Kolten Wong looks to improve after falling short of NL ROY

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The last time a St. Louis Cardinal was awarded National League Rookie of the Year, a future franchise face by the name of Albert Pujols bloomed onto the scene in 2001. Ever since, it has been difficult for any twenty-first century Cardinal rookie to top Pujols’s first season, in which he hit .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs.

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Thirteen years later, the Gateway City was touched by the presence of another youngster in homegrown-product Kolten Wong. The second baseman finished his first full season with one of the more impressive rookie campaigns in recent Cardinals history and was rewarded yesterday with a third-place finish in the 2014 National League Rookie of the Year race.

Although Wong placed behind Jacob deGrom and Billy Hamilton in the voting and did not receive a first place vote, one simply cannot discredit a 2014 performance that consisted of 12 HRs, 42 RBIs and a .249 batting average in 113 games.

Wong battled through a minor league demotion in April and a three-week disabled list stint in June before growing into an untouchable force in the second-half. After a strong finish to a rollercoaster rookie season, the Cardinals hope Wong can dwell off of his 2014 experiences and further embrace his starting role at second base.

While this effort is not really comparable to Pujols’s first year, other Cardinal rookies have left a strong legacy in St. Louis after challenging rookie seasons similar to Wong’s first year. Yadier Molina only hit .252 with 8 HRs and 49 RBIs after taking over starting catcher duties in 2005, but has now become a fan favorite and perennial gold glove winner. Former Cardinal David Freese was plagued by injuries when initially taking over third base duties in 2010, but rebounded the next year to give the Cardinals their 11th title and become the World Series MVP.

Although Wong placed behind Jacob deGrom and Billy Hamilton in the voting and did not receive a first place vote, one simply cannot discredit a 2014 performance that consisted of 12 HRs, 42 RBIs and a .249 batting average in 113 games.

After developing Freese for five years, the Cardinals hinted toward a youthful movement by sending the 2011 postseason hero to the Los Angeles Angels. This move allowed Wong to suddenly compete for a vacant second base role, as Matt Carpenter shifted to his natural third base position.

One way that Wong mustered ROY consideration was through his timely hitting. The lefty hit .341 with 2 outs/RISP and belted 11 of his 12 home runs after his return from the disabled list. Thus he hit .260 with nine home runs in NL Central play, highlighted by a walk off home run in a 5-4 victory against Pittsburgh on July 8.

Wong carried this poise into the Cardinals postseason run, when he collected game-winning home runs in playoff series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. He rose to the occasion offensively in October with 7 hits, 3 home runs and 6 RBIS between both opponents.

While the rookie sparked a struggling offense down the stretch, he may still be seeking room for improvement in the batter’s box. Wong only walked 21 times as opposed to striking out in 71 plate appearances.

Wong’s plate discipline contributed to a dismal .292 on base percentage, which may need to be addressed if the Cardinals hope to move up Wong in the betting order. However, the 24 year-old did hit .315 against lefties in 2014, which could help him start more often against southpaws if this improvement continues.

Another concern the Cardinals may look to touch on moving forward is Wong’s defensive abilities. The second baseman committed 12 errors for a .975 fielding percentage in his rookie season. Although Wong built defensive chemistry with shortstop Jhonny Peralta for 70 converted double plays, his defensive range remains a big question mark for the Cardinals.

Once again, Wong will be challenged to instigate the running game for the Cardinals. His team-leading 20 stolen bases show his versatility as an athlete, but that is often overshadowed from a Cardinal team that swiped only 57 bases in 2014.

In some ways more than others, the 2014 season may have been a challenge for Kolten Wong. Like all baseball players, he will make mistakes and learn how to adjust to big league competition. But earning a third place finish in the NL ROY race is certainly a confidence-booster for the 24-year old.

Last year provided several encouraging glimpses of the all-around ball player that Wong can become. Heading into 2015, the Cardinals will look for their young second baseman to improve from last year’s experiences.

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