The early returns from St. Louis Cardinals spring training have been decidedly positive for one middle infielder — and decidedly not for another.
Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who arrived when the Redbirds signed him to a free-agent contract over the offseason, cranked a pair of home runs Monday to show that he still has plenty of pop left in his bat.
That was a big question for the veteran infielder because he was implicated in a performance-enhancing drug scandal last summer and eventually was suspended for 50 games. That left baseball fans to wonder whether the productive bat Peralta has shown in the past was the product of pharmaceuticals or nature.
There were no such questions about illicit substances linked to second baseman Kolten Wong. The only question for him is whether he could make the jump from highly touted prospect to major-league producer.
It raised the eyebrows of a few fans last fall when Wong got a late season call-up — and hit .154 with a .194 on-base percentage. But any concerns were quickly dismissed by those who argued that Wong had only 62 plate appearances in 32 games. It’s tough to find any kind of consistency in sporadic play, they said.
That’s a good point. You lose your timing in baseball when you don’t get the repetitions you need to stay sharp.
But Wong has put a heap of pressure on himself this spring by getting off to a slow start in Grapefruit League games. He’s 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. That’s an even smaller sample size than his work last year. But it’s less about the numbers and more about the fact that Wong is struggling to make solid contact.
Wong seems to be pressing under the weight of trying to impress Cardinals manager Mike Matheny that he deserves to be the club’s starting second sacker.
It’s a darn good thing the Redbirds signed veteran infielder Mark Ellis to a free-agent contract over the winter.
Not only could Ellis fill the position if Wong flames out and has to go to the minor leagues to sort things out. But it takes as much pressure as possible off Wong to know that his team isn’t depending on him to perform on a daily basis. Ellis gives the Cardinals the luxuries of flexibility and time when it comes to developing Wong.
One player that could benefit greatly if Wong has to go back to the minors to figure out his swing is the guy Peralta replaced, former starting shortstop Pete Kozma.
It’s tough to imagine Kozma would make the major-league roster if Wong, Peralta and Ellis were on it. I don’t see Kozma beating out Daniel Descalso for a utility role. But if Wong can’t start the season in St. Louis, Kozma is a guy who could provide a righty alternative on the bench to the lefty Descalso.
Kozma could play second base or third base on a semi-regular basis. He could play shortstop as a defensive replacement for Peralta or if Peralta played third against a tough lefty because Matheny decided to save lefty-swinging third baseman Matt Carpenter’s bat.
There’s still a long way for Wong to go before the Cardinals will write him off for the start of the season. But he needs to turn things around sooner than later to get his confidence back. Sometimes all it takes is a lucky hit. But the Birds can’t afford to run Wong’s confidence into the ground. If the zeroes start to pile up, they’ll have to press the reset button.
The funny thing about self-doubt in baseball is that once you have it, it’s almost impossible to completely get rid of it.
Take Rick Ankiel, for example. After he lost his control on the mound, he was never sure of when it would leave him again. He could go well for two or three weeks and then uncork one bad pitch and it was back to square one. A sport where the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time is very conducive to making guys say, “Here we go again.”
I’m not saying Wong is a lost cause by any stretch. I’m just saying the Cardinals need to be careful with his development. If he went to Class AAA Memphis and hit .300 for a month, then came back to St. Louis with spring in his step, he might have a better chance to become the guy the Redbirds expect him to be.