By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The St. Louis Cardinals shipped third baseman David Freese and pitcher Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and a minor league outfielder on Friday, opening up the hot corner and natural position for Matt Carpenter, the incumbent second baseman and roadblock to Kolten Wong.
“It gives Wong a clear shot,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told the Associated Press. “I think he’s going to hit.”
In less than three full seasons in the minor leagues, Wong, 23, has a combined .301 batting average with a .365 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage during stops at Single A, Double A and Triple A, where he was named the Pacific Coast League’s best defensive second baseman.
The four-player trade looks like another nod to the high regard the Cardinals hold for Wong, who was drafted in the first round in 2011 out of the University of Hawaii and fast-tracked ever since.
Wong essentially skipped two levels on the minor league ladder, making his pro debut in Single-A ball instead of a short-season farm team. The next season in 2012, he played in Double A instead of spending a full season at an advanced Single-A club.
In something of a rarity, Wong batted .287 in 523 at-bats at Double-A Springfield, the first time in his life he finished with a batting average under .300.
After the season, St. Louis sent Wong to the Arizona Fall League, the finishing school for top prospects. He more than held his own, and batted .324 with a homer and 12 RBIs with a solid .342 on-base percentage.
Another promotion was around the corner. In his age 22 season and only second full season of pro ball, Wong was at Triple-A Memphis and batted .303 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs in 107 games and 412 at-bats.
He compiled an .835 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in Triple A, the doorstep to the majors. Think of that stat as a school grading scale: 90 percent and above an “A” grade, 89 to 80 percent a “B” grade, and so forth.
Wong’s production came at the top of the minor league pyramid. Each organization has only two Double-A farm teams; at Triple A, there’s only one ballclub. The higher the climb up the minors the stronger the competition with fewer teams, an annual weeding of lesser prospects, especially with the Major League Baseball draft bringing in fresh crops every June.
The Cardinals called up Wong in August and he started at second base against right-handed pitchers, with Carpenter, who was drafted as a third baseman, replacing Freese at the hot corner. Wong batted .153 in 59 at-bats in 32 games, maintaining his rookie status — valuable financial leverage for the Cards.
Then St. Louis added Wong to the postseason roster, giving the 2008 Kamehameha graduate the distinction as the first Hilo-born major leaguer to ever play in the World Series. In six postseason at-bats, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, he had one hit against the eventual World Series champion BoSox.
Business deal, too
The injury-prone Freese, 30, has averaged 112 games over the past four seasons and made $3.15 million during the past season. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time, and would likely bump the payroll, earning more on an apparent decline.
An unsigned player under club control who has at least three but less than six years of MLB service is eligible for salary arbitration. A “Super Two” is basically a player with two years and among the top 22 percent in service time among his draft class.
It’s something of a coincidence that Freese is again going to be teammates with Albert Pujols, who signed a $240 million, 10-year deal as a free agent in 2011 and has also had trouble staying healthy. Pujols batted .258 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs with a .768 OPS in 391 at-bats in just 99 games.
He’s Example A of St. Louis’ cost-efficiency business model to draft and develop homegrown talent (Pujols was a 13th round pick in 1999), and maximize that production until a player demands the moon and millions on top of that in free agency.
According to baseballprospectus.com, the Cardinals paid Pujols $104 million during the most productive 11 years of his career. Unlike NFL contracts, where only the signing bonus is guaranteed, the Angels are on the hook for eight more years with escalating salaries, jumping to $23 million in 2014 and topping out at $30 million in 2021.
The Cards spent that savings to lock up two franchise players. In March 2012, the Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a $75 million, five-year extension that ends in 2017. A year later, they extended pitcher Adam Wainwright to a $97.5 million, five-year deal that concludes in 2018.
Also last year, Fox, TBS and ESPN and Major League Baseball signed a $12.4 billion, eight-year contract, putting an average of $52 million in each ballclub’s pocket.
Forbes wrote in a March story that MLBAM, the league-owned digital arm (mlb.tv, mlb.com and atbat12 mobile app) launched 13 years ago, generated $650 million in revenue last year, and that the Cardinals churned out $239 million in revenue.
That last figure may or may not be right on the nose. But what’s hard fact is St. Louis’ 2013 payroll of $116,790, 787. Then there’s all the upcoming arbitration eligible players, especially all the rookies — infielder Matt Adams and pitchers Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal — who will ask for big raises in 2016.
That’s a likely reason Wong was a late call-up to stagger the team’s arbitration cases. Also, Carpenter, in his first shot at regular playing time, batted .318 with 11 homers, 78 RBIs and scored 126 runs and posted an .873 OPS in 157 games, allowing extra seasoning for Wong.
Wong was in the same 2011 MLB first-year player draft class with Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerritt Cole, the No. 1 overall pick from UCLA, and Florida Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, the 14th overall selection out of a Florida high school and the National League rookie of the year.
What’s interesting about that draft was that Wong was the not the first second baseman drafted. The San Diego Padres held the 10th overall selection and picked Cory Spangenberg, out of a Florida junior college.
He finished the season at Double-A ball and batted .289 with two homers and 20 RBIs in 319 at-bats and 76 games. In a combined 1,172 minor league at-bats, the left-handed hitter has a .291 batting average and a .749 OPS.
In another interesting draft nugget, the Angels used the 17th overall pick on C.J. Cron, a first baseman out of the University of Utah. In three stops, at rookie-ball, Single A and Double A, he has a .286 batting average, an .820 OPS and a big roadblock named Albert Pujols ahead of him.
When Wong’s brother, Kean, was drafted in the fourth round in June, the family made history again as the first pair of siblings from the Big Island to be drafted. Kean Wong, a 2013 Waiakea graduate, was picked 128th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays as a second baseman.
The state history for brothers being drafted belongs to the Sardinha family. Hawaii Stars catcher Dane Sardinha was drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, his brother Bronson in the first round by the New York Yankees in 2001 and Duke was a 19th-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in 2002.
Kean Wong was assigned to the Gulf Coast rookie-league, where he outperformed his higher drafted teammates. Kean Wong, a left-handed hitter like his brother, batted .328 with a .767 OPS in 177 at-bats, and posted a solid .979 fielding percentage with just four errors in 191 attempts.
Nick Ciuffo, the 21st overall selection and a prep catcher from South Carolina, batted .258 with a .604 OPS in 159 at-bats. Riley Unroe, a second-round pick and prep shortstop from New Orleans, hit .246 with a .718 OPS in 167 at-bats. Thomas Milone, a third-round pick and prep center fielder from Connecticut, batted .190 with a .504 OPS in 142 at-bats.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals keep throwing darts in the MLB draft looking for their next shortstop. Pete Kozma was the starter and batted .217 in 410 at-bats and had a .548 OPS.
In June, the Cards used their second-round pick on Oscar Mercado, from a Florida high school, who batted .209 in 163 at-bats. In 2012, Alex Mejia was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Arizona. In two pro seasons, he has a .235 batting average and a .578 OPS in 544 at-bats.
In 2011, St. Louis spent its fourth-round selection on Kenneth People-Walls, another prep shortstop out of Los Angeles. In three years of pro ball, he has a .276 batting average with a .729 OPS in 475 at-bats. However, he has yet to advance beyond rookie ball.
The good news is the World Series runner-up Cardinals drafted Kolten Wong in 2011, and have developed another homegrown gem, all polished and ready to step into a starting spot.