St. Louis Cardinals: Trying to Diagnose Kolten Wong
Is there a fix for 2017?
If the St. Louis Cardinals are going to be a better team in 2017, they need to improve defensively. Kolten Wong could help the infield defense if he is able to justify staying on the field with his bat.
Currently, Steamer and Fangraphs see Kolten Wong as the St. Louis Cardinals everyday second baseman for 2017. This reflects both what management has said this offseason, and the idea that Gyorko is better used in a utility role where he can serve as an option at each infield position to give guys days off while keeping his bat in the lineup often enough.
Steamer sees Wong hitting .264/.329/.403 in 2017 which would equate to a below-average-but-respectable 96 wRC+. Crucially to Wong’s value, however, the projections see him actually falling off defensively from a positive 5.5 rating in 2016 to a negative 1.7 rating in 2017, resulting in a season worth only 1.5 WAR.
As I mentioned previously, I think Wong made improvements as a defender in 2016. He was less error prone than he had been the previous two seasons and maintained above-average range at second base.
I don’t anticipate him losing any range in the upcoming season being only 26 years old, so I expect that he will at least match his defensive rating from this past season, which would mean he could easily be a 2 to 3 WAR player this upcoming year given the projected offensive production.
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The offensive production expected from Wong for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017 is where I am most worried. The projections predict almost an identical season to Wong’s 2015, when he slashed .262/.321/.386 for a 96 wRC+. That season he had a defensive rating of 2.6 and was worth 2.3 WAR. His season was bolstered, however, by a first half in which he hit .280 with nine home runs before hitting only .238 with two home runs the rest of the way.
Asking Kolten to hit for an entire season like he has for only one half of a season in the MLB seems like a long-shot. He could make adjustments to the diet of off-speed he will face again, but unless he adds bat speed this offseason, that will likely have a negligible effect.
Given Wong’s increasing propensity to take walks, it is likely that he can maintain a .320 to .340 OBP even while hitting only around .250.
His lower K% means he will continue to put more balls in play, but often these balls are not hit hard enough to do any damage, so the decrease in his strikeouts leads to only a marginal increase in his batting average.
His lack of swing speed means his ISO will remain around .120 (his career mark is .122). This might suggest a slash line of .250/.325/.370.
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Prediction: On the back of steady defense and a little improvement at the plate, I expect Kolten Wong to be worth about 2.5 to 3.0 WAR for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals, as he finally gains consistent playing time as the everyday second baseman.