in Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals now find themselves 6.5 games back in the division and in third place. They head to New York for a four game set against the Mets.

“Closing time, one last call for alcohol…”

Or so the lyrics to the song go, but its hard for Mike Matheny to figure out who should take him home when everyone seems to be crashing. Seung-hwan Oh started the season as the closer before about three weeks ago Matheny said he was making a change and going with Trevor Rosenthal. Then he went back to Oh on Friday, who blew the save. Then on Sunday afternoon he pulled out Brett Cecil in the 9th to close up the game.

It’s a bad look when none of the three highest paid relievers in your bullpen can’t be trusted to close out a game and I don’t think we can add #4, Kevin Siegrist, in there either.

In my opinion it’s time to mix Sam Tuivailala into late innings situations. Tuivailala has a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings of work this season and carries a 1.20 WHIP. In Memphis he carries a 1.65 ERA over 16 innings of work. And yet he continues to be relegated to mop up duty in Matheny’s bullpen, having thrown the least out of all the relievers over the last 14 and 28 days. Over those last 28 days he’s thrown 6 scoreless innings in five appearances.

In fact, Tuivailala, John Brebbia, and Matthew Bowman have combined to allow just a single earned run over the last 28 days. No other reliever on the roster has less than two. They’ve earned a right to get an opportunity in higher leverage situations, especially when the guys who are there aren’t getting the job done.

Some of Tony La Russa’s greatest successes came by acknowledging the way he was using his bullpen wasn’t working and switching things up. It’s time for Matheny to follow that lead and mix things up.

Sierra returns triumphant

With injuries to both Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, Magneuris Sierra gets another cup of coffee with the big league club and comes throguh, going 4-for-4 in his return. Now through 9 games of his MLB career, he’s got at least one hit in all of them and multiple hits in five of them. He is the 154th player in MLB history to go 4-for-4 inside his first 10 career games.

Of course, the cries for Sierra to be an everyday player from here on out were there. We seem to be at peak Sierra, similar to where we were in May when everyone was complaining about how the Cardinals let Allen Cordoba go in the Rule 5 draft when he was hitting .300 in San Diego. Since June 1st, Cordoba has hit .131 and those complaints have gone quiet. Eventually Sierra will reach that point too and when he does, it won’t be pretty.

Sierra has sixteen hits in his first 9 MLB games. All singles. His speed making up for a lack of punch.

As The Intrepid STL’s Zach Gifford tweeted last night, Sierra still has much to develop on the offensive side of the ball. His contact rate and chase rates are worse than Grichuk. His .571 BABIP makes him look good. He’s projected to have a 61 wRC+ to finish out the season according to Fangraphs. That’s 49% worse than an average player.

Wong returns from DL

Kolten Wong returned almost a month to the date of his headed to the disabled list for a second time and went 0-for-4. After his customary night off on the second night, Wong returned on Sunday afternoon and went 2-for-4. With Paul DeJong and Magneuris Sierra in the lineup, Wong batted sixth, which is the highest he’s been in the lineup all season. Which is borderline laughable considering he led the team in batting average and on base percentage a month ago.

Pham returns from the break hitting

It seems like Tommy Pham just has no desire to give up playing time in the outfield, even while that continues to be a talking point. Pham went 5-for-12 in the series with a pair of doubles in the Pirates series. Over the Cardinals’ last 20 games, he has hit .347/.427/.514. He has been the Cardinals’ best outfielder and their third best hitter overall by wRC+ (behind Paul DeJong and Luke Voit) in that span.

Another wasted Martinez start

The Cardinals lost on Sunday with Carlos Martinez going 7 innings and allowing just two runs for his 13th quality start on the season. That tied him with Mike Leake for the team lead in quality starts. It was the team’s fifth loss when Martinez turns in a quality start and third straight.

It was their third loss this season when Martinez turned in a QS+ or “Gibby” (defined by Derrick Goold as going at least 7 IP and allowing 3 ER or less).

Column: Wong’s pending return brings questions

The Cardinals expect that Kolten Wong will be ready to return to the big leagues on Friday after the All Star break concludes and the team heads to Pittsburgh to begin the second half. That return will bring about some changes to the lineup and undoubtedly scrutiny on how manager Mike Matheny fills out the lineup card.

Too many good players. John Mozeliak might tell you that it’s a “good problem to have,” but it simply creates a number of problems for the Cardinals in the immediate future because the best player is not always playing. Perhaps it would be a good problem to have if decisions were being made purely on performance.

When Wong went on the disabled list for the second time on June 15th he let the team with a .301 batting average and a .393 on base percentage. Before the injury he had certainly done everything he needed to do to have the opportunity to keep his starting job upon his return. But Wong’s injury also set some positional moves in motion.

When he went on the disabled list, Paul DeJong returned after about three days in the minors. He came back talking about how he felt overwhelmed in his first taste and had gotten a good opportunity to catch his breath. He performance demonstrated that it wasn’t just talk. Since June 15th, DeJong has hit .345/.370/.701 with 8 home runs and over the last two weeks has become the Cardinals’ starting shortstop.

With second base now vacated, the Cardinals have slid Matt Carpenter over to open up first base. Since June 15th, Carpenter has hit .230/.422/.405 with 2 home runs in 23 games. He isn’t getting hits, but a walk is almost as good as a single. He has a 24.3% walk rate since June 15th, and his season long 17.5% is tied for second in baseball with Mike Trout. As a lead off guy, that’ll work.

Moving Carpenter has allowed Luke Voit to play regularly at first base and he too has responded by hitting .315/.366/.684 with 3 home runs in 14 games so far this season.

And moving Carpenter to third isn’t a possibility as Jedd Gyorko is batting .311/.407/.581 with 5 home runs since June 15th.

So in Wong’s absence, their four primary infielders have hit a combined .300/.396/.586 while Wong has been gone. It’s hard to say any deserve to take a back seat, but it’s hard to say that to Wong who was hitting .301/.393/.444 when he hit the disabled list.

So who plays where?

Well, DeJong has demonstrated himself to be a satisfactory shortstop. Perhaps it’s just small sample size illusions, but he has a +1 defensive runs saved, +3 saved runs above average, and also a +1.6 UZR. He’s demonstrated more range and a better glove than Aledmys Diaz, but still has work to do on the double play. That’s not too surprising considering he just started playing the position less than a year ago.

Gyorko is a +11 defensive runs saved and a +0.7 UZR.  Both numbers I never would have bet he’d have achieved and I never expected him to duplicate last year’s defensive results, let along better them. With the season he’s had, he would appear to have third base secured at the moment.

Voit has hit well and has enough potential that he has earned an opportunity to play more often than being Carpenter’s backup would allow.

And then there is Carpenter who is the best lead off type hitter the Cardinals have and arguably one of the best lead off hitters in baseball. He has the ability to play multiple positions, which could come in handy. But I’ll get there in a bit.

Yesterday I posted a graphic to Twitter that shows the Cardinals’ wRC+ (weighted Runs Created plus, which is normalized, league-adjusted and park-adjusted and 100 is league average) by position this season. It’s broken down showing both the first half and the last 30 days so we can judge which way it’s trending.

It’s fairly obvious that Yadier Molina isn’t going anywhere, though Mozeliak opened the door on Carson Kelly getting a promotion to share some time with Molina down the stretch, but I have a hard time believing that we will see Kelly in St. Louis before September unless Molina goes into a deep slump.

Shortstop is the next worst position on the list and DeJong is currently outperforming that with a 138 wRC+ in the Majors this season. So I expect they will ride with him there.

That leaves the two corner outfield positions in need of improvement. With Dexter Fowler back in center field, he has a 119 wRC+ this season before his injury, that will slide Tommy Pham and his 136 wRC+ to one of the corner outfield spots. I expect both Fowler and Pham to settle in between 120 and 130 wRC+ this year on the whole.That leaves one of the corner outfield spots open for improvement.

I suggest Carpenter. Unfortunately, the organization is unlikely to ever truly consider it because of Stephen Piscotty‘s extension. Though in my opinion, I feel like that extension actually makes it easier for the Cardinals to tell Piscotty that he’s going to lose some playing time right now because the commitment you’ve made to him guarantees him an opportunity to get it back either next year or once an infielder cools off.

Carpenter has played outfield before, so this isn’t a Matt Adams situation. He played 26 games there over his first few seasons in the Majors. Now, he wasn’t great defensively there in his small sample size, but left field is the least important defensive position and since he’s the lead off man, the opportunity will come often to get his bat out of the game early for a better defensive alignment and still get him four plate appearances in a game.

That would make your defensive alignment as follows,

  • C Yadier Molina
  • 1B Luke Voit
  • 2B Kolten Wong
  • SS Paul DeJong
  • 3B Jedd Gyorko
  • LF Matt Carpenter
  • CF Dexter Fowler
  • RF Tommy Pham

Those are the eight best hitters the Cardinals can put on the field right now and is relatively solid defensively (even if it can be improved by swapping Fowler and Pham).

But the Cardinals could use this lineup and if they can’t find traction over the next two weeks, there’s no point in buying at the deadline because this team will need more help than one or two moves will bring.

Weaver, Mejia optioned; Wong returns

The Cardinals made a handful of roster moves yesterday. First they traded outfielder Todd Cunningham to the Los Angeles Dodgers for cash considerations. Then they optioned right handed pitcher Luke Weaver and infielder Alex Mejia to Memphis. And finally they called up Kolten Wong from his rehab assignment. There will still be one move to be made since this leaves the Cardinals’ active roster at 24 players, but it’s expected that it will be left handed reliever Zach Duke.

Cunningham, 28, was signed to a minor league deal before the season and has hit .270/.401/.400 with 4 home runs in 76 games for Memphis this season. Likely left out in a roster squeeze in Memphis between prospects, this is a minor deal as Cunningham was unlikely to play for the big league club.

Luke Weaver pitched two scoreless appearances in St. Louis during his short cup of coffee as he will return to Memphis where he has a 1.93 ERA and 7-1 record over 11 starts.

Alex Mejia hit .214/.214/.429 with a home run in his brief time with the Cardinals. His playing time tailed off at the end when the Cardinals elected to try Matt Carpenter at second base to get Luke Voit in the lineup, but he will always have July 1st against the Nationals where Mejia single-handedly provided the offense in a 2-1 victory.

This brings Kolten Wong back to the big league roster and into an interesting lineup situation, which I discussed a little in a column today. Wong had a team best .301 batting average and .393 on base percentage when he hit the disabled list in mid-June.

The transactions leave the Cardinals with a 24 man roster and it’s expected that the final spot will go to left handed reliever Zach Duke. Duke was acquired last summer for Charlie Tilson and had a 1.93 ERA over 23.1 innings out of the Cardinals’ bullpen down the stretch. Unfortunately, Duke underwent Tommy John surgery after the season.

Duke has made five rehab appearances in the minors, posting five scoreless innings allowing 3 hits and a walk.

Cardinals recall DeJong; Wong returns to DL

After exiting last night’s 7-6 loss against the Brewers with tightness in his right forearm, Kolten Wong was placed on the 10 day disabled list and the St. Louis Cardinals have recalled infielder Paul DeJong from Memphis.

Normally teams have to wait 10 days to recall players from the minors, except when the transaction involves the disabled list.

Wong is enjoying a career year with a batting line of .301/.393/.444 so far this season, including hitting .450 in the six games since he returned from his last disabled list stint a week ago.

That DL trip was for a left elbow injury and during a rehab appearance he had complained about discomfort in his right forearm, but it loosened up later in the day. It recurred last night and was deemed to be severe enough to make the move today.

DeJong was optioned on Tuesday and in two games in Memphis went 3-for-7 and homered in both games. He batted .244/.244/.390 in 12 games with the Cardinals during Wong’s previous trip to the disabled list.

He is in the lineup tonight at second base, batting 8th.

Five things about the Phillies Series

The changes worked! Or maybe not. Hard to tell that even though the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend after a number of changes on the coaching staff by John Mozeliak. Mainly because it’s worth remembering that the Phillies have the worst record in baseball.

The Cardinals will now head for a real test, they will host the division leading Milwaukee Brewers who have a 2.5 game lead in the NL Central.

Wong hits the ground running

As I pointed out on Friday, Wong came off the DL having hit .311/.408/.462 with 9 doubles, 2 triples and a home run since the Cardinals returned from that sweep in the Bronx on April 16th.

He would go 5-for-10 in the Phillies series with a walk, a hit by pitch, and a pair of doubles. His season batting line is up to .294/.393/.434. Since April 16th, his line is up to .328/.423/.483. It’s almost to the point you don’t need to make the distinction.

He, along with Tommy Pham, continue to be some of the Cardinals best hitters over the last month. Since we have so many troubles up top in the lineup, perhaps it’s time to let Wong out of the 8th spot on a more regular basis?

Carpenter continues lead off success

Matt Carpenter went 4-for-12 with a pair of doubles in the Phillies series as he continued to lead off for the Cardinals. Since moving back to the lead off spot he has hit in all five games and is batting .350/.381/.750.

I am not a member of the “Carpenter can only hit when leading off” club, but the numbers are hard to dispute. Unfortunately, that just makes the Cardinals’ lineup far more top heavy.

Fowler likes hitting second?

With Carpenter leading off, Dexter Fowler has been slid back to the second spot in the lineup and went 4-for-10 with a pair of doubles, a home run, and a pair of walks. In the 10 games before moving him back to second, Fowler was hitting .219, so perhaps the move has worked out well for him as well.

Wacha bounces back

Michael Wacha had struggled in his previous three starts, seeing his season ERA jump from 2.74 to 4.67 in the process. He returned to his streak of throwing at least 6 innings as he went six innings and allowed just two runs on five hits and two walks. It’s a good bounce back for a pitcher whose next start will come against the Brewers.

Martinez dazzles

Carlos Martinez dropped his ERA to 2.95 while allowing just 4 hits and a walk over 9 shutout innings on Saturday against the Phillies. His 89 game score ranks this start as the best start of his career, topping the 87 he posted in an extra inning loss to the Giants back in May. The offense backed him up this time to the tune of 7 runs.

Cardinals activate Wong, DFA Peralta

During their press conference this afternoon, the Cardinals confirmed that they have activated second baseman Kolten Wong from the disabled list and designed infielder Jhonny Peralta for assignment.

Wong, 26, had been on the 10 day DL with a left elbow injury. He went 1-for-9 with a solo home run in his rehab stint with Peoria.

He returns to the Cardinals lineup batting .278/.378/.414 on the season. Since John Mozeliak’s intervention upon return from a sweep in the Bronx on April 19th, Wong is batting .311/.408/.462 with 9 doubles, 2 triples, and a home run in 31 games and outside of Tommy Pham may be the team’s best hitter.

On the other side of the move, Peralta was designated for assignment by the Cardinals in a move that was long overdue. I’ve argued that the organization should have let him go at the end of last season, either by trade or release, but had come around in recent days on his future with the Cardinals.

Mainly that, in limited playing time since his return from the disabled list, Peralta is batting .276/.323/.276. Since that same date, May 19th, Jedd Gyorko is batting .262/.292/.377 and Paul DeJong is hitting .244/.244/.390. And I ultimately refused to consider DeJong a worthwhile replacement when he has yet to be walked in his MLB career.

Now Peralta may not have his power back yet nor driven in a run yet this year, but he demonstrated he can still hit the ball when he plays, something he struggled with to start the season. And given enough opportunities, those RBI will come and so will that power.

I don’t believe he is done, as he hit .284/.337/.403 over the final two months of the season last year. He struggled early last season, but hand, wrist, and hip injuries are always difficult to work your way back from.

As a career .245/.302/.428 hitter, the odds are stacked against Gyorko to continue to perform at the level he has started the season at. It’s a big bet on him and Mozeliak has also tied himself to acquiring a third baseman if he loses on that bet.

I just hope it’s the right one because if Gyorko goes ice cold, it has the potential to look really bad.

Cardinals put Wong on DL, call up DeJong

The St. Louis Cardinals announced before today’s game that they have placed second baseman Kolten Wong on the 10-day disabled list with a left elbow strain, retroactive to May 27th. In his place, the team has called up infielder Paul DeJong from Memphis. He will be assigned #11.

Wong, who had been lifted from the game against the Giants on May 20th with the injury, had been limited by it over the past games before it flared up again before the game yesterday. Wong is hitting .278/.378/.414 this season, including .299/.392/.373 in May.  With Jedd Gyorko solidifying his hold on the third base job, Wong has been left to control second base and has responded.

DeJong, 23, was drafted in the 4th round by the Cardinals in the 2015 draft out of Illinois State University. He hit .260/.324/.460 with 22 home runs in a full season last year in Springfield and has hit .294/.331/.541 with 11 home runs over 46 games so far this season in Memphis.

Drafted as a third baseman, he has played primarily shortstop this season at Memphis while also getting limited reps at second base.

Their desire to add positional flexibility for him around the infield clearly indicated to me that the organization was looking for a way to get him onto the Major League roster at some point this season if Jhonny Peralta was not able to carve out a role with the club.

This might not be the exact scenario envisioned, but if DeJong can establish that he belongs, he could give the club a difficult decision to make when Wong is ready to come back.

 

Five things about the Marlins Series

The Cardinals closed out a sweep of the Marlins last night to go to 6-0 on the road trip as they head home to take on the Chicago Cubs. They do so with a one game lead in the NL Central. They are 19-14 and on pace to win 93 games this season. Suddenly my 92 win prediction is not looking so unobtainable.

The Cubs meanwhile find themselves in fourth place in the NL Central, 2.5 games out of first place after getting swept by the Yankees and then losing two of three to the Rockies. They have not been getting the same kind of pitching performances that they got from their rotation and their defense has struggled a little bit as well.

For the Cardinals this is an opportunity to see if their success over the last couple weeks has been the result of poor opponents or whether they can continue their stand against a team that is supposed to be the class of the division.

Give me more Sierra

Magneuris Sierra is hitting .353 over the first four games of his career. He has been on base 8 times. And come around to score on 7 of them. It’s been a pretty amazing start for the guy who a week ago was playing in Single-A. He is a small glimpse at the future, and it’s pretty exciting. He can apparently hit, he can run, he can field, and he has good instincts. It will eventually come to an end when the league starts to figure him out, but I am willing to enjoy it while it lasts.

My favorite part about watching Sierra play has been that the moment has never seemed too big for him. He hasn’t looked outmatched or out of place. Something I imagine it would be easy to give in to in his situation.

His performance has also given the Cardinals the opportunity to take it slowly with Dexter Fowler, rather than push him back into service. That ability could pay dividends down the road for this team. He is 2-for-3 with 3 RBI in pinch hitting appearances since he was cleared to swing a bat. Drove in the game winning run on Tuesday night and a go-ahead run on Wednesday night. So he’s making an impact when he gets the opportunity.

Not a fireman

It was a role that Seth Maness and Matthew Bowman both excelled in over the past few seasons, coming in when another pitcher got in trouble and put out the fire. Over the offseason, the Cardinals signed Brett Cecil to a 4 year, $30 million contract and it feels a lot like Mike Matheny has been trying to justify that contract by pushing Cecil into high pressure situations. And Cecil has not come through for him.

Cecil has inherited 16 runners this season and allowed 9 of them to score, good for 56%. Only two other Cardinals relievers have inherited more than three baserunners this season. Bowman has allowed just 2-of-11 to score and Seung-hwan Oh has allowed just 1-of-5 to score. Early in this season, Cecil has been the worst reliever with runners on base and he just keeps getting opportunities.

Cecil is currently tied for the third most inherited runners in baseball this season and of relievers who have more than 10, Cecil has the 5th worst rate of keeping them from scoring. Bowman, for example, has the 7th best. Over the past few years, Cecil is fairly middle of the road when it comes to allowing inherited runners to score so he has nowhere to go but up, theoretically.

Now, I’m sure that Cecil will have the numbers at the end of the season to demonstrate that he was a quality reliever, which means that his overall effectiveness for the Cardinals will come down to one thing: role. And finding the proper role for a relief pitcher has not been one of the manager’s strong suits.

But Cecil should probably not see anything other a clean inning for awhile. For the sake of my sanity, please?

Leave no man on base!

During the Marlins series, Cardinals’ #3 hitter Matt Carpenter left nobody on base. That’s right. Every time he came to the plate with men on, he reached base himself. He may have only had two RBI in the series on a triple that scored Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong, but the other three times he came to the plate with runners on, he took a walk to load the bases.

If you’ve been around Redbird Dugout for awhile, you know that I like looking at RBI rate. In that department, Carpenter currently leads the team, driving in 25% of runners on base when he comes to the plate. The next closest position player on the team is Stephen Piscotty at 17%. The next closest healthy position player on the team is Matt Adams at 16%.

Carpenter has long been one of the Cardinals’ best at driving in base runners, and it’s one of the reasons why moving him back in the lineup, was one of the best changes the organization could make to their offense this winter.

Take a walk

Something that I noticed while working on this was that in the 8th inning of Tuesday night’s game with runners on second and third and a 13 game hit streak on the line in what would finally be his final at bat of the night, Kolten Wong kept his approach, stayed patient at the plate and took four straight pitches for a walk.

He would get another at bat in the 9th, but came up empty, ending his streak at 13 games. Over those 13 games he hit .353/.441/.510 with 6 doubles and a triple. He scored 10 runs and drove in 5 as he hit well enough to take over the leadoff spot with Dexter Fowler out of the lineup.

He has hit just .179 while batting leadoff over the past six games, but it didn’t seem to be an issue as the Cardinals went 6-0.

It’s been awhile

The Cardinals have now spent four days alone atop the NL Central this season after having spent none there last season.

Bonus: Win a pair of tickets to Pitch Talks

Pitch Talks is happening in St. Louis at Delmar Hall on May 18, 2017. In attendance will be plenty of writers who cover the St. Louis sports and the Cardinals specifically. Tara Wellman, who you may know if you’ve clicked on any of her Bird Seeds video blogs (and if you haven’t, you should!), is having a contest to give away a pair of tickets to the event.

All you have to do to enter is go to her most recent post over on her blog at CardsConclave and leave a comment with your all-time favorite baseball tale. That’s it! Easy, right? So do it!

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.

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.