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Wong, Diaz look to stabilize middle infield

Last offseason, second baseman Kolten Wong lobbied to be the St. Louis Cardinals’ leadoff hitter. This winter, Dexter Fowler was signed to play center field and hit at the top of the order. Wong, meanwhile, has maintained a low profile. Why the change?

“I got punched in the mouth. Straight-up,” the 26-year-old Wong said of a 2016 season in which he batted .240 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 121 games. “Last year, I literally got punched in the mouth. Now it’s time for me to understand that last year was last year, and I’m ready for this year. Let’s see what happens.”

St. Louis will have youth up the middle in Wong and second-year player Aledmys Diaz at shortstop. Diaz did not get “punched in the month” as a rookie sensation for St. Louis. He enjoyed a rookie season that will be long remembered. He went from a player knocked off the 40-man roster to an All-Star in less than a year’s time.

Kolten Wong

The Cardinals, on more than one occasion, have firmly stood behind Wong, despite his on-again, off-again performance. Last March, they rewarded Wong with a five-year, $25.5-million extension and a one-year club option for 2021. But Wong sputtered and was optioned to Class AAA Memphis in June. He returned less than two weeks later, this time as a second baseman and center fielder. Over the winter, Wong again has been anointed the starter at second base.

Kolten Wong [Lou Countryman photo]

“I’m appreciative of it,” Wong said. “It’s definitely an honor, but I’m not going to go into the season expecting to be the second baseman. Last year, I kind of came in with that mindset and it kind of backfired, so I want to come into this year ready to play, ready to earn my spot and earn my way onto this team.”

Wong has goals he won’t disclose, but said he has spent the winter “simplifying my swing.”

“I’m trying to get some hitches, that were in my swing, out and just become more of a guy that’s going to get on base,” Wong said. “In previous years, I came into the season hoping that I would hit 20 home runs. I just want to get on base. I just want to get hits and get on base. The rest will come.”

Wong wants to finally establish himself at the big-league level and said there’s more than a little chip on his shoulder heading into the season.

“I would say a block,” 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.”

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.

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 was 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.

Fowler, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, was brought in to stabilize the outfield, inject some enthusiasm into the clubhouse and provide speed and athleticism to the top of the order. But Wong disputed that the Cardinals’ clubhouse atmosphere had become drab.

“I think everyone started making that assumption that something was wrong with the clubhouse because we weren’t playing well,” Wong said. “Sometimes that stuff happens. When you lose, you’re not going to have fun, and that’s what it was coming down to. We were losing and not having fun. We have to get back to winning and having fun.”

Wong doesn’t dispute the impact Fowler is projected to contribute.

“I think with Fowler coming, that’s going to open up a lot of stuff for the rest of us,” he said. “Having that guy who everyone knows can run, it opens up the door for guys like me. I know I can run, too, but that wasn’t for the team last year. I’m excited about this year and the opportunities I have and the opportunities as a team.”

Although the Cardinals have been unwavering in their pledge to open the season with Wong at second base, Wong does not have 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.”

General Manager John Mozeliak believes Wong will be one of the keys to the Cardinals having a successful season.

“I would say yes in the sense that when you think about what we’re trying to accomplish on the defensive side of the game [and] what we’re trying to say we’re trying to do offensively,” Mozeliak said. “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.”

Aledmys Diaz

Aledmys Diaz [Photo courtesy of Bill Greenblatt/UPI]

Mozeliak has big expectations for Diaz as well.

“I think Mr. Diaz had an exciting year last year, certainly a breakthrough year. He’s had a very good offseason in the sense of being able to prepare,” Mozeliak said. “Now, I think he understands expectations. So your real hope is that, as he looks into this year, he realizes he doesn’t have to put too much pressure on himself. He just needs to continue to be who he was. I do feel like, from a defensive standpoint, you’re going to see someone more comfortable and more at ease with being there every day.”

Defense was a weakness for Diaz last season.

Signed as a free agent in 2014, Diaz became a regular in 2016. The Cardinals originally planned for Díaz to spend the 2016 season in Memphis. Instead, the Cardinals eventually moved three veteran players to accommodate him becoming the starting shortstop. Last April 5, St. Louis recalled him to the major league roster to take the place of outfielder Tommy Pham, who had departed on Opening Day two days earlier with an injury.

On April 8, Diaz hit his first major league home run. He made the All-Star team. He hit 300 with 17 home runs and drove in 65 runs.

However, it was not completely a storybook season for him. Diaz opened his big league career by making 12 errors in his first 46 games. The low point came on May 13, when he committed three in a loss against the Dodgers.

But Diaz got better as the season got deeper. There were just four errors over his final 65 games.

His goal is to be known as a good defensive player as well as a hitter.

“It’s about confidence,” Diaz said. “I think everyone knows that my first month and a half I was making more errors, putting too much pressure on myself. When I realized that I just had to work hard on defense, I just relaxed and played the game and was way better in the second half.

“It’s about knowing that you can handle the job at this level, slow the game down a little bit. Just trust in yourself. Right now, I feel pretty good about my confidence in the field and what kind of player, defensively, I can be.”

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