The Kolten Wong Situation

As referenced at the end of last night’s post, Rob Rains posted an interview with Kolten Wong on his site yesterday that got everyone talking.  Even this morning, I found it tough to get the site to load as the traffic for that post was more than the site could handle.  There’s a lot in this to discuss (as Tara and I found out last night, devoting about 80% of Gateway to the topic) so let’s talk a little about it.  I imagine there are going to be a lot of sites doing this a lot better than I can, but hopefully it won’t be too terrible.

1) This isn’t Kolten Wong whining about not playing.  Wong freely admits he was ticked at the beginning of the season, when his playing time started getting cut, but he realizes he’s just in a tough spot with this roster right now.

“It’s no one’s fault, there’s no blame going on anywhere,” Wong said. “I understand the situation. It’s not a fun situation to be in but it is what it is. You can either take it with a grain of salt and try to get better, or let it affect you.”

Given how things have gone for Wong this year, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if Wong just let it fly.  I mean, it’d go against the Cardinal Way that has been instilled in these players since they were drafted.  While I’ve not read the handbook, I’m sure there is a section on dealing with the media, general things to say and not say, etc.  If Wong wanted to burn some bridges and get some attention, he could have been much less reasonable than he was.

“This year has been a really weird year,” Wong said. “From how I’ve played in the Cardinal system until this year, it’s a big change. We’ve kind of went more toward a power perspective which I fully understand but that’s not my game. It’s never been my game to be a guy who is going to hit 20 plus homers.”

He acknowledges that with the power others, most notably Jedd Gyorko, have shown, his skill set can easily get shunted to the side.  I don’t know that it should–as Tara and I talked about last night and I referenced somewhere in last night’s massive recap, there’s a case to be made for diversifying some of this offense–but it’s not surprising that someone having a powerful season gets playing preference over someone that struggled, at least to start the season.

2) While this may be a black mark on Mike Matheny’s record, this is not a fireable offense.  Casey Stengel once said that the art of managing was keeping the five guys who hate you away from the four guys that were undecided.  Decisions don’t work out for everyone and not everyone is going to like the manager, whether he’s a “leader of men” or not.  (That leader of men quote is likely the most used–both honestly and derisively, since John Mozeliak’s “low hanging fruit” comment.)  If, out of the 25+ players that have been Cardinals this year, Wong is the only one with issues, that doesn’t contradict Matheny’s main skill.  If anything, it’d probably strengthen it.  (Though I will say that I doubt Wong is the only one, just the only one that has made it public.)

There’s definitely an argument to be made that Matheny could have done better by Wong this year, if not by playing time then by better communication.  The quote most folks grabbed out of this article indicated that Wong was feeling his way without a lot of guidance.

What perhaps bothers Wong the most about his current situation is that he really has not been told anything about his role on the team. He said he has been left to kind of figure it out on his own, a role which is completely new to him.

Now, it’s possible that Matheny has done a credible job of trying to convey what the expectations were of Wong and Wong hasn’t understood it.  We do only get one side of this thing and none of us are in the clubhouse to know what Matheny has or has not said to Wong.  Given that caveat, it sounds like there’s not been a lot of sit downs between Wong and the manager to get clear on why he’s not playing, what he can do to get more playing time, how important is he to this team, what his future is, all those things that are important to players as they try to establish their careers.

Matheny’s “leader of men” mantra has taken some hits over the past five years, though given this is the first real issue we’ve heard about, there’s probably still something to it.  This doesn’t rise to the level of Tony La Russa-Scott Rolen, La Russa-Jim Edmonds, La Russa-Colby Rasmus.  There’s no personal facet of this conflict.  As Tara noted last night on the show, Kolten has spoken in the past about how Matheny helped him during the period after the loss of his mother.  I don’t sense from Rains’s article that there’s a lack of respect from Wong toward his manager.  It’s just about how he’s been used, or more accurately not used.

I’m not typically one to call for someone’s job.  I know the major Cardinal blog has made their position known on this subject, but there are so many variables we don’t know that I’m not exactly going to chomp at the bit for someone’s life to be turned upside down.  Honestly, it’s very debatable that things would have been much different over the past five years with a different manager and I don’t know that there’s someone out there that could come in and make the 2017 Cardinals an instant World Series favorite.  (Well, in actuality.  A big name might make the press claim they are Series-bound, but we know what that has been worth in the past.)

The only times I’ve deviated from that were when the manager was feuding with a star player.  In those situations, I tend to side with the player since they are more likely to contribute directly to wins and losses than the manager is.  Other folks can pull levers, but finding someone to play third base like Rolen is a completely different task.  I don’t think, however, that we are at that level here.  It’s not Wong or Matheny.  It can be both going forward, if things change.  How they are going to change is the question.

3) This is not “play me or trade me”.  Kolten Wong wants to be a Cardinal.  Again, he’s not asking for a managerial change, he’s not really asking for anything.  He wants to play and if there’s an athlete out there that’d just be satisfied that he signed a $25 million contract and he’s set for life, I’d be stunned.  The competitive fire that gets a player good enough to warrant such a contract isn’t going to be quenched because he can now worry about setting up trusts for his kids rather than what his job after baseball is going to be.  Just because you can afford a good seat cushion doesn’t mean the bench is any more comfortable.

That said, there does come a point where you have to figure it’s better for him to be playing elsewhere than picking splinters in St. Louis.  Wong seems to understand that’s a possibility, however distasteful.

“It definitely makes me feel a little uncertain about the offseason and my remaining time in St. Louis. When things kind of go this way and you get a contract and end up not even being a starter anymore, it’s a little sketchy. It’s going to be something my wife and I have to sit back and talk about and understand there is a chance I could not be here next year.

“Looking at it from a realistic standpoint, it makes sense when you have guys like Jedd who is having a great year and (Aledmys) Diaz. There is a lot of talent on this team, a lot of guys on the infield who next year are going to be fighting for a spot. Adding two and two together you just kind of see things … It’s been a tough year. I love being here, being in St. Louis. But it’s getting to the point where the arrows are starting to point a certain direction. I understand that, and I know this is a business. It is what it is.”

It’s disturbing to think that, for the second time in three years, a guy that was signed to a core-level contract could be shipped out.  I don’t think Wong would be like Allen Craig, who basically fell off the map after he was dealt.  Wong would be successful elsewhere, though I hope it doesn’t come to that.  Then again, it may have to.

4) It’s hard to see Wong’s place on the 2017 Cardinals.  Without some major moves, how does Wong get on the field next year?  Say Brandon Moss doesn’t return.  Maybe you can shift Matt Carpenter to first base on a fairly regular basis and let second base come open.  Even if that happens, though, wouldn’t the standard infield be Jhonny Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Jedd Gyorko, and Carpenter?  You could move Peralta to the bench, let Gyorko play third, but then you have to hope the manager doesn’t decide that Greg Garcia needs to play regularly at second.

Peralta to the bench might work, though given his reputation, his contract, and his still somewhat productive bat, you’d have to figure Matheny wouldn’t keep him there all that long.  Even this only works if Matt Holliday either doesn’t return or returns as an outfielder.  Given the outfield situation, though, you could see him being put back at first base, which then moves Carpenter, which again forces Wong out of the lineup.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a Wong trade at all.  As I said above, I think the Cardinals would regret letting him go.  That said, it’s going to take some sort of shakeup to get Wong on the field for an extended period of time next year, it would seem like.  Sure, Gyorko could come down from these heights, but how long do you think his leash would be?  It’d have to take like two terrible months before Matheny would start to bench him, wouldn’t it?  Would Wong be able to step in and take over like Gyorko did this year?  I don’t know.

We’ve talked about John Mozeliak being a hoarder, especially when it comes to the pitchers in the organization, but this winter might be the time to make some big moves, to revitalize this team.  We saw the Phillies take the steps from World Series Champion to out of the playoffs in five years.  The Cardinals aren’t quite to that level, but they have made exits earlier and earlier over the past three seasons and there is no guarantee that they’ll even make them this year.  If Mo does start doing more than cosmetic changes, that could benefit Wong.  Or it could send him out of town.

5) All that said, Wong could be playing more.  I know that it’s difficult to get him into the starting lineup, but that’s got to be part of the manager’s job.  Peralta’s not hitting for power and while his bat has been hot of late, you’d still think you could sit him every once in a while, slide Gyorko over, and keep Wong in some sort of playing shape.  Even if Wong’s not starting, though, he could play more than just as a pinch-hitter.  I wrote about it back last Sunday, but he should have played in the 9-0 win over the Phillies.  He pinch-hit in the top of the eighth but didn’t get to stay in for the rest of the game.  It wouldn’t have been much, but I think it sends a message when you don’t make even that minimal effort to get a guy some playing time.

Saturday, he got to come into the game to play second in the seventh as part of a double switch when Matt Bowman came into the game.  He played the seventh, got to hit in the bottom of the frame, then had to come out when Matheny did a double-switch to get Seung-hwan Oh into the game when Bowman ran into trouble.  As part of the game situation, that makes sense–Wong had made the last out and Matheny wanted to make sure Oh could pitch the ninth as well.  It just stunk that it had to be Wong not catching the breaks.  Even if he’d gotten a hit and Greg Garcia made the last out, it still probably would have been him getting removed.

Wong’s done everything he can to play more.

One of the reasons he volunteered to start playing the outfield, which he had not done since he was a freshman in college, was to increase his chances to start. Now, he has basically stopped taking fly balls during batting practice.
It all adds up to a lot of frustration.

Now, the outfield situation is about as interesting as the infield, as Tommy Pham would attest, so it’s not like there’s a gaping hole there that needs to be filled.  Still, the knock against Wong has been that he lacks some of the versatility that others on the team have, so that when someone like Aledmys Diaz goes down, he can’t slide into the shortstop position like Greg Garcia could.  However, when he tries to add to his portfolio, that doesn’t help him either.  If nothing else, you’d think occasionally he’d get into a game as an outfielder if only to keep him sharp.

Even with all of this going on, Wong hit .288/.373/.441 in July, which would seem to be a bat that could help out the club, especially in the manufacturing of runs.  Instead, he’s had about half as many at bats in August.  No wonder the guy is frustrated, because even when he succeeds, he takes a step back.

6) I’m not sure what this says about the clubhouse.  Again, it does seem like this is pretty much just a Wong issue.  While we know that Matheny and Carlos Martinez have had a run-in or two over the past few weeks, those didn’t seem to be too severe, at least by the folks involved.  (The folks observing, that’s a different story.)  As I said about 2000 words ago, you can’t expect a manager to keep everyone happy all the time, especially in a profession that limits how and when you can use your employees.

On the other hand, when was the last time an interview like this made it out to the wild for our consumption?  When was the last time we knew about anyone really being frustrated with their leadership?  A player might make a comment in the heat of the moment after a game–I think Adam Wainwright has done that in the past, being perturbed about being removed from the mound–but a sit-down on the record with a reporter, knowing that this is going to be out there for others to see and dissect?  I am sure there have been things, but I can’t remember them right off the top of my head.  Most of these things are handled in-house before they ever become a public problem.

So, if this is getting out, is it an isolated case or is it a symptom of something more?  If Wong didn’t feel like he had the support of some of his teammates, would he have felt comfortable talking with Rains?  Maybe–Wong’s always been a more open, emotional player than most of his fellow players, so it is quite possible that he’s doing this on his own.  I still think it’s possible that there are some resentments, perhaps subtle, perhaps unacknowledged, that led Wong to believe this was a route he could take and not be out on his own.  I guess we’ll see from the reaction and such, but if there’s more to it than Wong, I do think Matheny’s job evaluation is going to be a little tougher this offseason.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this changes things.  Will Matheny make more of an effort to start Wong?  Zach Davies, tonight’s starter for Milwaukee, is right-handed.  Does Wong make tonight’s lineup?  On one hand, you don’t want to reward what could be seen as insubordination (though probably not too much given there’s no direct criticism of Matheny in Wong’s quotes) but on the other hand, you want to acknowledge there’s an issue and perhaps extend an olive branch.  Or does he get punished for speaking out by getting even fewer at-bats over the next week or so?  (That’s going to take some work!)  Whatever the case, seeing what happens with Wong both the rest of this season and during the offseason should be fascinating.

  • bluenotebacker August 29, 2016, 10:47 am

    I find it abhorrent the Cardinals are giving Wong $5mil/yr not to play. I’m over Jhonny Peralta. Injuries have made this entire season tough to gauge, but for me you have to go with Wong @ 2B, Gyorko everyday @ SS or 3B and platoon Garcia/Peralta in there. Or trade Wong. I don’t know if he’ll *ever* live up to the contract whether in STL or elsewhere but you wont know if he doesn’t play

    • Cardinal70 August 29, 2016, 10:59 am

      The injuries definitely haven’t helped and the fact that the team has struggled to stay in the wild card race factors in as well. If they were 5-6 games up and had a solid lead, maybe Matheny would feel more confident running Wong out there for a few days. I don’t know–we are seeing them do that with Grichuk, which is another issue I didn’t address.

      I would hope the organization realizes Wong has to play somewhere next season. Where that will be is going to be a big story line of the winter.

    • Realist50 August 30, 2016, 11:59 am

      I recommend looking at the current reality of MLB revenue and payrolls and adjusting your view of contract dollars. $5 million per year is not a big contract anymore. If going by typical costs in free agency, it’s roughly the going rate for a quality backup. Wong’s situation is a bit different because he signed an extension while he still had years of team control remaining, but the fact remains that he’s not that expensive in the current payroll environment.

      I agree that Wong should get more playing time than he has recently. but I can’t get on-board with Gyorko as an everyday SS. He is a really bad defensive SS, so he’s stretched as anything beyond a spot starter there. That said, I don’t see why Peralta is a clearly better option than Wong right now. A logical decision would be to mix up Peralta 3B – Garcia SS – Gyorko 2B with Gyorko 3B – Garcia SS – Wong 2B, and have Gyorko or Peralta occasionally spell Garcia at SS until Diaz is back. Since Wong is LH and Peralta is RH, playing platoon advantages also helps with that decision: don’t think there’s much reason right now to start Wong against LH starting pitchers.

  • Realist50 August 30, 2016, 12:37 pm

    Thoughtful, well-reasoned post. Wong’s situation is an unfortunate downside of having a team with a lot of depth, but I still prefer the positives of having quality bench players. It’s obviously helped the team stay competitive even through injuries. I much prefer this issue to having Pete Kozma as the 25th man on the roster.

    I wouldn’t be happy, however, to see Peralta be a big factor in a decision to trade Wong. Peralta is only under contract for 1 more year, he turns 35 in May 2017, and there’s a decent (if admittedly not 100%) case that Wong is an overall more valuable player than Peralta today.

    There are lots of moving pieces, as noted in the post, but I don’t think that a 2017 IF of something like Gyorko – 3B, Diaz – SS, Wong – 2B, Carpenter – 1B with Garcia and Peralta as reserves is necessarily overly crowded. Perhaps it’s one more SS/2B/3B infielder than the team really needs – because one quality bench player can get quite a bit of playing time just resting other players – but injuries happen and there’s a notable lack of quality infield prospects in the high minors. That would leave Matt Adams as the odd man out, either traded or stashed in AAA (I believe that he’ll have an option year left), which I think is fine. Adams doesn’t hit enough to be an everyday starter at 1B, has no positional versatility, and never seems to make it through a season healthy. If you really think that’s one extra player and want to roll the dice a bit on health, maybe see what Peralta can get in a trade but keep the players with longer-term control. And putting 30+ year old Matt Carpenter at 1B is a logical move if the team wants to try to improve on this year’s poor defense.

    A trade – including trading Wong – could obviously scramble the picture, especially if a SS (moving Diaz elsewhere) or 3B comes back in a trade. But it is important to think about not just 2017, but what the picture looks like past 2017. Wong is, after all, 2 months away from turning 26 and under team control through 2021 (including his option year).

    • Cardinal70 August 30, 2016, 1:02 pm

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I can’t disagree with what you say in regards to Peralta’s impact on things and I agree given his age and contract status, you don’t want to move Wong just due to that. My only caveat, perhaps, is whether we’ll see the rotation of infielders like you point out. I would hope so, but that’s not always been the case. I think another year of mainly bench sitting would harm Wong’s development–maybe growth is the better word–enough that it’d be better for him to avoid that one way or another.

      Wong getting to start last night probably means that he’s still in the organization’s plans and maybe we’ll see more of him as the rest of the season unfolds. It would have been easy to bury him for being outspoken, but thankfully they didn’t do that (at least not yet). Hopefully he’ll play well enough that a lot of this discussion is moot come the offseason!

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