By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kolten Wong is once again hitting in the neighborhood of .300, and piling up other accomplished stats while living up to his billing as one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ top prospects.
The 5-foot-9 second baseman will play in his second straight All-Stars Futures Game, which features a USA squad against a World ballclub. The game will be televised live at 8 a.m. Sunday on ESPN2.
Since he was drafted in the first round in 2011 out of the University of Hawaii, the Cardinals have fast-tracked Wong, sending him to Single-A ball instead of a short-season farm team. The next year, he played in Double A instead of spending a full season at an advanced Single-A club.
In a nod to the organization’s belief in Wong, the Cardinals in 2012 assigned him to the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school for top prospects. He batted .324 with a homer and 12 RBIs and posted a solid .342 on-base percentage.
He went to spring training with St. Louis and was later sent down to Triple-A Memphis, disappointing the legions of Cardinal Nation fans hoping Wong would solve the black hole at second base.
Daniel Descalso was last year’s starter. In 143 games, he batted .227 with a .303 on-base percentage and offered little offensive punch with a .324 slugging average. His stats profile as a hitter who can’t get on base or drive the ball, essentially a weak link in the lineup.
The St. Louis management’s thinking at the time was probably to let Wong get a little seasoning at Triple A, then delay his call-up until middle or late June so he wouldn’t be a Super-Two arbitration-eligible player.
Most of the Cardinal Nation bloggers felt the same way. They figured it was only a matter of time until Wong was promoted to the big leagues. But then something out of the blue happened.
Matt Carpenter started hitting and hasn’t stopped. The 27-year-old is batting .322 with an on-base average of .394, a five-star achievement. He recently earned St. Louis manager Mike Matheny’s seal of approval, getting called the “best second baseman in the National League.”
Too bad Wong, 22, doesn’t profile as a shortstop. Rafael Furcal is out for the season with an elbow injury. Pete Kozma (.234 in 82 games and 274 at-bats) and Descalso (.275 in 61 games and 160 at-bats) are sharing the job with limited success.
Where does that leave Wong?
The obvious answer is he’s backlogged at second base with time on St. Louis management’s side, at least from a business standout.
More than any other sport, Major League Baseball has made a significant shift in two areas: sabermetrics (specialized analysis through detailed stats) and cost-efficiency (high production from low-cost labor).
It’s the reason the Cardinals waved good-bye when Albert Pujols signed a $240 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels. It’s the same philosophy behind a team wanting arbitration with a player after three years instead of two, despite the fact a player could offer immediate help.
Under MLB rules, a minor league player doesn’t become a free agent until after seven seasons. Wong would be in his age 26 season. Still in his prime but no longer holding the leverage or attraction he once had in college.
There is something of an escape loop. It’s called the Rule 5 draft. After players sign their first pro contract at age 19 or older, they must be protected four seasons after their initial contract and put on the 40-man roster.
That would be after Wong’s 2015 season. If he’s not on St. Louis’ 40-man roster, teams could pick him in the Rule 5 draft. However, organizations don’t typically draft, polish then not protect their best prospects.
They would rather use a player as trade bait. Baseball America listed the Cardinals as the No. 1 farm system. But alas, there’s no shortstop on the list.
St. Louis also owns a lot of young talent. According to the website baseballprospectus.com, third baseman David Freese ($3.15 million), center fielder Jon Jay ($504,000), Descalso ($495,000) are among seven players eligible for arbitration in 2014. Carpenter and starter Lance Lynn are arbitration eligible in 2015.
Wong could be a call-up when MLB rosters expand from 25 to 40 on Sept. 1. It might be a brief stay. That’s because the Cardinals, in a cost-efficiency move, will likely try to stagger their young talent from earning big raises.
Infielder Matt Adams and pitchers Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal are rookies. Each is waiting his turn at the arbitration table. They’re all eligible in 2016.
After this season, outfielder Carlos Beltran ($13 million) and Furcal ($7 million) will be among the team’s four free agents, putting St. Louis in the same pickle it had with Pujols: remain cost-efficient or let older, more expensive players walk.
Meanwhile, a player’s service clock to salary arbitration doesn’t start until he’s on the 40-man roster. And they only earn service days in the majors on the 25-man roster.
In other words, St. Louis holds all the cards.
The one consolation for Wong is to remember the minor league motto: A player is not only performing for his ballclub, but for all 30 major league teams.