MILWAUKEE -- Kolten Wong wasted no time getting comfortable in his new colors.
Sporting a Brewers cap for an introductory Zoom session on Friday after finalizing a two-year contract with Milwaukee that includes a club option for 2023, the second baseman was still adjusting to the concept of switching sides in the Brewers-Cardinals rivalry. If things go as scheduled, Wong won’t have to wait long to see his old team. The Brewers are the opponent for St. Louis’ home opener on April 8.
Wong has already been in contact with Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia and is eager to help Arcia win a Gold Glove Award. He spoke of the offensive upside of Keston Hiura, who is shifting from second base to first to accommodate Wong’s arrival. He shared details of an aggressive pursuit by the Brewers after the Cardinals declined his $12.5 million option. He spoke about focusing on arm strength this winter to be ready for the Brewers’ high percentage of infield shifts, and Wong salivated at the thought of hitting at American Family Field.
“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 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.”
The Brewers announced the pact on Friday. MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported earlier that the deal is worth $18 million with the option that could push the value to $26 million over three years.
“It really changes the composition defensively of our entire team, and that's something that we also think is important,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “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. 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.”
Wong, 30, is a left-handed hitter well known to Brewers fans following eight seasons with the Cardinals. He slashed .261/.333/.384 in a Cards uniform, topped out at 108 weighted runs created plus in 2017 and ’19, and was a Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner in each of the past two seasons.
Some of Wong’s best work was against the Brewers. His .781 OPS against Milwaukee was tops against a National League Central opponent, and Wong’s .855 OPS at American Family Field (formerly Miller Park) is his best figure at any Major League stadium in which he’s logged at least 50 plate appearances.
“You guys kind of watched me over the years. I’m just that grinder type of mentality hitter,” Wong said. “Obviously I have a little power, and it shows up in Milwaukee here and there, but I’m just able to put together good at-bats, wear pitchers out and do what I can. It’s always kind of been my ‘M.O.,’ making pitchers work. I plan to do that for the Brewers and see what I can to get on base for the guys in front of me or behind me.”
Adding offense has been a priority for Stearns since the Brewers snuck into last year’s expanded postseason with a 29-31 regular-season record despite setting dubious franchise records for the lowest team batting average (.223) and highest whiff rate (26.6 percent) while ranking 27th of 30 Major League teams at 4.12 runs per game. But finding the right fit took time; Stearns is operating on a tight budget in the wake of a season with no fans in the stands.
Stearns found a solution with some creative thinking, and Hiura’s willingness to change positions. With Wong, the Brewers could align an infield with Hiura and Daniel Vogelbach getting at-bats at first base, Wong at second, Arcia or Luis Urías at shortstop and a question mark still at third. The addition of Wong, coupled with the expected return of Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder Lorenzo Cain after Cain elected not to play in 2020, represents a dramatic upgrade to the Brewers’ up-the-middle defense and bolsters a pitching staff that is arguably the team’s strength after ranking second in the Majors last season in strikeouts per nine innings (10.68) and tying for eighth of 30 teams in WHIP (1.23).
Wong tied for third among MLB second basemen last season with six defensive runs saved -- Hiura was last at -8 -- and led all second basemen with 41 DRS over the past three years. Among infielders, only A’s third baseman Matt Chapman (66 DRS) and D-backs shortstop Nick Ahmed (51 DRS) have fared better in that stat.
Wong and Stearns were equally surprised when the Cardinals declined his club option for 2021. According to Wong, the Brewers were among the first teams to make contact and remained the frontrunner of 4-6 suitors at the end.
“Once it came down to contracts they never backed off,” Wong said. “They were excited to have us, they were excited to talk about us, and they really wanted me to be there. It was really cool. … It just made sense to go to a team that really respected me, really wanted me to be there, and a place that I really enjoy playing.”