MILWAUKEE >> Kolten Wong is leaving St. Louis behind but staying in the NL Central as the Milwaukee Brewers reshape the right side of their infield by adding a Gold Glove second baseman.
Wong and the Brewers finalized their $18 million, two-year contract today, a deal that includes a 2023 club option.
Milwaukee is making room for Wong in their infield by shifting Keston Hiura from second base to first base.
St. Louis had declined a $12.5 million 2021 option for Wong in December, making him eligible for free agency.
“It took me a little bit to kind of get my head around the whole thing,” Wong said. “Obviously being a Cardinal for as long as I’ve been, there’s a lot of memories, there’s a lot of good things I created there. But also seeing from across (the field) how the Brewers play, how they go about their business and the type of team this is, it just fits my mold really well. It’s a grinding team, a team that just goes out there and competes every single day.”
Wong, who prepped at Kamehameha-Hawaii before playing three years at the University of Hawaii, has earned Gold Glove honors each of the last two seasons. Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns called Wong “in our opinion, the best defensive second baseman in all of baseball.”
The 30-year-old owns a career .261 batting average with a .333 on-base percentage. Wong batted .265 with a .350 on-base percentage, one homer and 16 RBIs in 53 games last season.
He has traditionally hit well in Milwaukee. Wong’s career statistics at American Family Field, formerly known as Miller Park, include a .308 batting average, .373 on-base percentage and .482 slugging percentage in 57 games.
“That was kind of a big reason for me coming to Milwaukee,” Wong said. “I just knew that that was a field where I really saw the ball well at. I felt comfortable playing there. I have a lot of confidence playing in that field.”
Wong said he was somewhat surprised the Brewers showed interest in him because they already had the 24-year-old Hiura, who batted just .212 and had an NL-leading 85 last season but hit .303 and posted a .938 OPS as a rookie in 2019.
But the Brewers believe Hiura can thrive at first base.
“He’s going to have exceptional range for a first baseman,” Stearns said. “And look, there are finer points of the position that will take time to adjust. We understand that there are going to be mistakes. That’s OK. But Keston is going to grow through it, and ultimately we’re very confident that he’s going to be able to figure it out.”
Hiura said he couldn’t remember ever playing first base in an official game at any level except “pickup games and some tournaments or whatever when I was a younger kid maybe.” Hiura says he’s ready to learn and is enthusiastic about having Wong at second base.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m ready to take it on head-on and give my best effort toward it,” Hiura said. “When you put (Wong) in our lineup, automatically our team’s that much better. Gold Glove second baseman. You’ve seen his bat from the left side. He’s just a gamer in general as well. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play with him.”
Stearns believes the Brewers will upgrade their overall defense by shifting Hiura to first base and putting Wong at second while having 2019 Gold Glove-winning center Lorenzo Cain for a full season. Cain opted out after playing just five games last season.
“I know a lot of attention has been understandably placed on the offensive side of the ball, but one constant around some of the better teams in baseball is really solid, consistent defense,” Stearns said. “When we’ve had our most successful seasons here, we’ve had very good defensive teams and that’s something that is a focus of ours. It’s something we think we can and should accomplish, and this move allows us to move in that direction.”
Milwaukee might not be done adding to its infield.
The Brewers don’t have a clear-cut starting third baseman. Newly acquired utilityman Daniel Robertson has 81 games of major-league experience at that position. Luis Urias has played 31 games at third, though he has more experience at second base and shortstop.
“If this is our team, we do think we can fill that position,” Stearns said. “We have guys who can take it and run with it. We are also exploring external acquisitions. I don’t know whether we’ll get anything over the finish line there, but we are exploring it.”