Milwaukee's club option on Kolten Wong would pay him $10 million next season; however, there is a $2 million buyout should the Brewers decline the option. Since Milwaukee will pay that $2 million regardless of their decision, the Brewers are technically looking at a one-year, $8 million commitment to Wong if they accept. On the surface, the cost seems to be in the "right" financial neighborhood in today's market. But the front office could see other ways to spend nearly $10 million on a roster with multiple top players in arbitration where sizable raises are coming.
We can dive into the money side later. Let's look at Wong's performance and how on-the-field factors will influence a yea or nay.
Following his first career three-homer game last Thursday, Wong is having his best offensive season (if it ended today) by OPS+ (118) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+) at 116. These stats matter as it compares a player's overall offensive output when factoring in what is happening across the league, where 100 is average.
The 2022 season has been highly challenging for hitters, so while many of Wong's standard numbers aren't as high, the advanced stats show tremendous value. He also strikes out less often (17.7%) than any Brewers hitter (150+ plate appearances) this year, an essential skill for a club with too many high-K bats already.
Wong's three-dinger game gives him a career-high in homers (15), and a few other stats could reach peak levels this season. For a guy who turns 32 in less than a month, do you think his production is more likely to go up again or decline? How has he compared to other second basemen this season?
Following Sunday's games, Wong ranked ninth in wOBA (weighted on-base average) and 12th in wRC+ among second basemen with 150+ plate appearances. That's solid quality but not necessarily irreplaceable. Wong has primarily crushed right-handed pitching with a .497 slugging percentage and .852 OPS. On the flip side, Wong has been a complete liability against lefties this season (.141/.256/.180/.435), something the Brewers have plenty of on the roster. And again, there's a danger in thinking Wong will repeat his production versus righties next year and improve enough against southpaws.
Moving to the defensive side, evaluations get even murkier. From the eye test alone, Wong has had the worst defensive season of his career. It doesn't look any better when checking on the stats. Among the 22 players with 600+ innings at second base, Kolten Wong ranks dead last in Outs Above Average (-10) and 18th in Defensive Runs Saved (-4). Both stats represent the lowest marks in his career, and his .960 fielding percentage is also the worst in his 10 seasons.
Ignoring 2020 for obvious reasons, Wong's defensive metrics have shown an overall steady decline since 2018. These can be tricky on a season-to-season basis, but the trend is troubling. And as MLB puts restrictions on shifting in 2023, a second sacker with shrinking range becomes a greater drawback. Without the shortstop or third baseman playing on the right side with Wong, he will need to cover more ground on his own; that won't bode well. Second baseman range will have added value starting in 2023, and even when Wong did get to balls in play this season, he had all sorts of troubles.
Milwaukee could look at him as the DH option against right-handers in 2023. Wong could still be a part-time asset at second for manager Craig Counsell, and be ready if a player is hurt or ineffective. The Brewers paid Andrew McCutchen essentially the same deal this season, and you could easily argue Wong's numbers with the platoon advantage will best McCutchen's in 2022.
That brings us back to the financials and how the Brewers might handle allocation with Wong and others. Milwaukee's 2022 payroll is around $130-$132 million, and one would expect a significant increase isn't happening. With guys like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Willy Adames, and Hunter Renfroe poised to receive considerable raises in arbitration, the Brewers are likely looking to cut corners in other areas. Those four alone could account for $12-$16 million more in payroll, barring any extensions. Does Wong's $8 million deal tie David Stearns and Matt Arnold's hands?
If they want to "go young," it probably fits in the budget. Using prospects Garret Mitchell and Sal Frelick as center fielders/bench bats would save money. As would letting go of four other key potential free agents. At the same time, $8 million isn't insignificant, so Brewers' brass might see added value in other, cheaper players. Brice Turang, Milwaukee's fourth-rated prospect, should be ready to make an impact in the Brewers' infield for a minimal cost. They could also hand the reins to second base over to Luis Urias in 2023. Urias made $2.25 million this season and won't see much of an increase in his paycheck. His fWAR of 1.6 was just behind Wong's 1.7 less than a week ago. Wong jumped up to 2.2 fWAR in just a few days, meaning the Brewers (in theory) were getting the same on-field value from the two but at a much lower price with Urias (until Wong's three-homer day).
The problem is if Urias is the everyday second baseman, who is manning the hot corner? Would the Brewers try to keep Jace Peterson at a fair-market cost to platoon with Mike Brosseau? Or could Milwaukee finally bring in a true talent at third base? This is something to keep an eye on based on what the Brewers do with Wong's option. And since I am sure people will bring it up: No, Keston Hiura cannot play third base and he cannot truly play second base either.
Milwaukee has to decide on the option within five days of the end of the World Series. If they exercise the option, don't expect any major moves with third base - it's likely Urias to get the majority of starts. But should the Crew decline to keep Wong at the beginning of the offseason, it could signify a more aggressive approach for 2023. Of course, it could just mean the Brewers are going with a youth movement all over.
A third "plan" could be to carry Wong to start the year with one eye on the trade deadline when they could move him for another piece or release him to give others a shot. With Lorenzo Cain and McCutchen's contracts coming off the books, Wong's net $8 million might not be prohibitive in making additional moves. It will be one of the many fascinating choices Milwaukee will need to make this offseason.
Wong has nine more days to make his case through his play and perhaps change minds. If I had to make the call right now, I'd lean slightly toward declining the option, using in-house options at second base, and looking to make a splash at third base. What would you do? What do you think the Brewers will do?
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