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The Strike Zone

Cardinals demote Kolten Wong in headscratching move

Kolten Wong had posted a TK line to start the season. (Jeff Roberson/AP)Kolten Wong had posted a .225/.276/.268 line to start his rookie season in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

When the Cardinals traded David Freese to the Angels back in November, their path to improvement appeared clear: Shift Matt Carpenter to third base, promote well-regarded second base prospect Kolten Wong to regular duty, and install newly-acquired Peter Bourjos as the starting centerfielder. Just 25 games into the season, the team has scrapped that plan, or at least shelved it by demoting Wong to Triple-A Memphis and recalling the other outfielder obtained in the Freese deal, Randall Grichuk.

The move — which also includes the demotion of reserve outfielder Shane Robinson and the promotion of infielder Greg Garcia — is a reaction to the team's sluggish 13-12 start, and particularly to an offense managing just 3.28 runs per game, the second-lowest rate in the NL. It may be an overreaction, given that the Cardinals' failure to score runs has more to do with the struggles of Allen Craig (.174/.222/.239) and Jhonny Peralta (.175/.267/.388), both expected to be far more central to the team's offense than Wong (.225/.276/.268) or Bourjos (.163/.241/.265), not to mention the fact that Peralta and Yadier Molina are the only hitters with more than one homer.

Though he went just 9-for-59 in a late-season cup of coffee punctuated by a game-ending baserunning gaffe in the World Series, the 23-year-old Wong came into the year as a consensus top-100 prospect, ranked as high as 33rd by Baseball Prospectus. The 22nd pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2011, he had spent a season apiece at Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A before being promoted last August, and after hitting .303/.369/.466 with 10 homers and 20 steals in 107 games at Memphis, appeared to be ready to take over the full-time job. While the team signed free-agent second baseman Mark Ellis to a one-year, $5.25 million contract in December, giving them a pricey insurance policy, at the time it appeared they envisioned the 36-year-old in a utility role.

Wong started 12 of the Cardinals' first 13 games and performed solidly enough, hitting .255/.327/.319 while collecting hits in 10 of those starts. Since then, he's started just six of 12 games, going 4-for-24 with a pair of two-hit games. From a statistical standpoint, it appears to be a case of a young player suddenly cooling off amid diminished playing time, not to mention a very small sample size, but apparently, the Cardinals haven't liked what they've seen from a scouting standpoint. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel:

[Manager Mike] Matheny had noted over the weekend that Wong’s swing, which had been refined in the spring after he started poorly, had expanded and was too long.

Before the game, Wong agreed.

“I think I’ve kind of fallen back into that drift where I have more movement (in the swing),” he said.

…Matheny has seen Wong be too hard on himself at several junctures this spring.

“He hasn’t had a whole lot of struggle throughout his career,” Matheny said this weekend. “You’ve got to figure out how to get through it."

As Wong noted elsewhere within the conversation, it's not as though he's striking out particularly often (11.8 percent, lower than his 12.5 percent minor league rage). Nor is he swinging at a whole lot outside the zone (26.6 percent of the time). Including last year, he's hitting just .192/.239/.223 across 138 major league plate appearances, but still, that's a paltry sample size, and it's not like Ellis (2-for-20 thus far) has knocked the cover off the ball thus far. While there must be deeper reasons for what the Cardinals — a model organization that generally deserves the benefit of the doubt with regards to player development — are doing, from the outside, this still appears to be an overrreaction; a team with a struggling offense demoting its least experienced player smacks of scapegoating. Even with general manager John Mozeliak telling Hummel, “We can give (Wong and Robinson) some at-bats. They weren’t getting a lot of playing time here in the last couple of weeks and, especially for Wong, that trend probably would continue,” it's hardly clear why that couldn't have happened at the major league level.

Elsewhere amid this shuffle, the 27-year-old Bourjos was expected to receive the bulk of the playing time in centerfield, where Jon Jay had shown considerable defensive shortcomings while being flanked by two subpar corner outfielders in Matt Holliday and Craig. Bourjos started eight of the team's first 10 games and had heated up after going 0-for-13 to start the year, but he's started just six of the team's last 15 games, including the Cardinals' only three against lefties, and — whaddaya know? — he too has struggled amid sporadic play, going just 2-for-20. Jay has outhit him so far (.268/.339/.393 in 64 PA to Bourjos' 54), but that's nothing new given the two players' track records on the offensive side, and it's not like those sample sizes are anything from which one can draw conclusions.

It's not clear how adding Grichuk to the mix simplifies matters, particularly given that the demoted Robinson (also 2-for-20) was lost in the shuffle himself, having made all of two starts, both in rightfield. Known primarily as the player the Angels took one pick before Mike Trout in the 2009 amateur draft, the 22-year-old Grichuk was hitting .310/351/.529 with three homers in 94 PA at Memphis, but that's the entirety of his experience at that level, on the heels of last year's less remarkable .256/.306/.474 showing at Double-A Arkansas. While Grichuk has excellent bat speed and power (22 homers in 542 PA last year), his overly aggressive approach (92 strikeouts, 26 unintentional walks) is nothing to write home about, and he doesn't profile as a regular centerfielder at the major league level. Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks noted his ongoing struggles against righties, while ESPN's Keith Law wrote at the time of the Freese deal, "He has never been able to recognize off-speed stuff enough to get into favorable counts, never mind draw actual walks." The consensus is that his future is as an extra outfielder whose utility is mashing lefties, with a strong enough arm to play rightfield. In an organization where Oscar Taveras — a consensus top five prospect in all of the minors — is waiting in the wings and could be up later this season, it's difficult to see how Grichuk is more than a spare part.

Even that doesn't really explain why the Cardinals aren't so worried about interrupting Grichuk's development in favor of sporadic play — perhaps a platoon with the lefty-hitting Jay? — at the major league level, nor do Mozeliak's words:

“Looking at the other side of it, both Garcia and Grichuk are swinging the bat well… Grichuk gives us somebody who can play center field and also the corners and can provide power off the bench, if need be. Neither is guaranteed playing time, but I’m sure Mike (manager Mike Matheny) will get them in there soon.”

As for Garcia, he's a 24-year-old seventh round pick from 2010 who was a college teammate of Wong's at Hawaii. Last year, he hit .271/.377/.384 in 424 plate appearances at Memphis, where he played mostly shortstop with a bit of second and third base thrown in. This year, he was hitting .267/.357/.535 in 99 plate appearances; his five homers had already outdone last year's total of three, but he's never hit more than 10 in a minor league season. Whereas BP and Baseball America both ranked Grichuk among the organization's top-10 prospects, Garcia was unranked by the former and just 14th by the latter while suggesting that his major league future is as a utilityman. That marks him as the successor to Daniel Descalso, a career .235/.305/.341 hitter who's off to just a 3-for-30 start this year, but not a long-term alternative to Wong.

In short, the Cardinals have a fantastic player development system, but it's difficult to see how the recalls of Grichuk and Garcia, the demotions of Wong and Robinson and the apparent diminishment of playing time for Bourjos will reignite an offense that's hitting just .240/.308/.342. Molina (147 OPS+), Matt Adams (123 OPS+) and Holliday (111 OPS+) are the only players producing at a better than average clip, but the latter  (.270/.369/.382) isn't helping in the power department, nor for that matter is Carpenter (.272/.373/.315). It's those players — not to mention Craig and Peralta — who will have far more to do with determining the Cardinals' fate than any of the ones affected by this move.

With four playoff appearances, two pennants and a world championship over the past five years, the Cardinals have consistently been one of the game's most best teams, and they haven't put together that run by making impulsive decisions. Absent other information, this appears to be a departure from their way of doing business, and any turnaround is likely to come from the upward regression of their mid-lineup hitters — patience instead of small-sample-based overreactions.
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