Would St. Louis Cardinals’ Kolten Wong Benefit from a Triple-A Stint?

May 11, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) fields the ball for an out in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
May 11, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) fields the ball for an out in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Kolten Wong has struggled for the better part of a year now. Should he work out his issues in Triple-A?

Though his return has been further put off by a box-cutting incident gone wrong, shortstop Jhonny Peralta will get back into the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup within the next couple weeks, and it will cause changes across the board. Peralta, who’s played exclusively at shortstop since joining the Cardinals in 2014. But with the emergence of rookie Aledmys Diaz, who has a .323 batting average and .906 OPS entering Monday, the front office wants to continue to utilize the 25-year-old at short, meaning that Peralta could end up playing some third base.

That means the Cardinals will have to find playing time elsewhere for two-time All-Star Matt Carpenter, who has seen significant action throughout his big-league career at first, second, third, and in right field. It appears that Carpenter will start to see more action at first base, where he’s already played in eight games and started three this season, but with Matt Adams now hitting .320 with a .940 OPS–and perhaps more importantly, hitting .316 against lefties–the Cardinals aren’t going to have as much time to distribute at first as they might have thought they would a month ago.

It seems impossible that Diaz, who at this point would almost surely be the most worthy candidate to start for the NL at shortstop in the All-Star Game if he was actually on the ballot, could be reduced to just one or two starts a week once Peralta returns. That’s why it’s feasible that Carpenter, who made the All-Star team and won a Silver Slugger as a second baseman in 2013, could end up getting more playing time at second base as the season moves forward.

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The Cardinals could also use an alignment with Carpenter at third, Peralta at short, and Diaz at second, but whatever the case, it’s going to reduce the playing time available for incumbent starter Kolten Wong at second. And since the lefthanded-hitting Carpenter could be picking up more of the load at second in a lineup that is increasingly platoon-based, it stands to reason that the defensively-limited Wong may get very few starts going forward, as Jedd Gyorko has gotten quite a few starts at second against lefty starters this year.

All of this is to say that once Peralta returns, maybe the Cardinals should consider sending the 25-year-old Wong down for a brief tune-up at Triple-A Memphis. He still has two minor-league options remaining, so it would be fully within the rules, and it’s pretty clear that he’s looking for answers at the plate right now, as he’s currently hitting .230 with a .616 OPS and one homer through his first 130 plate appearances.

While looking at things from a macro point of view, it seems ridiculous to think that Wong could be in line for a demotion. He just narrowly missed out on an All-Star selection last year, hitting .280 with nine homers and 37 RBI before the break. Since then, though, he’s struggled mightily, and if you break things down month-by-month, his trouble at the plate becomes more concerning.

As we move into the month of June, Wong has now had just two months with an OPS exceeding .700 over the last calendar year: June (.759) and September (.724) of 2015. Especially for a player like Wong who relies on his power, rather than consistent contact, to succeed at the plate, his inability to hit home runs over the past year creates more reason to worry.

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After hitting 21 homers from the start of June 2014 to the end of June 2015, Wong has just three homers since. In 307 at-bats since July 28 of last year, Wong has only one homer, which came on May 2 of this season.

It’s arguable that the evaporation of Wong’s power stems from fatigue, seeing as he started 140 games in 2015, including 61 of 73 after the All-Star break. If there’s any type of mental struggle for Wong, though, it’s very possible that he could be benefited by going back to the Pacific Coast League, where hitters often thrive because of the favorable ballpark conditions. While spending parts of two seasons at Memphis in 2013 and 2014, Wong averaged a homer every 37 at-bats. Seeing as he’s struggled so much to get the ball out of the park recently, perhaps it would help him to dominate at a lower level for a while and get his confidence back.

Really, it might down to whether the Cardinals want Wong to get in a rhythm and play every day at Triple-A or bide his time while fighting for at-bats in a crowded big-league infield. Peralta will likely be getting starts at shortstop and third base, while Carpenter is expected to see action at third and first, and possibly some second base as well. Diaz will still get playing time at short, and he may also see some time at second and/or third. Gyorko is still assured some playing time at second, and he might still get some time at third, too. In addition, Mike Matheny will have to find quite a bit of playing time for Adams and a little bit of action for Brandon Moss at first base, too.

With all those factors established, the biggest wild card in this situation seems to be utility infielder Greg Garcia, who is 12-for-22 (.545) with two homers at the major-league level this year. It was already extremely difficult for the Cardinals to send Garcia down on April 18, and since he returned on Thursday, he’s 6-for-12, so it’s likely going to be tough to send him down again anytime soon.

Because of his limited playing time this season, it’d be easy to suggest that Garcia just be sent back to Triple-A when Peralta returns, and that will almost certainly be the case. Garcia is hitting .351 with two homers while coming off the bench since returning to the majors in June of last year. Wong has hit .333 with a homer while coming off the bench over that same period, though he’s just 2-for-8 in a reserve role this year. The fact that Garcia provides solid, if not above-average, defense at three infield positions, while Wong plays just one position–second base–where he’s arguably below-average defensively, is another factor that plays in Garcia’s favor.

Ultimately, with the addition of Gyorko and the emergence of Diaz and Garcia–plus the emergence of Adams as a legitimate full-time player–there’s no wrong decision for the Cardinals in this situation. Considering the five-year, $25.5 million-dollar contract that he was given this offseason, it might be embarrassing for the front office to send him down at this point. It’s arguably just as embarrassing that he’s already been reduced to the role of a platoon player and that he may be destined for an outright reserve role sometime soon, though.

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Even if he were to be demoted, Wong would just be going down for enough time so that he could get his timing and confidence back and give the Cardinals more time to make a roster decision. Since the move could potentially make Wong a more valuable hitter and allow him to better live up to his contract, though, perhaps it’s for the best.