Around the Horn: Diaz, Wong in spotlight

Around the Horn: Diaz, Wong in spotlight

This is the fifth in a six-part Around the Horn series that is taking a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into the 2017 season. We've already examined the catchers, corner infielders, starting pitchers and outfielders. Up next: the middle infielders.

ST. LOUIS -- How much of a defensive improvement the Cardinals see over last season will hinge largely on stability up the middle.

The organization has a potential future Hall of Famer behind the plate and their big free-agent prize in center. In the middle infield, however, will be two young players, one of whom is trying to build upon 2016 and one who has already flushed almost everything from it.

In the midst of rebuilding their roster this offseason, the Cardinals also doubled-down on their commitment to Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong.

Diaz earned the chance to return as the team's everyday shortstop after exceeding expectations in his rookie season. Wong, on the other hand, gets the chance to open the season atop the second-base depth chart, not because of past performance, but because of future potential.

"I got punched in the mouth straight up last year," Wong said. "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. Let's see what happens."

This could be the final chance Wong gets to show he belongs as an everyday player for the Cardinals. He has lacked consistent production since debuting in 2013 and was back in the Minors last year, just months after signing a five-year contract extension. Wong ended up starting fewer than half of the Cardinals' games.

Struggles at the plate led to the loss of playing time for Wong, who finished with a .240/.327/.355 slash line. Now, it's his defensive ability that is earning him another look. The Cardinals' decision to prioritize defense this offseason led general manager John Mozeliak back to Wong.

"I think he's going to approach this year as a fresh start, a new beginning and hopefully everybody involved takes advantage of that," Mozeliak said. "He's such a talented defender. And when your team is built around ground-ball pitchers, it's nice to have that behind you."

Wong's leaping grab

Alongside Wong will be Diaz, who went from being taken off the club's 40-man roster to representing the Cardinals in the All-Star Game within a year's time. Diaz's rookie season was marred only by a thumb injury that cost him stronger consideration for Rookie of the Year honors.

Diaz started his big league career by becoming the first player in the modern era to hit .500 or better after 50 at-bats. He ended the year as the Cardinals' two-hole hitter, ranked third on the team with 36 multi-hit games and slashed .300/369/.510.

While Diaz answered a lot of questions about his offensive ceiling last year, the interest now is in seeing how much he can improve on the defensive side. Diaz committed 12 errors in his first two months with the Cardinals and finished the year with a -3 Defensive Runs Saved. Still, the Cardinals are bullish that better defensive days are ahead for the 26-year-old.

The Cardinals are fortunate that their depth behind Wong and Diaz is strong. Jhonny Peralta returns for the final year of his four-year contract and is a capable shortstop, should the Cardinals need him there. Similarly, Jedd Gyorko can fill in at either middle-infield spot. Last year, Gyorko started 39 games at second and 25 at short.

Greg Garcia, who is out of options, is also a strong candidate to earn a roster spot, and he, too, would provide defensive stability at second and short.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.