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Mariners 2021 Free Agent Target: Kolten Wong

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The Cardinals’ trash could be the Mariners’ treasure.

MLB: Wild Card-St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Anders Jorstad wrote about how the Mariners should sign Tommy La Stella. For me, Kolten Wong isn’t dissimilar. They don’t share many traits, but if we’re talking broad strokes, they have some key similarities. Both play second base, have played for a number of years, and both are good players who should have been retained by their respective teams. We’ve already touched on La Stella, so now I’ll cross Wong off our list.

As has been exceedingly common this offseason, the Cardinals have elected to decline Wong’s club option for 2021:

The Cardinals will likely take their equivalent Dylan Moore (i.e., Tommy Edman) and slot him in at second base. After all, Edman won’t cost them $12.5M, and...no, yeah, that’s it. The Cardinals are stingy and don’t want to ante up that much money for a player who, frankly, should have been making that much all along.

For the Mariners, It’s not hard imagine what the allure is of acquiring Wong, for several reasons. For one, he’s accumulated 7.8 fWAR since 2018. The other reason, though, is that the idea of acquiring him would be similar in essence to when the Mariners acquired Dee Strange-Gordon before the 2018 season.

That may turn people off to the idea of Wong, but it’s different! During his tenure with the Mariners, Strange-Gordon posted a 73 wRC+, 55 stolen bases, and 0.2 WAR. In the same period, Wong managed a 102 wRC+, 35 stolen bases, and 7.9 WAR. So while they’re somewhat similar in theory — again, broad strokes! — Wong has executed much better. At this point, he’s a better hitter and fielder than Strange-Gordon, and is only bested in the speed department.

As is, the Mariners would likely have Moore start at second base, with Shed Long getting a bulk of the reps on his stead, with Ty France getting a handful himself. For a team that’s going to give it a go with what they’ve currently got (while making some bullpen additions, among a few others), it would serve the Mariners well to let Moore play the super utility role that he played in 2020, as opposed to being the starter at the keystone. Long has shown that he can’t be relied on yet, and Tim Lopes and Sam Haggerty aren’t MLB starters.

Now, that’s not to say that Wong is devoid of risk himself. As a hitter, it wouldn’t take much for him to devolve into a Strange-Gordon level hitter. His barrel percentage is half that of league-average, and his xwOBAcon hard hit percentage fall well short of league-average as well. For Wong, he relies on volume (he puts a lot of balls into play), as well as his speed. Standing at 5’7”, 185 pounds, his frame is not one that is set to age well — just look at Jose Altuve — and he saw his sprint speed fall from 27.6 feet per second in 2019 to 26.6 in 2020. He’s never been a speedster, per se, and now he might be an average runner that’s declining.

Wong hangs his hat on his skills as a fielder. Since 2018, he’s accumulated a UZR of 22.4 and 43 DRS. Most of his defensive value is derived from his ranginess and — judging from his outs above average, a range-based metric — he seems to have taken a healthy hit in this department, albeit only from an elite defender to a well above-average one.

With both sides stated, I’d hope that it shines through that signing Wong would be a judicious move, by process. By outcome? I can’t speak to that! At least not for another year or three. But given that the Mariners have one of the least money on their books — even fewer than the Oakland Athletics! — they have more than enough wiggle room to ink Wong for a few years. Worst case scenario, he flames out. Best case scenario, he posts 7 WAR over a few seasons.

If we zoom out for a moment, one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is how intensely young this Mariners roster is. And, barring any significant changes, that’s only likely to get worse as prospects graduate. For as strong of a leader as Marco Gonzales is, there’s only a short list of players that I would consider leaders of the clubhouse on the outside looking in. Perhaps I’m aging myself, as I’m veering towards clubhouse chemistry and grit, but the Mariners are clearly sorely missing some seasoned veterans who can lead not only with their words, but also by example.

There are a host of ballclubs that are cutting costs and losing quality players in the process. As the Mariners begin their ascent out of their rebuild (ahem, retool), they’re in great shape to supplement their roster with a handful of free agent signings. Surely, the bulk of those will come in the form of relievers — Jerry Dipoto has said so himself — but Wong would help them to further optimize their roster and give them some breathing room to put their search for a second baseman on hold. At least for the time being.