Maybe at some point in the near future, I will wax poetic about what Kolten Wong means in the story of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was, after all, on the Cardinals for parts of eight seasons, won a pair of Gold Gloves, and has a postseason walk-off home run to his name, so while he may not be Yadier Molina in the history of the franchise, he was a meaningful player. But for now, I will stick to what he is in his current form and what he provides for a Major League Baseball team in 2021. And for the Cardinals, from a purely functional standpoint, this one hurts.
Over the last several seasons, Kolten Wong became the type of player he was probably always destined to become–an average-ish hitter with little power but decent on-base skill, good base running, and a premium glove at an important defensive position. Despite initial clamorings among some that he should develop into the team’s leadoff hitter (during peak Matt Carpenter OBP seasons, for some reason), he instead became the type of player you would probably prefer to hide in the bottom third of your batting order, but who can hold his own enough at the plate to make him, combined with his glove, a very valuable player. And now, he will be filling this role with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Wong agreed today to a two-year contract worth $9 million per year with the National League Central rivals which includes an $8 million team option for 2023, per reports from Jon Morosi and Ken Rosenthal. It is impossible to know what, if anything, the Cardinals offered Wong to try to retain his services (I tend to operate under the assumption that players don’t tend to prefer to leave a team unless they are being paid to do so unless I have reason to believe otherwise; in this case, I do not have such a reason), but we do know that the Cardinals did have the option to sign Wong for $11.5 million for 2021, and they turned it down (much to my dismay).
Given the Cardinals just made a trade for Nolan Arenado which, structure of the contract aside, will almost certainly end up still requiring a large expenditure from the team, perhaps one could view the loss of Wong as part of the financial realities which must be traversed in order to acquire a player like Arenado. Perhaps all of the goodwill that ownership acquired from the Arenado trade will now dissipate in a sea of screams about DEWALLET. But regardless, we now know for a fact that the Cardinals will have a new everyday second baseman in 2021. It may be an internal option and it may be an external option, but we know it won’t be Kolten Wong, unless I can think of a convoluted theory on how this might be.
Despite the fact that I own and operate a baseball blog, I have never played and know almost nothing about Dungeons & Dragons, but the rare thing I do know is the concept of character alignments. And as it so happens, there are four realistic second base options that fit neatly into these packages.
Lawful good: Tommy Edman
The obvious choice for the spot is Tommy Edman, who has been decidedly above-average in his 576 MLB plate appearances over his last two seasons with the Cardinals. While I wouldn’t be the one to make such a case, one could argue that Edman might be even better than Kolten Wong anyway–with 16 home runs, Edman exhibits far more power than Wong ever has, and while Edman has spent more time at third base than second base in his MLB career, this was largely by circumstance and his defensive numbers have been above-average at the position. And it’s not like Edman is going to be playing much third base anymore anyway.
Of the four candidates listed, Edman is easily the most likely to be a Cardinal in 2021. But admittedly, the prospect (as would have been the case had Wong re-signed) of Tommy Edman as a roving Ben Zobristian infielder/occasional outfielder is a bit more exciting than him as an everyday second baseman. Perhaps Edman is shaping into a decade-later, infielder version of Jon Jay–good enough to start, not good enough to be an exciting starter, versatile enough to produce genuine excitement as a utility safe guard.
Lawful evil: Matt Carpenter
Let me lead off by saying that I would astonished if this happened. I think this is by far the least likely scenario, and that’s saying something since, unlike the next two guys I’m going to discuss, Matt Carpenter is actually a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. But I’ve seen it suggested, usually out of fear, so I will address it.
Matt Carpenter had his best season as a second baseman, and it was his only full-time season as a second baseman, so in that sense, trying to put the recent-displaced future Cardinals Hall of Famer back where he has felt comfortable in the past makes sense. But it has been eight years since Carpenter played second base regularly. He is as far removed from being a Cardinals second baseman as Mark Grudzielanek was removed from it when Carpenter held the position. And while Carpenter was a decent fielder in 2013–certainly good enough to handle the position if his shortcomings were masked by Nolan Arenado, Paul DeJong, and Paul Goldschmidt–his defensive metrics at second base since then have been abysmal.
Maybe you roll the dice if Matt Carpenter were still hitting like it’s 2018, but Carpenter has been a below-average hitter for the last two seasons. I can see a world where Matt Carpenter bounces back to be as good of a hitter as Tommy Edman, but I absolutely cannot see a world where Matt Carpenter bounces back to be as good of a fielder as Tommy Edman. Carpenter is a designated hitter candidate for 2021, if he’s indeed back with the Cardinals at all. At least in that case, there is a chance he might succeed.
Chaotic good: Jonathan Schoop
Kolten Wong was easily the best second baseman on the market, from the beginning of free agency and certainly as of when he signed. The next-best option is Jonathan Schoop.
Schoop (pronounced “scope”, not like the Salt-N-Pepa song) never walks and can’t hold a candle to Kolten Wong defensively. But what he can do is hit home runs–he hit eight last season, good for 27 per 600 plate appearances, since raw numbers in 2020 can’t tell the story. He cleared 20 in each of the previous four seasons, including 32 in his All-Star 2017 with the Baltimore Orioles. Schoop doesn’t have a discernible platoon split (he’s a righty who has a slightly higher wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, but not by a large enough margin that I would declare him to have a reverse split), so he could be an everyday player. And his questionable defense (he is a year younger than Wong, so while his defense would be expected to decline, it’s not quite in cratering territory) might be masked by his surroundings in ways I am less certain in Carpenter’s.
Schoop has played for four teams over the last three seasons, so he is likely willing to sign a short-term deal if necessary. But he’s also been good enough that he may not quite qualify for the bargain bin. But he’s a name worth considering.
Chaotic evil: Brad Miller
There is no way he does that again.
For a healthy portion of the 2020 season, Brad Miller was the best hitter on the Cardinals. He was, despite a lack of position, playing just about every game for the Cardinals, and towards the end of the season, he started to regress. But he was 21% above league-average at the plate and he was even more above-average the season before.
Miller was primarily a designated hitter last season, and he played five total innings at second base (though if the team was willing to give him eight innings at shortstop, they couldn’t have hated his defense that much). The team is familiar with him and he would seemingly be willing to work on the cheap. And unlike signing Jonathan Schoop, the Cardinals wouldn’t need to promise Brad Miller a particular role. He can come in and be a part of the mix. Maybe Tommy Edman eventually supplants Miller, and Miller is a less defensively adept equivalent to the role Tommy Edman would be filling on a world where Kolten Wong is a Cardinal.