Passing on Kolten Wong is a move that will continue to sting the Cardinals


Joe Puetz/USA TODAY Sports


In pro sports, relationships between teams and players are far from permanent. They end quicker than most would like or continue way past their bedtime.

Things begin and end, sometimes in a second– especially with social media’s “shoot from the hip” news mentality. Fans — and sometimes the players themselves– are the ones left in the middle wondering what happened, while the journalists try to unlock the reasons why it happened and if the aftermath will be gentle or fierce. Fan favorites coming and going are as common as shiny green grass in July, evil humidity in August, and Adam Wainwright doing something great. Baseball’s addiction is only dangerous in its clingy romanticism.

But sometimes, just about everyone knows the wrong move was made. When the St. Louis Cardinals decided not to pick up Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option this past offseason, Cardinal Nation and just about every local sportswriter hiccupped loudly. The timing of it made a little more sense after the Nolan Arenado trade, but the cause and effect was still mildly mind-boggling–the kind of head-scratcher that only the “Game of Thrones” finale could match in recent times.

When you think about Wong’s play in recent years, especially following Mike Matheny’s departure, a special code seemed to get unlocked in his game. Why cut loose of a player in his prime while taking his game to a whole new level, especially in the field?


Here was a guy who no longer made errors on routine grounders, instead making just about every grounder hit inside the 314 area code reachable. He required his own highlight reel most evenings. The Gold Glove ascension (he’s won the award the past two years) also triggered a balanced approach at the plate. No longer trying to hit every baseball within a few feet of the Arch, Wong just started getting on base, often using his speed to up the ante. The extra-base hits still came, but the package overall thrived as one cohesive force.

The Cardinals, meanwhile: “Nah, we’re good with turning one of baseball’s most underrated Swiss army knives, Tommy Edman, into an everyday player.” That’s a mistake, all day and all night. Just look at Tuesday’s night big matchup between the Cardinals and Wong’s new employer, the Milwaukee Brewers.

By the time St. Louis produced the 27th out and fell 2-0 to the National League Central-leading rivals, the final hit total played out like this: Wong had three hits, and the Cardinals as a whole collected just four. Yikes is the preferred word.

St. Louis let a real baseball mensch getaway at the absolute wrong time. Wong would have had every reason to take that original $12.5 million option in his last contract with St. Louis and turn it into a bigger, brighter new contract. That didn’t happen. All the Brewers had to do was pay Wong $18 million over two years, instead of the Cards paying him over two-thirds of that total to stay put.

Milwaukee is still smiling ear-to-ear on the return on investment. While injuries have limited Wong to 335 plate appearances, he’s still producing 2.3 fWAR, aka wins above replacement, for the Brewers. He’s slashing .285/.346/.457 at the plate, along with a wRC+ of 115 (100 is considered average). Wong’s plate discipline is right around his career average marks, while his defense remains strong. He’s saved the Brewers six runs on defense this season in a less-than-full serving of playing time due to three stints (oblique and calf-related) on the Injured List.

Still, at a modest salary of $8.5 million, Wong is a plus-player. That’s the toughest part with the Cardinals in passing on Wong’s services. According to his current contract, he wasn’t asking for the moon to stick around. All he wanted to do was continue in St. Louis, which had become home to him. There wasn’t a feud between John Mozeliak and Wong, nor any clubhouse tension. He was a fan and team favorite. Beloved for his passion and well-known for his energy on the field, 2021 was set up to be a golden infield at Busch Stadium… until the Cards said no thanks.

By the way, Tommy Edman, whose inning total at second base this season rivals Wong’s amount, is average at the position and has produced a 0.9 fWAR overall. The position took a hit and no, fans, Nolan Gorman isn’t ready yet.

The Cardinals, even with the ascending-yet-injured Dylan Carlson, don’t have a good leadoff option. That’s where Wong currently sits atop the division: leading off. One team is 72-47, while the other took a step closer to the .500 mark. All of that disappointment can’t be placed on the Wong departure, but adding him to this current team would change things in all areas of the game.

Fans love Wong, so maybe St. Louis breaks the 30,000 attendance mark more often. The lineup gets a solid leadoff hitter with pop and speed. The defense (and pitching staff) gets a trusted and award-winning director of highlight reels to the right of second. The whole team just looks sexier. But no.

Here’s the thing. While the Cardinals still have a shot at the wildcard game, their division hopes are entering “highly unlikely to succeed” territory. The Brewers continue to be stronger and more consistent. The Central won’t be the thriller it was supposed to be in spring training. While the recent winning ways were delightful and do play a hand in the playoff hope revival, this team can’t stand with most great teams, their remarkable work against San Francisco withstanding.

Most times, the reasons for a player and team to not be together anymore stand on solid ground. If you can eliminate emotion from the analysis, it’s not a hard picture to see. But with Wong, the Cardinals made a genuine mistake. They let a good player walk without a good upgrade in the waiting. Edman makes a better utility threat than an everyday player. Even if St. Louis didn’t care for an extension, the perfect bridge from Wong to Gorman would have been built.

The worst part: Cardinal Nation will be seeing a lot of Wong in blue the next couple of years (at least), standing on the other side.