In many ways, Kolten Wong was the canary in the coal mine for this offseason. Wong was coming off a season in which he was on pace for 3.5 fWAR over a 162-game span. That would have been an effective repeat of his 2019 campaign in which he accrued 3.7 wins as the Cardinals’ everyday second baseman. Wong was only due $12.5 million in 2021, a pittance for a player whose floor appears to be average starter.
Still, the Cardinals declined his option anyway. For years, Dan Szymborski and others have considered dollars-per-WAR calculations to be non-linear, but even with that first win being half of the typical $8-9 million, the cutting of Wong came as a shock. If Wong was considered expendable then that meant a lot of good, fairly-priced players were going to become free agents soon.
59 other players joined Wong at the non-tender deadline in addition to other players whose options were declined. With the offseason moving at an exceptionally slow pace even by recent standards, many of those players remain on the market including Wong.
For teams that miss out DJ LeMahieu, Wong is the next best thing. Wong certainly doesn’t have LeMahieu’s bat, but he’s just as good on defense. By outs above average, Wong has ranked in the 96th, 94th, and 82nd percentiles over the last three seasons. Among second basemen, Wong has ranked first in defensive runs saved two out of the previous three seasons. He’s also the first second baseman to win the Fielding Bible Award in three straight years.
In seven seasons, Wong has only had above average production at the plate twice—in 2017 and 2019, he hit for a 108 wRC+—but he’s never had a truly terrible year. Wong typically ranks near the bottom of the league when it comes to exit velocity and hard-hit rate, but he has his strengths at the plate. Wong walks at a reasonable clip, and he puts the ball in play. Until a lost step in 2020, he has typically been a solid baserunner. It’s too soon to tell if his dip in sprint speed is permanent or just the showings of a small sample, but if he can regain it, perhaps he can swipe another 24 bags like he did in 2019.
Wong’s a dependable option at second base, and there are several teams that could make use of him including the Cardinals. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak didn’t discount the idea of bringing Wong back on a restructured deal. Without him, the plan is to stick Tommy Edman at second and Edman is a fine player in his own right, perhaps even better than Wong. Keeping Edman at second, however, means the Cardinals will have to play Matt Carpenter at third more often than they would like.
Oakland would be another sensible landing spot. The A’s are looking to replace both Marcus Semien and Tommy La Stella. Currently, they’re looking at an Opening Day double-play duo of Chad Pinder and Tony Kemp. Like the Cardinals, the A’s have relied on superlative infield defense and Wong would match up nicely with Matts Olson and Chapman.
Wong might even be a nice stopgap for the Dodgers. The World Champion Dodgers didn’t have many holes, but their second basemen combined for -0.3 fWAR. Gavin Lux is supposed to be the second baseman of the future, but in two brief stints, Lux hasn’t hit big league pitching. Lux slashed .175/.246/.349 over 69 plate appearances in a year that he was supposed to establish himself as an everyday starter. 19 games in the middle of a pandemic hardly mean that Lux won’t be ready in 2021. Wong and Lux are both left-handed hitters, and Wong hasn’t played a position other than second since 2016, so it’s not a perfect fit. Still, with Kiké Hernández and Justin Turner both potentially leaving the Dodgers’ infield, a little insurance might be nice.
In a normal year, Wong wouldn’t be spending the holidays wondering where he’s going to be playing. He’d be gearing up for Opening Day with the Cardinals, but since they can’t afford him, whoever winds up signing him will be happy to have him.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.