While it would save the St. Louis Cardinals money, letting Kolten Wong walk this winter is the wrong move and would diminish the team’s strengths.
The St. Louis Cardinals are not known for their offense. Given the way they are built as a team, the offense won’t be their best strength for the foreseeable future either. The Cardinals win through pitching and defense. For this reason, Kolten Wong needs to be on the team in 2021 and potentially longer.
The Cardinals and Wong are at the end of the five-year, $25.5M deal that Wong signed in 2016, but there is still the cherry on top for the team of a $12M team option for 2021. By most accounts, the deal ended up being great for the Cardinals as Wong has long provided Gold Glove defense.
Wong’s offensive production has ebbed and flowed at times, but 2020 was likely close to an accurate representation of what he brings to the table.
Wong’s defense has not faltered at all, but his power dipped in 2020 causing his wRC+ to drop to 92. In 2019, Wong had his best year yet at a 108 wRC+, but in the crazy year that was 2020, it’s not surprising that some Cardinals had down years at the plate. The majority of the time, Wong will be right around the 97-110 range with wRC+ which is plenty for a premium defender.
In 2020, Wong spent his first season as a leadoff man as well, providing value there with a .350 OBP and five steals. We know what Wong is, and at 29 years old, he’s probably going to keep this level of production for at least two to three more years.
Wong is due for a raise after 2021, but for 2020, keeping him for $12M is a steal. It’s not a perfect estimation, but using FanGraph’s value tool, Wong has been worth a whopping $90.3M since he signed his contract in 2016. By their estimates, he was worth $29.5M in 2019 (more than the entire contract). In 2020, Wong provided $10.7M in value in just 60 games.
That doesn’t mean that letting Wong hit free agency doesn’t have its merits, though. The Cardinals have Tommy Edman as a pre-arbitration replacement who is pretty much the same hitter as Wong is at the plate. Edman had a 90 wRC+ in 2020 with more power than Wong, but an on-base percentage below .320 in his sophomore year.
Edman isn’t nearly the defender Wong is at second but could fill in nicely as he continues to grow as a player. After a revenue-thin year, that $11M the team would save after paying a $1M buyout could also go a long way in improving the team in other places.
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While taking saving $11M is tempting, Wong is a core piece of this team and is a great sparkplug at the top of the order. Subtracting Wong from the infield would also have adverse effects on the pitching staff performance and team defense overall. Take the $12M option.