You may have noticed that this is my first time weighing in on a moment which has now passed—whether the St. Louis Cardinals should pick up a $12.5 million option for 2021 on the contract of second baseman Kolten Wong, which it was revealed this afternoon that the Cardinals were not going to do. And there’s a very simple reason why—the possibility that the Cardinals might not pick up the option never even occurred to me.
I’m not even sure when I realized Kolten Wong wasn’t under contract for next year. It was probably earlier this month. This is how automatic the decision was. I might as well have written a post about how I think Jack Flaherty should begin 2021 in the Cardinals’ starting rotation instead of with the Memphis Redbirds. And yet, here we are.
Kolten Wong is probably the best Cardinals second baseman of the last 30 years; with the possible exception of Edgar Renteria, he might be the best Cardinals middle infielder of the last 30 years. Throughout his Cardinals career, he has been a superb fielder, having won a Gold Glove in 2019, Fielding Bible Awards in 2018 and 2019, and saving more runs defensively in 2020 than any other second baseman in the National League. Offensively, he isn’t quite that level of standout, but he has been a consistently competent hitter—certainly a good enough hitter to remain a very valuable player given his value as a defensive infielder, a trait the Cardinals have long claimed to cherish/build pitching staffs on which to capitalize.
Over the last three seasons, he has been a top ten second baseman in baseball. On a Wins Above Replacement per plate appearance basis, Kolten Wong has been more valuable than Javier Baez, Whit Merrifield, Ozzie Albies, or Jose Altuve. In the Spring of 2016, Wong signed an extension with the Cardinals for five years and $25.5 million. Without even accounting for the fact that his 2020 salary was prorated, FanGraphs estimates Wong was worth $90.3 million. In 2020, in 53 games with what were his worst offensive numbers in four years, he was worth $10.7 million. Today, by exercising Wong’s 2021 buyout of $1 million, the Cardinals decided he wasn’t worth $11.5 million.
Much of the vitriol regarding the Wong decision has been directed at the man who announced the team’s decision, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. The arguments that Mozeliak made on a Zoom call with reporters ranged from dubious to nonsensical. He argued that Tommy Edman was capable of playing at second base every day, despite the fact that Edman was worse at the plate than Wong’s already-down year, and that Edman’s primary value to the 2020 Cardinals was as a utility player, as he played three positions (one of which, third base, is currently occupied by a rapidly aging Matt Carpenter) more frequently than second base. He touted the team’s payroll flexibility, implying to local fans and media that they could be counting on the Cardinals making a run at any variety of free agents this off-season, as soon as the fans and media be sure to check in with the local wallet inspector.
I wish I had the optimism to believe that Mozeliak was the man responsible. Presidents of baseball operations can be easily fired. Owners can’t.
John Mozeliak’s name has long been used as shorthand for “Cardinals ownership” despite the fact that he does not own the St. Louis Cardinals, and if I were Bill DeWitt Jr., the actual man who signs the checks for the Cardinals, I wouldn’t have it any other way. At this point, given that Michael Girsch is the team’s general manager, it’s entirely possible that Mozeliak’s primary actual job responsibility is to act as public relations for every unpopular thing Bill DeWitt Jr. does not want to have to say himself. If that’s the case, he is worth every penny.
While announcing the Wong departure, Mozeliak said that the team was impacted by COVID-19 disproportionately because such a large share of the team’s revenue is derived from ticket revenue, and the Cardinals received none of it last season and may still not receive much or any of it next season. In a vacuum, this makes sense. But wasn’t the whole point of the team’s fiscal conservatism over the last generation supposedly that they could withstand financial setbacks in the long term? Wasn’t the ten-figure television deal the Cardinals signed in 2015 supposed to give the franchise some sort of revenue certainty in a climate where attendance across Major League Baseball has declined every year since 2012? Is the difference so grand in how much revenue is generated from ticket sales that the Miami Marlins, a team with notoriously bad attendance but also by far the worst television deal in baseball (pre-COVID, they were scheduled to make $20 million for the entire season), were able to exercise a 2021 option today on outfielder Starling Marte, a comparably solid player whose 2021 salary and potential buyout were identical to Wong’s?
The problem is that we don’t know. Maybe the Cardinals actually are hemorrhaging money and are not, as I suspect, a violent door closing away from gold falling from the ceiling on top of their heads a la Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. I can speculate all I want, but unless the Cardinals open their financial books and show how much money they are set to lose, I am going to jump to my own conclusions. You have the right to do the same. And if the 2021 season is going to be defined by the departures of Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright, I’m going to have a hard time justifying buying tickets (if I am able to do so). I recently canceled my YouTube TV package with the intention of resuming it or going back to cable once more sports are going on, and after today’s news, I’m having a hard time finding the motivation to do so.
The prospect of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright signing elsewhere in free agency isn’t ideal, but I can rationalize it—they are older players who are probably on borrowed time in their MLB careers. It may be time to acquiesce to the new generation of players, particularly if either player is seeking a multi-year deal. But Kolten Wong just turned 30 earlier this month—if he is past his prime, it is not by a considerable margin. He was not demanding a half-dozen-year extension; his option called for one year of one of the most profitable teams in baseball to pay him what amounts to pocket change.
Again, maybe I am dramatically overestimating the market for Kolten Wong, a player that at the very least I would have assumed the Cardinals could re-sign for 2021 and then flip him in a trade, a la Jaime Garcia in 2017. And maybe the Cardinals really, truly cannot afford Kolten Wong for 2021. But as I established earlier today, I’m having a hard time believing it.