“They grab Ugarte and she walks in. Well, that’s the way it goes. One in, one out.”–Rick Blaine, Casablanca
Roughly 24 hours after the Cardinals officially welcomed a Gold Glove infielder, they officially said goodbye to another. Kolten Wong, after having his option for 2021 declined by the Cards to start the winter, finally agreed to a contract with another team. He stays in the NL Central, signing a two-year deal with the Brewers for $18 million, with an option for a third year.
Of course, there were those that only view baseball (or, at least, like to come off that way) through a numbers viewpoint that seemed to say good riddance. There was one individual that got retweeted into my timeline (thankfully mockingly) that threw the pickoff in the 2013 World Series as the reason he was glad to see Wong go, which is sad for many reasons. Yes, that hurt, but the Red Sox were up 4-2 with two outs in the ninth when that happened and had a 96% win probability. Even if Wong isn’t picked off, they are real unlikely to win that game and that didn’t even make the top 5 plays that had the most impact on the final outcome. That’s also not Wong’s only postseason moment. Just the next year, he hit a walk-off home run against the Giants in the NLCS. That actually did impact the outcome and should be remembered more than the earlier pickoff.
Boiling down Wong’s career to those two moments does him a disservice. We saw Wong come up through the organization as a top prospect. We saw him struggle under a manager that, for one reason or another, never seemed to believe in him. We saw Wong have to take trips back to Memphis just to get playing time. We saw Mark Ellis, at the end of his career, push Wong to the bench even as Ellis hit under .200.
Which made seeing Wong’s success even more remarkable. We saw the outstanding defensive plays. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the series in Dodger Stadium in 2018, where he made this play one night and one that approached it the next. According to Baseball-Reference, he was a three win player in 2018 and a five win player in 2019. Much of that was based on his glove but not all of it. Wong developed in a solid hitter, even if he was a little streaky, alternating seasons where he was over and under 100 OPS+ over the last four years.
Wong always wanted to be the leadoff guy and finally got his chance in 2020. The lineup struggled overall, but that wasn’t tied to his spot particularly as he put up a .342 OBP in the slot, right around league average. Wong, who turned 30 soon after the season was over, has finally blossomed into a very good everyday player.
Now, let’s be fair, if you are able to swap Nolan Arenado for Kolten Wong, you do it and you don’t think twice about it. Arenado’s power and offensive prowess is what this team was needing. However, that dream of an infield of Arenado, Paul DeJong, Wong, and Paul Goldschmidt was very tantalizing for all of us who are big fans of defense. While it was expect, there’s still a sting to losing Wong at all, much less in the division.
You know there are going to be moments where Wong burns his former team over the next two or three years. There’s going to be a runner on third with two outs and a ball hit well up the middle that he’s going to come out of nowhere to field and get the out. There’s going to be a late game situation where his single drives in the go-ahead run. Given the teams play 18 times a year (assuming a full regular season and no virus or work stoppage issues during the span of his contract), those kind of opportunities are going to come up and there’s no doubt that, at least sometimes, Wong is going to take advantage.
However, the fact that he stays in the NL Central does mean we get to see him regularly, which is a good thing. He’ll get his standing ovations at Busch Stadium whenever the fans are let back into it. Sometimes players, even great ones, are out of sight, out of mind. The fact that Albert Pujols was out in Anaheim and not coming through St. Louis on the regular helped with that closure but it also meant that we didn’t think about him much over the last decade. Wong won’t escape our collective consciousness and for that I am grateful.
Wong’s time with the Cardinals was anything but smooth–there were a couple of times where he spoke out to the media, creating a bit of a controversy–but he seemed to genuinely enjoy the team and the fans. I wish him the best as he starts fresh in another place and I know Brewers fans will come to cherish him just like many of us did.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my Gateway co-host……