ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- For the first time in a long while, the Cardinals have the entirety of October to perform club assessments and plan for the next season. With their elimination from the postseason on game 162, General Manager John Mozeliak and his team have begun their offseason work, chiefly considering what the best version of the team is going forward.
To that end, several positions must be addressed, Mozeliak said at the annual year-end wrap up Wednesday. On the infield, the Cardinals currently have Matt Adams, Brandon Moss (long-term status TBD) and Matt Carpenter to play first. They have Jedd Gyorko, Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter (again) to play second, Aledmys Diaz at short and Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter (yet again) in consideration for third base. Greg Garcia remains a versatile bench player.
Stepping back from the overall issue of trying to establish where each player fits best, the question of second base seems to be the first major decision from which others will flow.
The biggest issue is how the club views Kolten Wong and whether he’s the second baseman of the future. The front office clearly thought so this spring, when it secured the 25-year-old for five years, $25.5 million. But he started just 71 games at second and appeared in just 88. The rest of his deployments were in the outfield or as a pinch hitter.
The root cause of that sparse workload was offensive inconsistency, rooted in a brutal start to the season. Over his first 56 plate appearances, Wong hit .208 and slugged the same. That kicked off a red light, green light situation that didn’t even out until May 11, the beginning of a stretch where he started 16 of 19 games and went the distance in nearly all of them. Still, he hit just .250 and had an OPS of .673 during that time.
He was eventually sent to Memphis (Class AAA) to jump start his offense, and he obliterated inferior pitching so thoroughly he was back in 12 days, this time as a center fielder.
From that point on June 18, Wong played just 25 complete games as a second baseman, a total of 276 innings. He made just two errors in 178 chances and turned 32 double plays. He also made some of the most eye-popping plays of the year, fielding the position with the reckless abandon that makes him such a supreme talent.
In his 271 plate appearances over that same time, he hit .251 with an OPS of more than .740; improved, but not enough to give the offense-first Cardinals the solution they were looking for in the lineup.
“I think both Mike and I and the entire staff feel like he’s a talented player. But the tough part about the big leagues is it’s about performance. You’re either doing it or not,” Mozeliak said Wednesday. “At some point, we have to find that balance between giving him a shot to do it, but also understanding that there could be some struggles. When we look to see what this club is going to look like from our standpoint, we probably need to pencil him in and see what it looks like building around him.”
The organization hopes to give Carpenter a full-time position in 2017, providing some stability for their best hitter. Second base is still on the table for him, which means evaluations are ongoing, pencil or not.
“I think if you can give a player a consistent spot, we’ve seen that with Matt in the past when we gave him second base what he was able to do with it and how he improved and how he concentrated his work. I think that’s probably going to be the focus – where do we concentrate each individual player’s efforts this winter for them to improve? I think it will come down to how the rest of the squad looks,” Mike Matheny said.
Carpenter was an All-Star in 2013 when he was a full-time second baseman, but was defensively average when it came to intangibles like range, speed and exchange on double plays. He was moved to third, his natural position, the following year and posted a .959 fielding percentage, 14th in baseball among qualified third baseman. He did the same tin 2015. He is not a Gold Glover by any means, and given the Cardinals’ fielding woes in 2016, defensive upside should be a primary concern.
Wong is indisputably the best defender on the team, and arguably one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball. He made eight plays this season considered by FanGraphs to have an unlikely chance of being made (10-40 percent of the time). He made 12 that were considered remote possibilities (1-10 percent of the time). His range stretches the entire 90 feet between first and second base and often a few feet beyond. This season alone he made 45 plays outside of the zone, “zone” being defined as the range of an average player at that position.
For a team with several pitchers who pitch to contact, the Cardinals desperately need to find ways to take away hits and prevent runs. Wong offers far more upside in that endeavor than either Carpenter or Gyorko.
However, offense plays more than anything else in modern baseball. Teams will always side with the ability to create runs over the ability to prevent them.
To that end, Gyorko and Carpenter both have a significant edge. Wong is too talented to write off entirely, as the Cardinals brass said Wednesday. However, time is running short for him to assert himself as an everyday player.
“The good news for us is we had somebody like Jedd Gyorko who came over and had the success that he had, and I think he gives us the flexibility to be a little more patient in that regard,” Mozeliak said of Wong’s development. “As we look to see how we want to put this club together relative to what we could possibly do on the trade or free-agent market, that will come into play.”
Wong’s cost control and raw ability will no doubt be attractive to teams going shopping this offseason. The Cardinals have enough offensive firepower in the infield if suitors come calling, but that same glut of talent may keep him from realizing his full potential if he can’t assert himself next spring.