Another second baseman will hit the free agency market this offseason. Longtime Cardinal Kolten Wong was informed earlier in the week that St. Louis will choose not to pick up his one-year option for 2021. That decision was announced in a Wednesday press conference headed by President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak.
“I told [Wong] that with some of the uncertainties, we’re just not in a position to [extend him],” Mozeliak said. “We both agreed to keep the door open, and so as we progress in this, it’s something that we’re not ruling out for a future return.”
For Cardinal fans, Wong’s loss could be troubling. The Hawaii native has started on opening day for six of the last seven seasons.
This season, Wong accrued a .265/.350/.326 batting line with 16 RBIs and 26 runs scored. He also hit one home run during the regular season.
But for his defensive efforts on the field, Wong shined brightest of all. He’s nominated for a Gold Glove award for the third consecutive season after winning the award for the first time last year. The Cardinal second baseman was also named the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 at second base.
It’s might be hard to understand why St. Louis would be so willing to sacrifice Wong and his Gold Glove-winning defense to become a free agent. Unfortunately, the answer is more complicated than most would like to hear.
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St Louis… I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for an amazing 7 years! To my teammates and coaches I love you guys! You guys not only grinded with me on and off the field but you also turned this kid from the little town of Hilo to the proud man I am today. To the fans, Thank you guys so much for welcoming me into this prestigious organization where I got to play in front of the best fans in baseball! STL will always have a special place in my heart and I will never forget all the amazing people who impacted me along the way! Much love #16
The Money & MLB’s Deficit
Wong is the latest in a long line of MLB players who will have a hard time navigating free agency this offseason. As Nick Smith notes in his piece for The Game Haus, the Cardinals are not the only team who plan to trim their payroll next season.
This can all be traced to the backwards, rule-changing and, at-times, nightmarish fever dream that was the 2020 MLB season. Major League Baseball’s foremost argument is that without fans to watch games in person, many teams could hesitate to dish out money on new players.
Because lower ticket sales equals lower revenues, which equals higher levels of risk. Thanks a lot, COVID-19.
In an interview with Sportico this week, commissioner Rob Manfred gave a number to the financial hardship — $8.3 billion. That number is a combination of debt from all 30 teams this season, and honestly it’s pretty staggering.
Debate from fans has been incessant around this number and just how mind-numbingly large it is. Is COVID-19 totally to blame or is there something else going on here? If the league is actually $8.3 billion in debt, what does that say about the larger business plan being implemented? Financial responsibility is just one tip of the iceberg.
For St. Louis and Wong, that argument holds significant weight. Had the Cardinals exercised Wong’s option, their second baseman could have returned for a one-year and $12.5 million salary.
Instead he receives a $1 million buyout of his contract, and poof, Wong is suddenly a free agent. That’s a hilariously low price for a St. Louis fan favorite.
Depth & Playing Opportunities
“It’s likely as we sit right now,” Mozeliak said in that Wednesday press conference, “to give Tommy Edman a chance at second.”
For this view, Mozeliak is probably in the right. Though he wasn’t the one who decided to decline Wong’s option (fans can thank the DeWitt’s for that one), Edman has been a man without a position since he first arrived to St. Louis.
2020 saw him turn in 31 games at third base, 21 games in the outfield and 21 games in the middle infield. Certainly Edman’s versatility has never been in question.
And yet with the limited reps Edman has seen at second, statistics provide optimism for the move. Edman owns his best fielding percentage while playing second base, and has more defensive runs saved there than any other position. Remember, that’s despite Edman primarily playing third base and right field this season. He’s actually appeared at third in more than 50 games than he’s appeared at second.
Edman has a chance to make a positive impact at baseball’s keystone next season. He can achieve that through above average defense and serviceable hitting, both traits he has shown to own in his first year and a half.
Besides Edman, St. Louis has a decent number of prospects coming up at third base. Keeping Edman at third would only hinder their path toward the major leagues.
Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals second top prospect expects to appear in the majors sometime in 2022. Jordan Walker, the club’s first round pick in the MLB draft this year, also projects to play third base.
Another platoon option for Edman at second, Edmundo Sosa remains at the precipice of a roster sport. Sosa has appeared in less than 15 games during season stints in 2018 and 2019 but hasn’t broken through the minor league hurdle. Sosa has proven he can hit there. A .291, 17 home runs and 62 RBIs season at triple-A Memphis in 2019 was his best minor league season.
With the choice to decline Wong’s option, Sosa may finally see time in the middle infield.
Fallout for Free Agent Market
For the Cardinals’ front office to throw Wong into this year’s free agent pool, plenty of executives have to believe the market will hold Wong’s talent fairly.
Big names at the position, like DJ LeMahieu, Dee Strange-Gordon, Tommy La Stella and Cesar Hernandez will also hit the market this winter. While it isn’t a certainty that Wong commands more money than some of those names, he has proven to be steady and reliable.
The asking price on a free agent Wong would definitely rise should he earn another Gold Glove. From there, things become much murkier. Just how much does a 30-year-old Wong deserve on the open market?
Do any teams have the payroll flexibility to front that amount?
Many franchises will be hesitant to dish out premium contracts this offseason, not the least because of COVID-19’s impact on the game. Even baseball’s best players managed to play only about 75 games this season, less than half of a normal year. Front offices will encounter difficulties in free agents’ season projections. Small sample sizes can’t tell what the true story of a season really was.
But when it comes to new signings, Wong might earn a decent salary raise in 2021. There also remains a strong possibility he signs a team-friendly contract until teams have the capital to really pursue him.
Either way, Wong won’t care. He’ll go out, play the stellar defense fans are accustomed to and prove his talent to everyone. And It will be a story the St. Louis Cardinals will have heard innumerable times before.
It seems like that is just the price of doing business for St. Louis.
Featured Image Courtesy of Bill Greenblatt & UPI.
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