Last offseason, second baseman Kolten Wong lobbied to be the St. Louis Cardinals’ leadoff hitter.
This winter, Dexter Fowler was signed to play center field and hit at the top of the order. Wong, meanwhile, has maintained a low profile. Why the change?
“I got punched in the mouth. Straight-up,” the 26-year-old Wong said of a 2016 season in which he batted .240 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 121 games. “Last year, I literally got punched in the mouth. Now it’s time for me to understand that last year was last year, and I’m ready for this year. Let’s see what happens.”
The Cardinals, on more than one occasion, have firmly stood behind Wong, despite his on-again, off-again performance.
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Last March, they rewarded Wong with a five-year, $25.5-million extension and a one-year club option for 2021. But Wong sputtered and was optioned to Class AAA Memphis in June. He returned less than two weeks later, this time as a second baseman and center fielder.
This winter, Wong again has been anointed the starter at second base.
“I’m appreciative of it,” Wong said. “It’s definitely an honor, but I’m not going to go into the season expecting to be the second baseman. Last year, I kind of came in with that mindset and it kind of backfired, so I want to come into this year ready to play, ready to earn my spot and earn my way onto this team.”
Wong has goals he won’t disclose, but said he has spent the winter “simplifying my swing.”
“I’m trying to get some hitches that were in my swing out, and just become more of a guy that’s going to get on base,” Wong said. “In previous years, I came into the season hoping that I would hit 20 home runs. I just want to get on base. I just want to get hits and get on base. The rest will come.”
Wong wants to finally establish himself at the big-league level and said there’s more than a little chip on his shoulder heading into the season.
“I would say a block,” Wong said. “As soon as the season ended last year, I took a week off, tried to mentally relax and then get right back after it. I wasn’t happy with the way the season went last year, and this year I’m kind of playing with a chip.”
Fowler, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, was brought in to stabilize the outfield, inject some enthusiasm into the clubhouse and provide speed and athleticism to the top of the order.
But Wong disputed that the Cardinals’ clubhouse atmosphere had become drab.
“I think everyone started making that assumption that something was wrong with the clubhouse because we weren’t playing well,” Wong said. “Sometimes that stuff happens. When you lose, you’re not going to have fun, and that’s what it was coming down to. We were losing and not having fun. We have to get back to winning and having fun.”
Wong doesn’t dispute the impact Fowler is projected to contribute.
“I think with Fowler coming, that’s going to open up a lot of stuff for the rest of us,” he said. “Having that guy who everyone knows can run, it opens up the door for guys like me. I know I can run, too, but that wasn’t for the team last year. I’m excited about this year and the opportunities I have and the opportunities as a team.”
Left fielder Randal Grichuk said Sunday that he had floating cartilage removed from his left knee at the end of last season. A six-week rehab followed the procedure.
“I feel good,” Grichuk said. “It kind of pushed things back a little bit, but I feel ready to go now.”
Grichuk, who underwent sports hernia surgery last offseason, said soreness in the knee significantly contributed to his struggles on the field. Grichuk managed to hit 24 home runs, but had treatment on the knee from early May until the end of the season.
“There was a lot going on,” Grichuk said. “Clicking, soreness, tightness – just kind of pain throughout the year. It was good to get that looked like at the end of the year and get it cleared up. It affected me here and there. I’m back to running and doing everything.”
Piscotty in peak form
Last season was right fielder Stephen Piscotty’s first as a full-time regular in the big leagues, and he learned a lot about the toll it takes on the body.
Piscotty, hoping to stay fresh throughout the 162-game grind, has spent the offseason in workout mode.
“I kind of hit a lull in late August, early September,” said Piscotty, who batted .273 with 22 homers and 85 RBIs in 153 games. “I caught a second wind, I felt, to finish out the year. But I definitely started feeling it a little bit. I didn’t really know what to expect going in. The intensity of the games, the adrenaline flowing for that long, I think, weighed on me for a little bit.
“The way I’m attacking it this offseason is trying to get in better shape. I’ve heard the call from the Cardinals that we want to get more athletic, and I’m going to try to do my part. My training has gone extremely well. I’m hoping that’s going to set me up for success late in the year.”
Piscotty said his late-season fatigue last year has made him re-evaluate his in-season work habits. He acknowledged that less could lead to more.
“I kind of blew out too soon, taking too many swings early in the year,” he said. “Mabes (hitting coach John Mabry) and some of the other coaches were going to let me work because there were certain things I wanted to do. But I could just sense they wanted me to chill and take a step back. I remember getting that vibe, so I’m going to consider that going forward.”
Headed for arbitration
The Cardinals expect to hold arbitration hearings with pitchers Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. The team hasn’t gone to arbitration with a player since 1999 when it defeated pitcher Darren Oliver, who received $3.55 million after asking for $4.15 million.
Martinez, who was 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last season, is asking for $4.25 million, while the Cardinals have offered $3.9 million. Wacha, who was 7-7 with a 5.09 ERA in 2016, is seeking $3.2 million; the Cardinals have offered $2.775 million.
“We do have time, but our strategy was if we filed and exchanged (figures), then we would take it to hearing,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said. “We’ll get to find out how good we are at these. It’s a lot different, but my group is looking forward to it.”
Mozeliak said the Cardinals considered a multi-year deal for Martinez.
“We did discuss, at least peripherally, a multi-year, but we did decide we would focus on the one year,” Mozeliak said. “Unfortunately, we did want to get that done, but in the final hour of that thing (Friday), it just never got to the goal line.”