Cardinals Drop Kolten Wong on “the Conservative, Safer Play”

photo: Kolten Wong via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

The St. Louis Cardinals had a major directional decision to make on Wednesday, the day after the completion of the World Series. The team either had to commit to paying second baseman Kolten Wong $12.5 million in 2021 or give him $1 million to leave their employ.

In a Zoom call with media on Wednesday afternoon, the team’s president of baseball operations, John Mozeliak, disclosed the option had been declined. With that, Wong became a free agent.

“I told him that with some of the uncertainties, we’re just not in a position to do that (exercise the option),” Mozeliak said.

Kolten Wong

John Mozeliak via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

A decision that seemed guaranteed in the “pre-COVID market,” to use Mozeliak’s terminology, now carried a much higher level of risk for the team – not in terms of the Gold Glover’s play, but in their uncertain financial models for 2021.

Will next year’s team play to empty stands, a quarter full, a half full or a full capacity Busch Stadium? No one has any way of knowing.

One possibility that I had (incorrectly) thought might be doable was to craft a multi-year extension that would have backloaded some of Wong’s 2021 salary to later years, when it is expected that MLB’s business will be back to normal.

Mozeliak said, “We did not go down that path (of exploring a lower 2021 base salary) at this time.” He also explained the “post-COVID market” has an “uncertainty delta” such that they are unsure how accurately they can model long-term contracts. He added that “the error bars are trickier.”

Another option I considered would have been to exercise the option, then trade Wong. A proven leadoff man considered to be one of, if not the best defensive second basemen in the game at a $12.5 million salary should have appeal to many other clubs – in a normal market.

Jaime Garcia (USA TODAY Sports)

An example of this exercise and trade scenario occurred four years ago when the Cardinals picked up their $12 million option on pitcher Jaime Garcia’s contract, even though the rotation appeared to be full. Weeks later, St. Louis dealt the lefty to the Braves for three minor leaguers, one of whom is John Gant, who became a top reliever in recent seasons. Atlanta took on Garcia’s salary and the Cardinals received a useful player in return, rather than getting nothing for him.

But the story here and now is very different. Looking across the game at the wide swath of players cut loose on Wednesday and it has become very clear that the free agent market this offseason is highly uncertain if you are an optimist and downright bleak if you are a pessimist.

On the idea of dealing Wong away instead of spending $1 million to be rid of him, Mozeliak said, “There was not a ton of time to explore the trade market.” Declining the option and paying was “the conservative, safer play.”

The PBO continued to explain why the 30-year old was cut loose. “We have very few options to create (payroll) flexibility.” He predicted that this winter would “not be a normal trade market” and reiterated the move “creates instant flexibility.”

The unanswered question is where that flexibility will be directed. Mozeliak acknowledged the 2021 club will have a down payroll from 2020 based on declining revenues, but would not share a percentage or absolute dollar reduction target.

While Mozeilak stated that both sides “agreed to keep the door open” and a future return for Wong was “not ruled out,” it feels like the chance is remote.

Later in the call, the PBO noted that the team expects to “give (Tommy) Edman a chance at second base,” the opening created by Wong’s departure. Team defense, one of the team’s two major differentiators which is tied closely to the other, pitching, will not be as good in the future as a result, for two reasons. One is the change at second base. The other is the likely return of Matt Carpenter to full-time duties at third.

Tommy Edman

Another hit taken by the Cardinals is the loss of their leadoff man, a open need for years that Wong had finally grown into.

On his side of the story, Wong is already saying his goodbyes.

Kolten’s wife Alissa soon followed with a message of her own.

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