By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
It will be a long journey to turn his dream into reality for recent Waiakea graduate Kean Wong, who agreed to terms with the Tampa Bay Rays after being picked in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Wong was the 128th overall selection June 7, with an assigned signing value listed at $393,500, but will sign for slightly above that slot, according to his dad, Kaha Wong.
Father and son will leave next week for Los Angeles to meet with Rays area scout Robbie Moen then make a cross country trip to Tropicana Field, where the left-handed second baseman will sign his contract.
“I can’t wait to start my pro ball career. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about all my life,” he said, during a brief break from batting practice at his dad’s hitting cage behind Target.
Wong has been assigned to the rookie Gulf Coast League, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., which starts Friday, June 21. The regular season has 60 games and the season ends Aug. 29.
He’ll likely be joined by fifth-round pick Johnny Field, a second baseman from the University of Arizona. He has already signed for $250,000. His listed slot value was $294,600.
The Rays also drafted second basemen in the 15th, 17th and 40th rounds, providing Wong with a healthy supply of competition. All three remain unsigned.
It was the same deal with his brother Kolten Wong, a first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. Three other second baseman were drafted after him. The Cards drafted one last year, and two more second basemen this year. He’s now at Triple-A Memphis.
“It’s a business. They’re going to draft as much talented guys as they can,” Kaha Wong said. “May the best man win. That’s what I explained to Kean. The same thing I told Kolten, I’m telling Kean. It’s like you’re in high school and a freshman all over again.
“You’ve got to prove yourself. There are guys who have been there on a team, two or three years. Kolten is at Triple-A because he put in a lot of work. But the mental game is the hardest part. You’ve got to figure out all the little stuff out on our own, washing your clothes, budgeting your time, doing what you have to do.”
Rays local scout Casey Onaga, who lives in Honolulu, has no doubt Wong will be a perfect fit for pro ball and at second base.
“He’s a hard worker and because of his brother he understands what it will take to play at the next level,” Onaga said. “Obviously, he can hit. That’s the biggest thing. He recognizes pitches, knows how to hit a breaking ball, has good swing mechanics and he understands how to hit in general. Some guys are born that way. They can just hit.
“The difference between the brothers is he’s bigger and a little more physical. But their hitting is very similar, their swings, their hitting approach. I think he’ll be fine at second base. Defense is the easiest thing to improve on. If you can’t hit, it’s tough to make you into a good hitter. If you put in hard work, you can be a good defender. I have no doubt he’ll be a good defender. He’s athletic and he’s got a good mentor in his brother to learn from.”
Onaga said he’s been tracking Wong for four years and that the Rays really did their homework, sending area scout Moen, West Coast crosschecker Jake Wilson and a national crosschecker to scout games.
After Wong signs, his climb up the minor league ladder will likely be longer than his brother Kolten, who played three years at the University of Hawaii and was assigned to Single-A ball, bypassing two lower levels (short-season A ball and rookie league). He was at Double-A Springfield last year.
In Tampa Bay’s farm system there are nine teams, including two foreign and two rookie leagues (Gulf Coast and Appalachian). The higher steps up the ladder are short-season A league, Single A, Advanced Single A, and only one ballclub at Double A and Triple A.
Each level is the same in one regard: a professional proving round.
“You have to prove yourself at every level. At every level and every year, you have to re-establish yourself,” Onaga said. “It’s a reason why teams draft multiple guys at the same position. They’re building their farm system. They can use players as trade bait or move them off to another position.
“Last year, we took Richie Shaffer, a third baseman out of Clemson, even though we have Evan Longoria on a 10-year contract. (Longoria signed a $100 million, six-year extension that runs until 2022). He was the best guy available at the time. That’s why we took him.
“That’s how you build your farm system. You try to get the best guys in there. I think that’s what we got in Kean. He was the best bat available and that’s why we took him.”
With the draft over, the amateur scouts still have work to do. They watch minor league games, evaluating not only their team’s players but the opposing team’s personnel as well. It is survival of the most productive.
“No matter what level you’re at, you’re still being evaluated,” Onaga said. “All amateur scouts are assigned during the summer to cover pro ball. We have a database pretty much of every player, like the other teams. Reports follow a player until they’re released or retire.
“Even at major league games, scouts are evaluating. It never stops. There is always a report on guys. Somebody is watching you. Every team has a game report to send to the front office every day. The evaluation never ends. There’s a report every day on what you do.”
Loyalty to Big Isle
Kaha Wong confirmed that UH coach Mike Trapasso offered the position of hitting coach to him.
But Wong said he turned down the job because of his loyalty not only to his 100 students, but also because of the close relationships he’s developed with their parents, established with all the trips to showcases and Little League state, regional or World Series trips.
He’s also helped over 45 ballplayers land scholarships, acting as a recruiting coordinator, setting up showcases here and on the mainland, and not charging his students a dime for his recruiting services.
“I got offered the UH job and decided not to take it,” he said. “I have a tremendous relationship with a lot of kids and parents. It would be like I was giving up on them. All these parents have trusted me with training their kids. It’s my life’s work to help these kids get better and move on to the next level, whether it’s becoming a better player, getting a scholarship or getting drafted.
“Coach Trap is my friend. I love him, but I couldn’t give up my job in Hilo and abandon the kids. Their parents have put so much of a trust in me. It’s not because Kean won’t go to UH. He wanted to go there and if he was picked after the fourth round, that’s where he was headed. But it’s his dream to play pro ball and that’s what he’s going to do.
“The bottom line is it’s all about the kids for me. The reason Kolten and Kean were drafted was because of their hitting. I’m trying to teach all the kids the same things I did with them, not only hitting, but having mental toughness, and showing discipline and respect on and off the field. I feel obligated to the kids.”