ST. LOUIS -- Following a season in which he lost his everyday job and found himself back, albeit briefly, in the Minors, Kolten Wong spent his offseason assessing what went wrong while also listening to the Cardinals repeatedly affirm their intentions to open the 2017 season with him as their starting second baseman.
That commitment isn't necessarily new. The Cardinals entered the last two seasons with Wong as their everyday second baseman, and, 10 months ago, awarded him a five-year extension. They're still waiting for the payoff, though, and are willing to take on the risk that Wong's response to another opportunity brings with it changed results.
"Last year, I literally got punched in the mouth, and now it's time for me to understand last year is last year and I'm ready for this year," Wong said. "As soon as the season ended last year, I took a week off, tried to mentally relax and then get right back after it. I wasn't happy with the way the season went last year, and this year I'm kind of playing with a chip, like you said."
"Oh, I'd say a block." Wong said, self-correcting.
Wong's skill set matches the Cardinals' vision of becoming more athletic and better defensively. He's the best defensive infielder on their Major League roster and has the sort of speed that can help the offense from too often clogging the bases. But to benefit from Wong's abilities, the Cardinals need to see consistency, something that has eluded Wong since he debuted in 2013.
"When you look at sort of how we've put this whole club together, I don't want to say he's the keystone, but clearly having him have success could make all of us stronger," general manager John Mozeliak said.
Wong found his confidence crushed last season by poor results and evaporating playing time. He started only 71 games at second, despite being healthy all year, and finished with a .240/.327/.355 slash line.
To regroup, Wong chose to spend his offseason in St. Louis, where he's been able to train with several teammates this winter. He's worked to simplify his swing, even if that comes at the expense of power. Finding a way to get on base more regularly, he said, now exceeds his desire to go deep.
And though the Cardinals have been unwavering in their pledge to open the season with Wong at second base, he's not going to Spring Training with any assumptions.
"I'm not going to go into the season expecting to be the second baseman," Wong said. "Last year, I kind of came in with that mindset, and it kind of backfired. So I want to come in this year ready to play, ready to earn my spot and earn my way on this team.
"You know, I just had to literally sit back and assess myself as a player. If I want to play in this league for numerous years, I knew what had to change. I had to become a better player, more consistent at the plate. I had to bring my speed and athleticism back to the field and let that take over, not worry about the home runs or worry about being this player everyone has me to be. Just be the guy I know I can be."