Cheap Seats

Is this strike three for St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong?

I admit it. I’m starting to panic about St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.

The guy has all the tools in the world and it seems there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to dominate in major-league games. He has a lightning-quick bat with a lot of pop for a little guy. He’s fast as can be and ought to be able to gobble up balls at second base – and he should be able to steal bases left and right.

But something between his ears keeps Wong from being the player he should be. For the fourth year in a row, the Redbirds are trying to hand Wong a starting job in the big leagues. And for the fourth year in a row, he seems to be blowing the opportunity.

If only someone could take the brain of David Eckstein or Aaron Miles and put it into Wong’s body.

In short bursts, it seems Wong would be a great leadoff hitter. He can spray the ball all over the field and when he hits the outfield gaps with line drives, you can start marking a double – or a triple – in your scorebook before the ball hits the ground. But Wong doesn’t seem content with doubles and triples. He wants to hit home runs. You can see it in his swing, the way he sells out to pull the ball at the most inopportune occasions.

Wong is his own worst enemy. He abandons his bona fide abilities in trying to make himself into something he’s not suited to be. Then his shoulders sag when he strikes out – which he does well more than twice as often as he walks – and he mopes back to the dugout. He carries the dejection into the field where, even though we’ve all seen him make incredible plays, Wong too frequently boots the easy ones.

I just don’t get it.

Wong could hit .320 if he’d adapt to the way he’s pitched. Opposing hurlers know what he’s trying to do and they exploit it effortlessly, tossing him tantalizing stuff. If he would rope a few of those pitches down the left field line or into the left-center gap, he would put an end to pitchers getting the best of him and would be a much more complete player. He’d also get more pitches on the inside part of the plate that he’d actually have a legitimate opportunity to pull.

Instead, Wong has settled into a .248 average with a .309 on-base percentage, numbers that have marooned him at the bottom of the batting order instead of at the top of it. Meanwhile, his homer and stolen-base totals have dropped each of the past three years.

I’m not sure the Cardinals could have done something differently in Wong’s development to get him to buy in on being a table-setter instead of a home-run hero. Maybe that’s just the guy he is. But it doesn’t appear that the team’s plan of handing Wong a guaranteed, long-term contract to soothe his jangled nerves was exactly the tonic he needed, either. Instead of settling in, Wong seems to be carrying the weight of justifying the deal that he hadn’t exactly earned like a 1,000-pound gorilla on his back.

St. Louis can’t afford for Wong to be a bust for a fourth year in a row. But with 36 at-bats under his belt in spring training, Wong is batting an ice-cold .167 with two RBIs and no stolen bases.

What’s the answer? I’m not sure. It appears all that manager Mike Matheny can do at this point is let Wong sink or swim.

Sending Wong to the minors to sort out his issues hasn’t helped. Sure, he goes to Class AAA Memphis and tears the cover off the ball in the pressure-free environment away from the big leagues. But when he comes back to the majors, Wong seems to eventually get back to his bad habits.

Parking Wong’s behind on the bench hasn’t seemed to make the message that he has to be more focused and less selfish sink in.

I’ve reached the point where I am starting to think a change of scenery might benefit Wong. But the problem with trading him is that he’s driven his value down so much with his lousy play that the Cardinals couldn’t expect a reasonable return. It’s extremely difficult to trade a player like Wong because it could be a career killer for a general manager like John Mozeliak or a manager like Matheny to see a player they couldn’t make work be given away for pennies on the dollar only to see him bloom someplace else.

On the other hand, the Redbirds can’t afford to have Wong pouting around in the clubhouse all season, not being productive while taking up a valuable roster spot. The Cardinals tried, with very little success, to find other places for Wong to get into the lineup by giving him a try in the outfield. The most significant result was a lingering shoulder injury that gives the enigmatic player another excuse for not producing.

So it appears that St. Louis has little choice but to give Wong one long last look to see if he can establish himself as a regular major-leaguer. I sure hope he can. I’m rooting for the guy because I really believe he has the ability to be great. But he’s wasted so many opportunities that it’s become painful to watch.