Big season for Wong, one way or another

Spring! Rejuvenation! Rebirth! Everything’s blooming! All that … stuff!

I think I’ve actually used that George Costanza quote in a column before, but it seems apropos at the start of every new baseball season. With the end of March Madness (by the way, wow!) and the NBA Playoffs still 10 days away, Major League Baseball’s 2016 opening act gets the spotlight.

What I’m about to say will probably come as a shock, but the St. Louis Cardinals are going to be a good team. I know. I know. That’s pretty bold. The Cards have won three straight division titles and at least 90 games in five of the past seven seasons. They’ve only had one sub-.500 season since 1999!

So expecting a high win total isn’t some grand prediction, but trying to forecast how Kolten Wong will fare is a much tougher task.

I can’t go so far as to say this is a make or break season for Wong, who is still just 25 years old. But he’s getting to a point where the Cardinals are seeing who he is and if he will remain the team’s second baseman of the future, or simply a platoon player off the bench.

St. Louis locked him up last month with a five-year extension for a pretty cheap price tag. Wong’s willingness to sign the deal and avoid upcoming arbitration indicates that he wasn’t expecting a huge production spike. The Cards should be very happy to have a potential starter locked up for such a rate.

Wong’s issues are easy to diagnose. He’s struggled to improve his plate discipline and he’s not as sure handed in the field as you’d like your everyday second baseman to be. But he has above average power for his position and great range with the ability to make spectacular plays with the glove.

At the plate, opposing pitchers are trying to force him outside the strike zone more than during his rookie season and it seems to be working. Wong saw 5 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2015 than in 2014. He also swung 3 percent more often at pitches outside the strike zone.

If he’s able to force pitchers to come to him, rather than chasing, Wong can produce. He made contact more than 90 percent of the time in 2015 when swinging at pitches in the strike zone. He’s not a swing-and-miss guy.

But even if he can correct those trends, becoming an undeniable everyday player will require Wong to improve against left-handed pitching. That’s where his numbers crater. He hit just .229 with a .277 slugging percentage against lefties. That jumps to .276 and .432, respectively, against righties.

There have been times when Wong has gotten hot and been one of the team’s offensive catalyst towards the top of the lineup. But so far, those times haven’t lasted long enough.

Wong has a beautiful swing and obvious natural talent. The Cards continue to believe in him, evidenced by the long-term contract. But whether he improves to anything other than an average Major Leaguer should start to crystalize this season. He has the opportunity for now, but a team that is so used to winning and playing the “right way” will start looking in another direction if some of his previous issues don’t begin to correct themselves.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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