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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