Cardinals Lock Up Kolten Wong in Frugal Manner

Now that all the possible arbitration cases have been settled and all the offseason’s major free agents signed (apologies to David Freese and Austin Jackson), teams can turn their respective attentions towards locking up young players to contract extensions that buy out potentially expensive free-agent seasons. Earlier this week, the Royals and Salvador Perez agreed to a deal, although that amounted more to the restructuring of a previous deal and less a typical extension. Rather, the first standard pre-arbitration extension of the spring comes from the St. Louis Cardinals, who could get a decent bargain in Kolten Wong despite the second baseman’s lack of huge upside.

Wong’s service-time situation made him an ideal candidate for a contract extension. Wong is one year away from arbitration, so he was looking at the Major League Baseball minimum salary (or something very close to it) this season, with three seasons of arbitration to follow before he could hit free agency. The contract with the Cardinals is for five years and $24.5 million, with a $12.5 million option with a $1 million dollar buyout for the sixth season, making the guarantee $25.5 million. The guarantee is fairly low and has the potential to buy out two seasons of free agency when Wong will be 29 and 30 years old, respectively. Wong has shown himself to be an average player in his two full seasons in the big leagues and continuing to be average will make this deal a worthwhile one for the Cardinals — although Wong has shown some potential for more.

Wong has played two full seasons with distinct periods of success and failure. He debuted in the majors at 22 years old, just two years after the Cardinals made him a first-round draft pick out of the University of Hawaii. He got off to a dismal start in limited time in 2013 and then had his starting job taken away from after just a couple weeks in 2014, resulting in a demotion to make sure he could keep getting plate appearances. He then struggled with an injury, but after returning to the team in July, Wong had a full year of success before dropping off at the end of last season.

Kolten Wong’s Success and Struggles
Through June 30, 2014 233 .207 .259 .267 47
7/1/2014-6/30/2015 571 .277 .325 .454 115
Since July 1, 2015 304 .235 .296 .307 69

That period of success does not include the three home runs Wong hit in 30 plate appearances in the 2014 playoffs, which would place his total during that one-year period at 23 home runs in just over 600 plate appearances. Determining whether a young player has been figured out by the league and needs to make corresponding adjustments is a difficult task. Opposing pitchers might have identified Wong’s weaknesses, although his strikeout numbers were similar in the first and second half of 2015. Fatigue can’t be ruled out, as he started the first 32 games after the All-Star Break in his first complete season in the majors. He was 10 of 14 on steals in the first half, but just 5 of 9 in the second after stealing successfully on 20 of 24 attempts the previous year.

When compared to other players who have signed contract extensions, Wong is definitely on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of the year prior to signing a contract.

Kolten Wong and Other Pre-Arbitration Extensions
Name Team OBP SLG wRC+ WAR Contract (Year/$M) Service Time
Mike Trout Angels .432 .557 176 10.5 6/144.5 2.070
Matt Carpenter Cardinals .392 .481 146 6.9 6/52.0 2.012
Andrelton Simmons Braves .296 .396 91 4.6 7/58.0 1.125
Starling Marte Pirates .343 .441 122 4.6 5/35.0 1.070
Jason Kipnis Indians .366 .452 129 4.4 6/52.5 2.075
Christian Yelich Marlins .362 .402 117 4.4 7/49.6 1.069
Juan Lagares Mets .321 .382 101 4.0 4/23.0 1.160
Yan Gomes Indians .345 .481 130 3.6 6/23.0 1.083
Adam Eaton White Sox .362 .401 117 3.0 5/23.5 2.030
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondback .359 .490 124 2.9 5/32.0 1.059
Allen Craig Cardinals .354 .522 137 2.7 5/31.0 2.077
Jedd Gyorko Padres .301 .444 111 2.5 5/35.0 1.016
Kolten Wong Cardinals .321 .386 96 2.3 5/25.5 2.042
Anthony Rizzo Cubs .342 .463 117 1.8 7/41.0 1.040

Given the company, going year to year with Wong during the arbitration years might have seemed like a safer bet. The only player worse than Wong offensively in the season preceding an extension was defensive great Andrelton Simmons. Even Juan Lagares outperformed Wong offensively. And while it’s true that there are no long-term risks for a club in going year to year, if Wong and the Cardinals were going to agree on an extension, this was the time to do it. By guaranteeing Wong $25.5 million, they are forcing him to choose between being set for life or risking the guarantee for a potential payday that might not come. Former teammate Allen Craig has to be happy he signed his extension, and current Cardinals teammate Jedd Gyorko is likely happy he signed his, as well.

The extension doesn’t appear to make complete sense for the Cardinals if one merely compares Wong to the players above. What else one has to consider is the amount of guaranteed money — which, in this case, is very low. Of the players with two years of service time, only Wong and Adam Eaton signed for under $30 million and the only other player who signed at under $50 million was Allen Craig. If Wong fails to improve and remains merely an average player, the team will have guaranteed $25.5 million and received two free agent years at half the cost of the market. If Wong improves or shows that the year-long period of success is closer to his true-talent level, then the Cardinals will have a large bargain.

The deal is not quite a low-risk, high-reward signing, but it could be classified as low-risk, medium reward. Since he was drafted, Wong has been a high-floor player with a decent hit tool and average defense at second base. Looking at Wong’s total body of work, he’s performed like a very average player. And while there’s certainly room for improvement, his ceiling isn’t incredibly high. In other words, he’s not the type of player who’ll cause a team to rejoice that they locked up two free-agent seasons, but there’s probably a greater-than-50% chance that the Cardinals would have been paying Wong something close to $25 million for his arbitration years either way.¬†Guaranteeing that amount now in exchange for two free agent years is an easy decision for St. Louis.

For Wong, he gets the security of the long-term contract and doesn’t have to worry what an injury or decline in performance will do to his future. Even if he plays well, he’ll earn $37 million and hit free agency at 30 years of age. There’s some risk on his part that he’s selling himself a little short, and there’s some risk for the Cardinals given that teams generally wait for a little more production before offering guaranteed money. The Cardinals offered a low-risk contract for them in exchange for a decent potential reward, and Kolten Wong removed himself from the high-risk situation he was in by passing some of it on to the Cardinals.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

The Cardinals didn’t guarantee Wong $25 in exchange for two free agent years. They did that for his first free agent year. If they want his second free agent year, they have to pay $12.5M more (which they will in all likelihood).