Before the start of the 2017 season, a lot of the talk surrounding the Cardinals dealt with becoming more athletic. During spring training, it was hinted that such athleticism would start with second baseman Kolten Wong.
It’s no secret that Wong was coming off a disappointing 2016 season, a season that saw him sign a five-year, $25.5 million extension but then take a demotion to Triple-A Memphis. In 2017, Wong would have to be better not just offensively, but defensively as well.
Nearing the end of April, Wong seems to be putting it all together.
Through the Cardinals’ first 22 games of the year, Wong has already locked down the job as the everyday second baseman. His walk rate is up and strikeout rate is down, and though that may be a byproduct of drawing more intentional walks when batting in front of the pitcher, it’s better than not getting on base at all.
Before Tuesday’s game, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talked about how he was starting to see some positive signs from Wong’s recent performances at the bottom of the order.
“Kolten’s taken some great at-bats and getting those in big situations, let’s let him go,” Matheny said Tuesday. “Let him keep doing that and keep plugging in at some other places until we get the whole machine going the way we know that it can.”
In the first game of Thursday’s doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays, Wong certainly did his thing. Leading off the bottom of the 11th inning, Wong set the table for Matt Carpenter’s walkoff grand slam with a his second triple of the season.
“He can be a sparkplug,” Matheny said. “They’re pitching to get to him sometimes and he’s burning people in scoring position. We see him ranging and making plays. He’s just an exciting player and he’s been aggressive on the bases and we like watching him when he gets going like this.
“That’s kind of the player he should be all the time regardless of the offensive production he has, just making things happen on defense and on the bases, and be that kind of spark. We’ve seen that for a good little while now.”
It’s not just when Wong reaches base that his impact is felt on the field. During Thursday’s nightcap, Wong busted out of the box and dove headfirst into first base on a slow ground ball to the right side of the infield.
Though Wong was out, the kind of energy he brings in the little things like that bleeds to the rest of the team. Game 2 starter Adam Wainwright said Wong’s matinee triple not only helped the Cardinals win that game, but also give them some momentum heading into the finale.
“That was a big, big win, big comeback, Grichuk in the ninth with the two-run homer and then Carp with the grand slam,” Wainwright said, “but Kolten got it started with that triple to lead off the inning.”
Still, there have been moments where Wong has struggled this season, as evident in Thursday’s first matchup when picked off by Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin when he strayed too far from second base. Wong also committed his fourth error of the season in game 1, which leads the Cardinals thus far.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals remain excited about what Wong brings to the table. And if he continues to improve, that extension may end up looking like a bargain for the former first-round draft pick.
“He’s a guy that wants to prove he’s an everyday second baseman,” Wainwright said. “He wants to show the world he’s that guy, and so we need him to be. And he’s got a good glove out there too, so when he’s going great at the plate and going great in the field, he’s a very very good player.”