Let’s rip this band-aid off right now: The Cubs have an opening at second base. And this week, second baseman Kolten Wong was thrust into the free agent market, when the Cardinals declined to pick up his $12.5 million option for 2021. Before you ask, (1) Yes, I do know who Nico Hoerner is, (2) I am aware that the Cubs “have no money,“ and (3) I know there are other, perhaps more pressing needs on the roster. But we’re still going to have this conversation, because we have to.
Kolten Wong’s Production
Kolten Wong, 30, technically debuted back in 2013, but 2014 was his first full season in the big leagues. Since then, he’s spent his entire career with the Cardinals, where his 15.6 WAR as a second baseman ranks 7th most in Major League Baseball (just behind Ben Zobrist, 15.9, during that stretch).
As you can see, his bat was typically below below league average (though not by too much), until 2017. And in the 1,575 plate appearances since that season began, Wong has actually been an above average offensive contributor (103 wRC+) to go along with his continued excellence in the field and on the bases.
Whether we care to admit it or not, Wong has been a pretty darn productive player over the past five or so years, always hitting for a solid average (career .261) while getting on base just enough (.333). He doesn’t strike out, he takes his walks. You wouldn’t target Wong for his bat in isolation, but it’s certainly not a liability. And the overall package is attractive. In fact, he could probably complement this Cubs team nicely ….
Kolten Wong’s Offensive Fit
From 2014-2020, the Chicago Cubs have had the fourth highest strikeout rate in MLB (23.1%). They’ve also had the single lowest contact rate (75.4%) and ninth lowest batting average (.249). Meanwhile, the Cubs have largely been among the top-10 in most power stats for more than half a decade. My point: Kolten Wong is a different type of banana than their usual bunch.
Among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances since Wong’s debut, the former Cardinals second baseman has the 32nd lowest strikeout rate (one spot ahead of Anthony Rizzo) and the 34th highest contact rate (83.0%).
And, in fact, as the league has drifted further away from contact, Wong has only made more!
He lags behind in the power department, but that is one area in which the Cubs have actually been covered just fine.
There’s one more thing to note here, though, and it doesn’t work in his favor. Wong is a left-handed batter and has *significant* traditional splits. That means he’s much weaker against left-handed pitching (79 wRC+) than righties (101 wRC+). Considering that the Cubs were the third worst offense against left-handed pitching in 2020, I’m not sure how ideal a left-handed hitting second baseman really is (we’ve had this conversation with respect to Tommy La Stella, too).
Kolten Wong’s Positional Fit
Wong is a second baseman, by trade, and a Gold Glove winning one at that (2019). He was also a finalist in 2018 and is arguably the front-runner to take home his second award here in 2020. Of course, he’s a finalist against a cheaper, younger middle infielder already on the Cubs roster by the name of Nico Hoerner.
So when we’re talking solely about Wong’s greatest strength – his glove – it is fair to say the Cubs have a much more affordable option already in house. The question, then, really becomes how soon do you think Hoerner’s bat can match Wong’s? Because every single question that arose during Hoerner’s 2019 debut about his bat was exploited to the extreme in 2020.
The simple fact is, however high Hoerner’s offensive ceiling may be, he had every chance to run away with the 2B job in 2020 and did not. And that’s not a shot at him; it was because he still needs more time (indeed, *any* time) at Triple-A to finish his offensive development. I said that before the 2020 season began and it’s just as true now as it was then, because this is a young player who had virtually no minor league experience. If the Cubs are trying to go all-out for a Last Dance style win in 2021, I’m fairly confident that Wong is a better bet for second base than Hoerner.
Which is not to say that’s the route I hope to see them go …
If the Cubs ARE going to surprise us by going out there and actually, you know, spending a dime, Wong sure as heck wouldn’t be my first choice. No, that dream is already spoken for:
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) October 8, 2020
Nobody really has any idea what it’ll cost to get Ha-Seong Kim onto their roster in 2020, but it’ll likely be more than Wong (especially because you have to also pay his team in the KBO for the rights to pry him away). Kim, like Wong and Hoerner, is a high-quality, glove-first middle infielder, but he’s likely to add a much bigger impact on offense.
At least, that’s what the projections say:
— Brad (@ballskwok) October 12, 2020
So where does that leave us? Well, I think it’s ultimately a pass for the Cubs for 2021. Wong’s glove and contact skills from the strong side of the platoon are certainly attractive, but given the Cubs internal options (Hoerner), external dreams (Kim), and issues against left-handed pitching in 2020, I’m not quite sure Wong is the best use of what are likely to be extremely limited funds.
Indeed, even though I still think Hoerner should get time at Triple-A next season (if there is a Triple-A next season), I think I’d still rather turn whatever money the Cubs were going to use on Wong into a starting pitcher and just ride with Hoerner at second base, hoping for the best. None of that is perfect, mind you, and ideally you’d be able to add someone like Wong *and* still make moves elsewhere (how about a Wong/Hoerner platoon/bridge?), but that’s just not going to happen. Here, in the real world, I’ll take a pass on Wong, even if I can respect his skill set.