Holding out Hope for Kolten Wong

Second base looks like a deep position heading into 2017. This is likely news to no one reading this column. However, something that goes overlooked a bit is how shallow the position is in NL-only leagues.

Taking a look at the average draft position for 2B, this becomes quite clear. After Nats teammates Trea Turner and Daniel Murphy, second-base options for NL-only formats grow thin in a hurry. Dee Gordon, DJ LeMahieu, Jose Peraza, Ben Zobrist, Jedd Gyorko, Logan Forsythe, Neil Walker and Josh Harrison round out the top ten. There’s a pretty big drop-off after Gordon and LeMahieu, both of whom I personally value significantly less than Turner and Murphy to begin with.

For owners in NL-only leagues — or deeper mixers with a middle-infield slot — unwilling to pay up at 2B, it’s all about choosing your favorite from a tightly clustered group of mediocre options. This is where Kolten Wong becomes an interesting player to discuss.

Currently going off the board as the No. 26 overall second baseman, you can likely secure Wong in NL-only/deep mixed leagues with a late draft pick, or a $2 auction bid. At just 26 years old, Wong is a prime bounceback candidate after a down 2016.

Wong got off to an atrocious start last season, hitting .222/.306/.286 through his first 144 plate appearances. Cards manager Mike Matheny yanked his young second baseman in and out of the lineup, until the organization finally threw up their collective hands and shipped Wong back to Triple-A in June. He swatted four homers in just seven games in the minors, and was quickly brought back to St. Louis.

Upon returning to the majors, Wong played all three outfield positions, in addition to his natural second base. Prior to 2016, he last played the outfield in 2009, during his freshman year at The University of Hawaii.

Being asked to learn new defensive positions on the fly doesn’t sound conducive to figuring things out at the plate. For the next six weeks, Wong got on base but continued to show little power, hitting .277/.364/.372 from his return to the majors, through the end of July.

Once the calendar hit August, the “Kolten Wong: Outfielder” experiment was over — he started just one game in the outfield in the season’s final two months. Wong hit one homer all season until August, then hit four of them — along with three triples and a double — in his final 110 PA.

Could this all be anecdotal? Of course. It’s also impossible to simply wave a magic wand and make Wong’s atrocious start to the season just go away. However, it certainly is possible to place some of the blame here on Matheny (again).

Wong scuffled badly at the plate for the first couple weeks of 2016, hitting .208/.286/.208 in 56 PA. In a move that certainly lifted the 25-year-old’s spirits, Matheny responded by benching Wong for a full week. Based on a 56-PA sample. In April.

As a clear means of recapping all this, here are the three samples I discussed regarding Wong’s 2016:

  • 4/3-6/5 (in and out of lineup, sent to Triple-A)
    • .222/.306/.286, .591 OPS, .063 ISO
  • 6/18-7/31 (back in majors, plays outfield)
    • .277/.364/.372, .737 OPS, .096 ISO
  • 8/1-9/30 (return to 2B)
    • .226/.318/.430, .748 OPS, .204 ISO

There were some positive indicators that Wong carried throughout the season. For one, he improved his plate discipline for the second straight season:

  • 2014: 4.8% BB, 16.4% K
  • 2015: 5.9% BB, 15.5% K
  • 2016: 9.4% BB, 14.4% K

Secondly, he was likely the victim of some bad BABIP luck. He had the lowest rate of soft-hit batted balls of his career (19.9%), his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (1.35) was in line with his career GB/FB rate (1.41) and he significantly cut back on his pop-ups (from 15.1% to 6.7%). Yet, his BABIP sat at .268, a nearly 30-point drop from 2015. In short, he was a better hitter last year than that .240 average indicates.

If Wong maintains his improved plate discipline, and his BABIP heads back into the .295-.300 range, we should be looking at something like a .265 AVG and .345 OBP. The playing time should be there this year, unless Wong starts slow again and Matheny decides to roll out the grizzled shell of a player once known as Jhonny Peralta, which is a scenario that I wish sounded less plausible. This is Mike Matheny, after all.

Still, I do believe that Wong will be the primary option at second for the Cards throughout 2017. 10-12 homers are a reasonable projection — with a little room for upside — and I think the nine steals projected by Steamer are way too low. Wong has a strong 45-for-57 (78.9%) stolen-base success rate in the majors, and went 27-for-28 (96.4%) in Triple-A. If he gets the playing time, he should swipe 15+ bags.

Any post about Wong would be incomplete without some variation of the “can he hit lefties/will he ever hit lefties/will the team let him try to hit lefties” question. I have a feeling that he’ll probably ride the pine more often than not against lefties, but even if he’s in a full-on platoon, at least he’s on the high side of it.

I usually side with Steamer over the optimism-infused Fans projections, but in Wong’s case I think the Fans projection of .267/.340/.409 — with 12 homers and 14 steals — is a perfectly reasonable expectation. Furthermore, he’s being drafted behind the likes of Brandon Phillips, Cesar Hernandez and Joe Panik, so Wong is about as low-risk as they come for a guy capable of being a modest five-category contributor.

It’s not even that I’m all that high on Wong, but I do think he’s significantly underpriced at present. It also wouldn’t be crazy to see a breakout from the former unanimous top-100 prospect. He’s essentially the definition of a post-hype sleeper, and that’s the kind of guy I love to snag as a late-round pick.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez

Although he played mostly at 3B and SS last year, Jonathan Villar will start at 2B for the Brewers this season. He already has 2B eligibility in Yahoo.