More than anything — for general managers and scouting directors with their jobs at stake — the Major League Baseball first-year player draft is about finding cost-effective value, similar to buying a new or used car for the best Blue Book sticker price.
The Tampa Bay Rays have received their money’s worth with Kean Wong, a 2013 Waiakea graduate and fourth-round pick from last year’s draft, who signed for $400,000. On Wednesday, he was named to the 50th Midwest League All-Star Classic, which will be held June 17 at West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark.
“It’s a great feeling for me to know that I’m one of the youngest in the league at 19 years old and to start on the team,” Wong said. “The competition is a big jump. Last year, the pitchers threw hard but couldn’t spot their pitches. They throw hard and can spot their pitches. You have to have patience at the plate and swing at your pitch and not their pitch.
“When I’m in the batting circle, I’m watching how the pitcher is holding his curveball differently from his fastball. I’ll try to get a read on the pitcher, looking at counts and how he threw to my teammate before me. I try to swing at my pitch. I’m just going with the pitch. If it’s down the middle I go up the middle. If it’s inside, I’ll pull the ball. They’ve been going away from me, and I serve it to the opposite field the whole time.”
At Single-A Bowling Green, in Kentucky, the left-handed hitting second baseman is batting .320 with 10 RBIs and a .731 on-base plus slugging percentage in 44 games and 178 at-bats.
Wong hasn’t hit a homer yet, which accounts for his meager .371 slugging percentage. But he’s displayed excellent plate discipline with a strikeout in 7.4 plate appearances, or once in roughly every two games. That’s a clear sign Wong is making contact, putting balls into play, and not getting overmatched.
He has been just as golden at second base. Wong has a superb .989 fielding percentage. In 185 chances, he has only two errors for the Bowling Green Hot Rods.
Wong’s draft classmate and Hot Rod teammate, pitcher Ryne Stanek, 22, also made the all-star team. Stanek is 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 27 1/3 innings with 22 strikeouts and seven walks. He was a first-round pick out of the University of Arkansas last year.
The Rays are batting 2 for 5 as far as getting value, at least for now, from their first five picks from last year’s draft. First-round catcher Nick Ciuffo, second-round shortstop Riley Unroe and third-round outfielder Thomas Milone, all high-school draft picks, are in extended spring camp.
Last year at rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League, in Florida, Tampa Bay’s top three positional players all struggled: Ciuffo (.258 batting average/.604 OPS), Unroe (.246/.718) and Milone (.190/.504).
Wong (.328/.767) adapted right off the bat. Even better, he averaged a strikeout in 8.8 plate appearances. As a rookie, he was comfortable against the GCL competition, a major reason he was promoted to Single-A ball instead of spending a year at short-season Single A.
“They’re all in extended spring camp, but they’ll get their chance,” Wong said. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity and to take full advantage, and make the all-star team.”
Wong pointed out that his continued production didn’t come by accident. It’s a byproduct of the offseason hard work at his dad Kaha Wong’s hitting cage and training with his brother Kolten Wong. The St. Louis Cardinals second baseman clocked his first career homer, a grand slam no less, on Tuesday against the Kansas City Royals.
“That was awesome. Once he hit the ball we were jumping up and down and my roommates were whacking each other on the back. I’m proud of him and he deserves that,” Wong said. “I haven’t hit a homer yet. I hit one in instructional league, but not in a real season. I’m putting that part of my game together, to work on that weakness. I didn’t hit one in the real season last year, and I’m waiting for that.”