Kolten Wong: Quietly Fantasy-Relevant

The Cardinals’ first-round pick in the 2011 Draft, Kolten Wong, is expected to begin the 2014 season as the team’s starting second baseman. Coming into last year, Wong was a near-consensus Top 100 prospect, and he was very impressive at Triple-A Memphis in 2013. At age 22, Wong posted a .303/.369/.466 slash line in 463 plate appearances before earning a call up to the majors.

Wong struggled mightily in his first taste of major-league action, scuffling to a paltry .153/.194/.169 line. However, we’re only dealing with a sample size of 62 plate appearances, and those were spread over 32 games. At one point, Wong went 24 days between starts in St. Louis, and when he did start, he often did not finish the game. It’s difficult to expect any player, not to mention a 22-year-old rookie, to produce much of anything with such inconsistent usage.

Wong has a very polished hit tool, with a quick, compact swing that produces consistent solid contact. Despite being only 5’9″, 185 pounds, Wong has enough power to hit plenty of doubles, and should be able to hit low double-digit homers in his prime. He has good vision and discipline at the plate as well; his walk rate is 8.4%, compared to a 12.5% strikeout rate, in 1,260 career minor-league plate appearances. He’s not a burner, but he’s an incredibly efficient baserunner with great instincts that allow his moderately above-average speed to play up. Last season, he was 20-for-21 in stolen-base attempts in Triple-A (and 3-for-3 in the majors).

The Cardinals did sign Mark Ellis to a one-year deal this offseason, but Matt Klaassen noted in his analysis of the acquisition that the signing is more an indicator of the Cards’ valuation of quality roster depth than it is an implication of actual competition for the position. I agree with his argument and believe that, unless Wong completely falls on his face, the worst-case scenario for Wong’s playing time is sitting against lefties.

The 36-year-old Ellis is commonly conceived of as an above-average hitter against lefties, which is true. He was excellent against lefties in 2012, with a .321/.377/.500 line in 144 plate appearances, for an .877 on-base plus slugging. Last year, he slashed .282/.331/.412 in 139 plate appearances against left-handers, and his OPS against lefties dipped to .743, which was still above-average for a second baseman (for reference, major-league second basemen produced a .692 OPS last year).

What gets lost in Ellis’ ability to hit lefties well is that he can’t really hit right-handers at all anymore. His career .700 OPS against righties isn’t anything special compared to his .777 OPS against lefties, but it’s far better than the awful .612 mark he posted in 2012 or the below-average .644 OPS he managed last year.

Many people believe St. Louis is looking at a clear-cut platoon between Wong and Ellis, but the reason I think that’s Wong’s worst-case scenario, rather than his likely role, is that the left-handed Wong isn’t bad against lefties himself. He’s clearly a better hitter against righties than he is against lefties, but his career .285/.337/.408 line in 356 career minor-league plate appearances against left-handers doesn’t indicate the need for Wong to be platooned. Yes, Ellis will see plenty of time at second against lefties, but I don’t think that Wong will find himself relegated to the bench every time the Cards face a left-hander, as seems to be the general consensus.

Part of my reasoning for this is that, even though Ellis and Wong have pretty much only been second basemen in their careers, St. Louis has a recent history of finding creative ways to get guys in the lineup; take Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter as examples. I could see the Cards finding ways to get both Wong and Ellis in the lineup at times.

Between Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Jon Jay and Matt Adams, the Cardinals have plenty of position players who struggle against lefties, and Oscar Taveras is a far better hitter against righties as well (not that he struggles against lefties, he simply crushes right-handers to a greater degree). Keep an eye on St. Louis this spring to see if either Ellis or Wong is shagging some fly balls in the outfield or taking grounders at other infield positions.

Barring a disastrous spring, Wong should be the opening-day second baseman in St. Louis. He should be good for a batting average in the .270 range, with 8-10 homers, 15-20 steals, and 50-60 runs and runs batted in. None of those numbers are eye-popping, but consider how shallow second base was in fantasy last season, especially in NL-only formats. Those numbers would have been good enough to be among the top 6-8 second basemen in NL-only leagues, somewhere in the Neil Walker/Jedd Gyorko range of 2B-eligible players.

Wong’s poor performance last year in a tiny sample of inconsistent major-league playing time will likely cause him to slip down fantasy draft boards further than he should. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s a top-eight second baseman in NL-only leagues in 2014, and I think that fantasy owners will be able to get him much cheaper than a player of that value usually costs.




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Scott Strandberg has written for RotoGraphs since 2013. He is also a film critic and entertainment writer for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott is the co-founder of RosterResource Wrestling, and the co-host of the Going Over Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @ScottStrandberg.


26 Responses to “Kolten Wong: Quietly Fantasy-Relevant”

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  1. jdbolick says:

    The Cardinals didn’t spend $5.25 million on Mark Ellis just to be insurance, and he’s not going to be taking time from Matt Carpenter at a position he has barely played during his long career. The absolute best case scenario for Wong barring catastrophic injury to someone is probably 600 PAs, and I expect him to end up closer to 450. St. Louis’ approach in general this season appears to be dividing up playing time among many players, which is bad fantasy news for all of them.

    And then you get to Wong himself, who doesn’t profile as very fantasy-friendly to begin with. I agree with your description of him as “an incredibly efficient baserunner with great instincts that allow his moderately above-average speed to play up,” but that makes it less likely that he will approach 20 steals next season. I think 10-15 is a more realistic expectation than 15-20, especially if you don’t expect him to continue converting at over 90%. So now you have 5-10 homers, 10-15 steals, and questionable playing time. The one positive is that your .270 average is probably too conservative. Wong displayed very strong contact skills in the minors, so while he won’t necessarily drive the ball with authority, he is a good hitter.

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    • murphym45 says:

      Why wouldn’t the Cards spend $5M on Ellis to be insurance? They had money to spend, and it’s not a lot of money to pay for a solid bat bench against lefties along with a planned 20-30 starts and insurance just in case an unproven rookie falls apart. I’m not saying that the Cardinals won’t start Ellis in more than 30 games if Wong is healthy, but the idea that they wouldn’t pay him $5M if that was the plan doesn’t really make sense.
      Also, you say that “absolute best case” for Wong is 600 PAs. That’s basically starting 135-140 games, which is pretty close to being an every-day starter. 450 PAs would be closer to 100 starts, which I would easily take the over (assuming he stays relatively healthy).

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      • jdbolick says:

        Contrary to popular opinion, professional sports teams don’t set big piles of money on fire when the polar vortex comes through. $5.25 million is a very substantial commitment, especially to an aging middle infielder that can realistically only play second base. Mark Ellis received the same amount from the Cardinals that the Yankees gave Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts combined. St. Louis didn’t spend that kind of money with the intention that Ellis sit on the bench and be a “veteran mentor” who only plays if Wong struggles. Please name me major league baseball players who signed for over $5 million in previous off-seasons who didn’t end up playing much when healthy.

        Additionally, it’s important to note the difference in mindset between those teams and fantasy owners. We like young players because the level of uncertainty surrounding their potential allows us to imagine them producing at higher levels than veterans whose performance level is more or less established. St. Louis is trying to win now. If Mark Ellis can be a better performer in 2014 than Kolten Wong, which would appear to be a significant possibility, then why should the Cardinals play Wong over Ellis? Mark could end up being the starter while Kolten gets more experience and then takes over in 2015.

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      • jvetter says:

        They signed Ty Wigginton as depth for 2 years 5 million last year. I think they signed Ellis for exactly the same reason.

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      • Hungus says:

        As someone who follows the Cardinals pretty closely, I can tell you that Wong is going to have every chance to play and play a lot. Whether he succeeds or fails, I have no idea, but he will be the starting 2B and be given a long rope.

        That said, if by early June or so he’s still not hitting, then yes, Ellis will be playing fairly regularly. I think the Cards biggest fear is what happened last year at SS: Furcal went down and they had no real back-up. At least in Ellis, you won’t have a black hole at 2B if Wong falters (not that Ellis is incredible, but he should passable).

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      • jdbolick says:

        There were “passable” fallback options available for a lot less than $5 million. As noted, New York signed both Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts for that.

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      • bdd1 says:

        clearly, jdbolick does not follow the cardinals. first, the cardinals had the contracts of rafael furcal, jake westbrook, carlos beltran, AND chris carpenter all come off the books, not to mention money saved by trading freese. so, if you have a lot of money and not many holes, why not sign a solid player for insurance for $5 mill?? if he doesnt work out/they dont use him they just let him walk at the end of the year. a one year commitment is not substantial. with that being said, if you watched the cardinals you would know that they give their young players as much playing time as possible. they have already announced kolten wong is the starter, and that ellis will be the backup. just as the article suggests, he probably will only play against lefties. your only point is that because ellis is making $5 mill he must be getting a lot of playing time. wrong assumption. there are plenty of other factors besides money, the main point being that wong has waaaay more upside than ellis.

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      • jdbolick says:

        bdd1, just because a team can light 5 million dollars on fire doesn’t mean that they will. If you can provide me examples of players signing for $5+ million AAV who were only intended to be backups or short-side platooners then by all means do so. I also don’t know why you would claim that “wong has waaaay more upside than ellis” given that Wong doesn’t offer much power and has about average speed.

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      • bdd1 says:

        you really need to stop being so hung up on the fact that ellis was signed for 5 mill. that is a horrible argument as to determining how much playing time someone might get. and why does wong have way more upside than ellis?? i dont know, maybe because he’s 23 and one of the top 100 prospects in the mlb while ellis is 36 and on the decline?? also, yes wong doesnt offer much power, but he has hit above .280 at every level of the minors and is a second baseman. so he’s proven to be an above average hitter at every level in the minors, and as a second baseman who cares if he doesnt hit for much power? also you are going to tell me that someone that steals 20+ bases per season has average speed?? please, back up your points with facts

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    • Tom says:

      Hitting in the cards lineup gives a whole ton of oppo’s for runs. I expect him to contribute in three categories this year.

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  2. jdbolick says:

    5 divided by 2 is 2.5, jvetter. Try again.

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    • jvetter says:

      I figured you were going to say that. It is still the same idea.

      Basically, the Cardinals think highly of Wong. They drafted him as their #1 pick in 2011. They included on their playoff rosters last year. If he is in the majors, he is going to play everyday or nearly everyday. They are not going to let him sit around on the bench not getting any game experience.

      He will either be in the majors playing nearly everyday or in the minors playing everyday. Based on Mozeliak’s comments earlier in the offseason, I believe they will give him every chance to succeed this spring and early in the season. If he is not ready, they have Ellis waiting to be stopgap until he is. If he is ready, Ellis will be a nice bench bat vs. lefties and general infield depth for the Cardinals.

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      • jdbolick says:

        $5.25 million for one year and $5 million over two years are not even remotely close to being “the same idea” and you know that. Come on, jvetter, you’re better than this. So let’s recap.

        #1) None of us can think of any player who signed for $5+ million AAV who was expected to be a backup or short-side platoon player, not even with the Yankees or Dodgers, and yet we’re talking about the Cardinals here. Spending that much money on a veteran who played adequately last season and can only realistically play one position strongly suggests that they intend to have him play that position a not insignificant portion of this season.

        #2) It is fair to suggest that Mark Ellis might be a better performer than Kolten Wong in 2014. If he is, what incentive would a contending team have to play Wong ahead of Ellis? Having Wong be the backup doesn’t mean the Cardinals don’t believe in his future, just that they’re trying to win now. I’m sure St. Louis would love for Wong to have a blazing spring and run away with the job, but at minimum he’s going to have Ellis looming over his shoulder any time he slumps during the year.

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    • murphym45 says:

      The point is the same, the Cardinals had no problem spending $5M on a bench player with no intention of giving him regular playing time (and they had no problem cutting him and swallowing the contract when he wasn’t performing).
      Ellis can be worth at least half a win in 30-40 starts and a handful of pinch-hit appearances, mostly against lefties. You might expect a team to pay $3-4M for that, but the Cardinals paid a bit extra since he’s also insurance for Wong and because there were a few other teams who needed help at 2B that Ellis probably could have started for.

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      • jdbolick says:

        Please do not insult my intelligence or yours by pretending that $5.25 million for one year and $5 million over two years are the same. If you’re going to engage in that level of dishonesty then there won’t be any productive result from discussion and you shouldn’t post at all.

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      • Mike C says:

        math much?

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    • Triteon says:

      $5MM guaranteed over one year or two or 50 is still $5MM paid out.

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  3. byron says:

    He’s a Cardinals infield prospect, so I fully expect him to hit 300/360/430 with 20 HR, 20 SB, 2 CS, 100 R and 60 RBI while picking up SS eligibility and putting up a +10 season there defensively.

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  4. KC says:

    There’s no such thing as a bad 1-yr contract. The Cardinals needed IF depth who can handle lefties, this is obvious given last year’a post season. Ellis is a far better platoon option than Kelly Johnson, and has far less injury concerns than Roberts. The Cardinals took out a 5.25 million insurance policy on a 2B to PH or start against tough lefties (Kershaw, Lee, Hamels, Bumgarner, Ryu, Gio, Liriano, Corbin, even Chapman). If Ellis can provide even 1 win of value by starting 20% of games and PH, then he’s worth the 5.25 million. Also, 2 of those tough lefties happen to be Dodgers.

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  5. PSopko says:

    Ellis was signed at 5.whatever for 2 seasons, not one.

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  6. Lanidrac says:

    You do remember that Matt Carpenter will still be eligible at 2B in most fantasy leagues this year, right? Wong might not be quite as valuable as you think, especially if it still takes him a while to adjust to Major League pitching at the beginning of the season.

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  7. Charles says:

    JD, not sure where I read this but either MM or Mo said Ellis will work out at other positions because he had played other positions in the past and was willing to become more of a versatile option for the Cards.

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  8. jdbolick says:

    Everyone should take Wong’s demotion as a lesson as to the difference between baseball teams and fantasy baseball teams. The Cardinals care about winning first and foremost.

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  9. HomeBrewed says:

    Wow JD, you really have a hard time letting go. Don’t look now, but it appears Wong is back up again.

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