I’ve done a couple of interviews the past few days during which the subject of Kolten Wong has come up. There is understandably a lot of excitement over his four home runs and 11 RBI in just seven games with Memphis. In addition, his dabbling in center field offers a potential new solution to an ongoing problem in St. Louis.
His required 10 days to remain in the minors are up on Friday. That coupled with his power production at Memphis has led to a lot of speculation that Wong will be recalled to St. Louis with Jeremy Hazelbaker being returned to Triple-A. (Update: This in fact occurred late Friday morning.)
Given the limited options the Cardinals have, I can understand why Wong could receive the call, but I wish he would be given more time in Triple-A.
Tommy Pham was the man expected to be in the center field mix for St. Louis this season but his career was again interrupted by injury – on Opening Day. Despite a career batting average of well over .300 with Memphis, Pham is hitting a disappointing .226 there this season. No other Triple-A outfielders have stepped forward with their performance, either.
As noted above, what is catching everyone’s attention about Wong’s outburst is his power production. He has as many long balls in his seven games with Memphis as all extra-base hits he amassed over two months with St. Louis this season. Wong has over twice as many RBI in his handful of Memphis outings than he did in 49 games with St. Louis (just five).
But, what kind of player is Wong expected to be?
In January at Winter Warm-Up, Wong proclaimed his desire to lead off. Yet, he has shown nothing this season to indicate he is more than a low-.300 on-base performer. When looking at Matt Carpenter consistently threatening .400, the difference is clear.
Wong seems miscast as a home run hitter, yet there is no denying he was the first Cardinal second baseman to have double-digit home runs in two consecutive seasons since Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch in the 1920s. Still, I was disturbed to learn that Wong and Randal Grichuk have a friendly wager on who can hit the most home runs each season.
On the other side of the coin, Wong’s stolen bases have dropped off from 20 in 2014 to 15 last year and he was on pace for just nine this season before his demotion. One positive, albeit in a small number of games, is that he has raised his walk rate from eight percent with St. Louis to 14% with Memphis.
Wong has been leading off for the Redbirds. Is that just to maximize his number of at-bats or is it a signal as to what kind of player the Cardinals want him to become?
Based on what I think Wong should be and what the Cardinals need, I would prefer to see Wong racking up doubles, triples and stolen bases in Triple-A and keep working on his defense (he hasn’t played center since his freshman year in college) rather than returning to St. Louis with the possible expectation of being a power hitter.
Yes, St. Louis has a need in center field. The Cards are last in the National League in batting average at the position at .204 and are 14th of 15 in CF OBP at .265. Here is the rub, though. The team’s collective performance at second base in 2016 is not much better. Their .232 average is 14th and .315 OBP is 12th – with most of that complied by Wong.
In his support, Wong has stepped up his offense when challenged in the past. He was sent down once before, at the end of April 2014. Upon his return in mid-May, Wong was so hot at the plate that he earned the NL May Rookie of the Month award despite playing with St. Louis for just 2 1/2 weeks.
Still, when all is considered, I would prefer Wong be given more time to settle in as a center fielder and encouraged to focus more on getting on base and stealing bases when there, rather than be given positive reinforcement for hitting home runs.
Otherwise, I fear when Wong is again facing major league pitching, his old habits at the plate may quickly return.
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