Coddlin’ Kolten or Wronged Wong?

I’ll admit, I’m a bit hesitant to tackle the Kolten Wong situation.  Not because I don’t have opinions on the matter, of course, but because Tara did such a thorough job of going through it all Sunday night on Gateway. Some of this may be a retread for those that listened, but given the fact that this is one that is polarizing a lot of Cardinals fans, I thought I’d go through it again anyway.  (Plus, after I thought up the post title, there was no way I was going to not use it.)

I don’t figure anyone needs background, but just for a refresher, on Sunday John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny stated that it was likely Wong would start the year as a platoon second baseman instead of the overall starter that had seemed to be the plan most of the winter.  It touched a nerve with Wong, who apparently learned of this idea from media members, and he had some honest and candid comments about his place on this team.  Wong walked those back a little bit (or at least couched them in softer terms), but the damage was done.

Unsurprisingly, this has created two camps.  There’s a side that thinks Wong doesn’t have any reason to complain, what with his .184 spring average along with a career that has been more frustrating than outstanding.  There’s a side that thinks Wong has a point, that he’s never gotten the full faith and trust of his manager and that he’s right to be upset when the rug is pulled out from underneath him.  There’s a lot of truth in both positions.

We like to mock Matheny’s comments about “adversity” with Wong and say that some of that adversity was manager-created, but the simple fact is that everyone in the big leagues has to overcome some obstacles to have a successful career.  Whether it’s health, whether it’s being the newcomer trying to unseat a veteran, whether it’s a down year, players have to be able to come through those situations, learn from them, and be better.  So far, Wong hasn’t completely done that.  Whether there are extenuating circumstances or not probably depends on your point of view, as Obi-Wan used to say.

There comes a time where Wong has to produce on the field.  Honestly, he pretty much did in 2015.  Maybe not to the level of everyone’s expectations, but a .707 OPS with 11 home runs is not terrible from your second baseman.  Some of that is probably overshadowed by the fact that his second half was weaker (.238 BA, just 2 HR) but still, the entire package wasn’t that bad, especially from a young player.  As Tara noted Sunday, 2015 was also the only year they just ran him out there to play.  There was no Mark Ellis, there was no Jedd Gyorko, there were no trips to Memphis, he got 613 plate appearances and had a solid, if unremarkable, year.

“He’s got to hit to play” seems to be a popular mantra, but I’m not sure how much I buy into the fact that he’s had his chance and he’s not done anything with it.  After that solid 2015, you’d think he’d built up some credibility that he could play at this level.  That he’d be the guy they’d run out there day after day.  Many say that he played his way out of the starting role last year, that he had plenty of chances.  He didn’t have the strongest April (.226/.306/.226) but had just 62 plate appearances.  For comparison, Matt Carpenter had 109 (and was hitting .230, though with more power), Matt Holliday 85, Stephen Piscotty 101, Yadier Molina 94.  That’s what starter level is.  He was 30 PA behind the catcher–granted, the Cardinals use their catcher much more than other teams, but still–and 40 behind every day starters.  That’s basically 10 games worth of plate appearances, in a month where there were only 26-27 games.

So given the fact, as he’s stated recently, that Wong needs a rhythm and regular time to play, it is difficult to argue he got that coming out of the box last year.  Which, after a solid 2015–again, I acknowledge that the second half was iffy, which does raise some questions–has to make a player wonder about his standing, especially one as emotional as Wong.

There’s also a faction of folks that have supported Wong in the past but turned on him with the latest comments.  As Jon Doble said in his recent post about the situation (and I completely agree with the communication issue, something I’ve faulted this front office and management for a number of times in the past), we always say we want players to be authentic and honest.  What we really mean is we want them to be funny or say things that we agree with.  We saw with Dexter Fowler earlier in the year that it doesn’t take much out of those waters for folks to get irate.  Wong may have spoken in the heat of the moment, may have said things that perhaps he shouldn’t have, but you can understand where he’s coming from.  It’s more real than hearing the “whatever’s best for the team” cliche again, especially when there is real hurt there.

And I think that’s the major issue here.  It’s not that Wong’s losing playing time, which definitely doesn’t sit well, but it’s the fact that the organization continues to not trust him to play that sits heaviest on the second baseman.  Imagine you’d been told at work that you were going to be in charge of a project.  You spent the time to start preparing for that.  Maybe you worked on a few things that would make you better as a leader.  Then, soon before the project was to start, they put someone else in charge with you.  What would you think the company thought of your abilities?  Some folks would take that as a challenge to work harder, which is fair, but even so you are still going to feel that your employer doesn’t actually trust you enough to lead, right?

It’s a similar situation with Wong.  He dedicated himself this winter to the game.  He spent the winter in St. Louis instead of his home in Hawaii (which, man, talk about sacrificing for your craft).  Even as he said the right things at the Winter Warmup about going in to compete for a job in Jupiter, you have to figure that with Matheny and Mozeliak continuing to stress defense and baserunning and saying that he’s their second baseman because he can do both things, he had to at least have the mindset that he was in good shape when he got to spring.  You can argue if he should have thought that, if he should have had more of an edge, but it would be reasonable to think that he was the starter going into camp.

What do we say about starters in the spring?  That their results don’t matter, that they can focus on making adjustments, on working on things, and not care that their average is low.  That’s what we are seeing with Piscotty this spring.  He’s working on his swing and is hitting .157, but few are terribly concerned about him and there’s no talk of him not starting.  Not saying there should be, don’t get me wrong, but if he hadn’t been anointed the starter, the conversation around him would be significantly different.

So Wong could have (I don’t know that he did, but it’s reasonable) felt that he could work on getting better in spring instead of worrying about being the best he could be so he’d have a job.  From the outside looking in, it feels like Wong got dumped into a competition that he didn’t necessarily know he was in.  When you lose such a competition, it’s not surprising that you’d explode a little bit.  There’s a lot of frustration when the parameters shift without you being aware they did.  There’s a strong argument, as Craig Edwards wrote over at Viva El Birdos yesterday, that Matheny’s not really that interested in improving defense and baserunning.  It’s like going to put that final piece in the puzzle, only to find out the picture has completely changed.  There’s got to be a feeling of helplessness there.

Now obviously Jedd Gyorko has to play some of the time.  The man did have 30 home runs last year, though I want to point out that the team hit a lot of home runs and they missed the playoffs.  I feel like people are grabbing hold of that number as a lifeline.  Power is good, but that’s not usually the way the Cardinals win.  Ask Mark McGwire how far 70 and 65 homers got him in the playoffs.  Gyorko is a great asset to have, mainly because of his flexibility.  He’s going to need to play third, he’s going to need to fill in at second, he’ll probably even do a little shortstop.  So having him at second sometime is expected, not the end of the world.

And, honestly, I expected Wong to wind up sitting against lefties a lot of the time this season as well.  No matter if the Cardinals had announced Wong as their everyday second sacker, I was pretty sure that he’d be on the bench for Opening Day against Jon Lester.  I think at times handedness gets taken too far, but there was little chance that Wong (or Matt Adams, for that matter) would see a tough lefty.  Which is fine–guys do need to sit at times and taking them out on a day when they aren’t likely to have a lot of success makes sense.  There’s a difference between Lester and your back-end lefty, though, something that doesn’t always get acknowledged.

The problem is, as some folks pointed out on Twitter yesterday, Matheny doesn’t really platoon.  Wong saw over 20% of his plate appearances come against lefties last year.  It’s more that Matheny has two guys at a position and he plays who he wants or who has the “hot hand” or whatever rationale there might be, but it’s not at all a strict platoon where Gyorko faces lefties and Wong faces righties.  That’s never really happened under Matheny and I don’t think many expect that it’ll happen now.  Say Gyorko hits a home run opening night.  Will Wong start against Jake Arrieta on Tuesday?  Or will Matheny “reward” Gyorko for a good game?  If he gets two hits on Tuesday, would he then be the “hot hand” and need to start Wednesday while he’s doing well?  I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable scenario.  It’s one a lot of folks would expect.

Credit where credit is due, though.  They have given Wong a lot of spring at bats.  I know we half-jokingly complained when Wong wasn’t in the first lineup of the year, but he’s put up 49 AB this spring, as many as Jose Martinez and only four shy of camp leader Randal Grichuk.  Spring’s not the best place for a rhythm guy, given that you don’t play every day, there’s a lot of stops and starts to the at bats, but he has had opportunities.  He has brought at least some of this on himself.

That’s the rub, of course.  You can argue the reasons for the fact that he’s hitting .184, but if he’d hit .250 everyone would be a lot quieter.  That said, we all lived through the Pete Kozma experience, where the argument was that the lineup was strong enough that you could carry a .217 hitter because he had a stellar glove.  There’s no doubt that Wong’s glove at second base is stronger than anyone else’s.  Gyorko is serviceable there, but Wong makes Mike Leake and company much better.  So the question is, is this lineup strong enough to carry a glove-first man?  If it is, then why isn’t Wong out there most of the time?  If it’s not, why not?  Where’s the problem?

It figures that I started this post hesitant to tackle the topic and I’m ending it over 2000 words later.  Wong’s that kind of topic, one that seems to inspire/frustrate/aggravate a lot of fans.  It’s starting to feel like we are heading toward a Wong-or-Matheny situation and while I know there would be a good chunk of Cardinal Nation that would take the former, odds are the latter wins that one.  Maybe Kolten will come out of the gates hot and put a lot of this to rest.  If not, expect to hear his name in trade rumors all summer long.

I hope Wong can figure it all out and I hope that Matheny can get to the point where he trusts him enough to run him out there regularly and see what the Cards have.  I don’t have a lot of expectation that will happen, though.

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