JUPITER, Fla. >> St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong reached an important realization during the offseason.
Known for being his own harshest critic — a trait that often prolonged slumps — Wong said he spent some time doing some serious introspection.
“If I keep doing this I’m not going to be playing this game much longer because I’m going to hate it,” Wong said. “And I love playing this game. I love everything about this game. I want to have fun. I’m tired of being that guy that wants to be perfect. I just want to go out there and play the game.”
All of this led to a newly confident Wong, which prompted him to tell reporters before spring training that he would like to hit leadoff for the Cardinals.
Manager Mike Matheny said he appreciated Wong’s confidence, while online chatrooms lit up with questions about how a player with Wong’s noted inconsistency could possibly set the table for a team looking to score more runs.
As the Cardinals approach their first spring training games, Wong made it clear that he didn’t intend to pressure the Cardinals into changing their batting order.
“When I kind of went out there saying that I would love to be the lead-off hitter I think everyone kind of took it the wrong way,” Wong said. “It made me seem like I was trying to tell Mike how to do his job. I didn’t ever want it to come off that way. It was just me being confident in myself knowing that I’ve made the right strides to become the player that I want to be and I think me being lead-off hitter would be awesome for me and my confidence.”
Incumbent lead-off hitter Matt Carpenter is not the prototypical table setter. The left-handed hitting third baseman isn’t fast, and his 28 home runs and 84 RBIs last season led the Cardinals. His value at the top of the lineup lies in his knack for getting on base (.365 OBP last season) and his ability to work deep into the count, giving hitters behind him a chance to recognize what they’ll be facing.
Wong has never hit lead-off for an extended period.
Hitting mostly near the bottom of the batting order, Wong reached base at a .321 clip last season, up from .292 in his first full year in the majors. Though his 15 stolen bases last season were five fewer than the previous year, he does have good speed.
“I know he’s got a desire to leadoff,” Matheny said. “Most of that is his desire to help the team. We’ll take a look at it, but we’re not necessarily saying we’re going to give him this many games there, we’re going to have to move Carp there; we’re going to have to just flop guys around until it really becomes obvious – hopefully it becomes obvious – or not. We’ll just keep going at it different until it looks right.”
Unlike previous years, Wong entered camp with his opening day roster spot secure. The Cardinals traded for Jedd Gyorko during the off-season, but they intend to use him mostly as a utility player with the potential to take some right-handed at-bats should Wong continue to struggle against lefties.
Left-handed hitting Greg Garcia can also play multiple infield positions for the Cardinals, but the 25-year-old Wong is the leader among the group of Cardinals’ second baseman – a role Matheny said the Cardinals are actively encouraging.
That’s allowed Wong to spend the first few weeks in Florida working on specific facets of his game he needs to improve rather than trying to impress Matheny and the front office during every drill. When games begin on Wednesday with an exhibition against Florida Atlantic, Wong intends to use the remainder of spring to become more of a threat on the bases.
“After what I went through last year, I finally realized that every time I go through a tough time I always take it too hard and I extend slumps that shouldn’t be extended if I had just relaxed, don’t worry about it and have fun,” Wong said. “This year I’m just going to try to have fun the whole time and see what happens.”