If the Oakland A’s were to bring back just one of their affordable free agents, then second baseman Tommy La Stella would be the best choice. However, there are more players available on the open market than just the ones who were wearing green and gold when the 2020 season ended.
In fact, there is another free agent out there who plays the same position as La Stella, but might be an even better fit. Like La Stella, he bats left-handed, makes a lot of contact, keeps the strikeouts low, and gets on base, but on top of that he’s the best defensive 2B in the majors. And now, after the St. Louis Cardinals declined his $12.5 million option, Kolten Wong is out there looking for a new home.
On the offensive side of the ball, Wong is a notch down from La Stella. Their OBPs over the last three years are nearly identical, but La Stella has a comfortable edge in power. Over those same three years, La Stella holds the advantage in wRC+, 115 to 102, and he’d be ahead by even more if you cut the sample down to just 2019-20. Per Statcast’s xwOBA, Tommy was 50 points ahead each of the last two years, and slightly ahead almost every year before that.
But just because La Stella is better at the plate doesn’t mean Wong is bad. He’s completely decent. And he still contributes in the same way that the A’s lineup needs — from 2018-20, Wong’s 14.9% strikeout rate is 30th-lowest out of 164 qualified MLB hitters, and his 7.2% swinging-strike rate is 25th-best. His value at the plate is making lots of contact (even though it’s not hit very hard) and getting on base at clips of .350 and .361 the last two summers. Here are the numbers from his last 1,164 plate appearances, at the prime ages of 27-29:
Wong, 2018-20: .269./349/.393, 102 wRC+, 21 HR, 8.4% BB, 14.9% Ks, 35-for-46 steals
Oh yeah, he can also steal bases at a solid quantity and success rate. His speed is only around average, but clearly that’s still an upgrade over one of the slowest runners in the league in La Stella.
The best way to summarize Wong’s bat in one sentence would be list this: He’s exactly halfway between Tommy La Stella and Tony Kemp.
This resume might not sound impressive so far, but that’s because Wong is a glove-first player. And oh, what a glove.
Plays like those have earned Wong the last two NL Gold Glove awards at second base, as well as the last three Fielding Bible awards, so in terms of hardware he’s the best defensive 2B in the sport. And the metrics suggest it’s not even close.
In terms of DRS, Wong led the majors at his position in each of 2018 and ‘19, and he was close in the tiny-sample 2020. In UZR he led each year from 2018-20, and overall for those three years he’s racked up over 50% more value than the runner-up in UZR (D.J. LeMahieu) and the runner-up in DRS (Ozzie Albies). SABR’s metric, SDI, tells the same story. He’s not quite the Matt Chapman of Second Base, but he’s in the neighborhood.
Add it all up and Wong can make a sizable impact on a team. In just 127 games in 2018 he posted 3.2 bWAR and 2.8 fWAR, and in a full 2019 it went up to 5.2 bWAR and 3.7 fWAR. In the partial 2020, it was 1.1 and 1.3, respectively. That’s a player who could still make an All-Star Game or two before he’s done, entering age 30 next season. (By comparison, La Stella is at 2.5 bWAR and 3.2 fWAR in his 2019-20 combined, in 135 total games.)
Either Wong or La Stella would help the A’s infield dramatically, albeit in different ways. The reason Wong might be better is that he can do most of what La Stella has to offer, but also can change the game on the other side of the ball instead of opening up a weakness there — La Stella is a squarely negative defender, with an especially weak throwing arm, and we don’t yet know who might be lining up alongside at shortstop.
Of course, the only reason we’re even talking about this is the theme of every offseason: money. Wong doesn’t appear as if he’ll command too much of it in the pandemic-suppressed market, or at least not an amount that immediately prices out Oakland. MLB Trade Rumors has him nearly identical to La Stella, at 2yr/$16m for Wong and 2yr/$14m for TLS, and that estimate makes sense within the context of the contract option St. Louis declined in real life.
That’s a bargain for this good of a player, both in terms of dollars and short-term length. We have no idea what the budget is for the winter, but if the A’s can’t rustle up the cash for even one free agent addition at that discount price, at an opportune moment with a potentially championship-level core already in place and only a little over $70 million already committed or earmarked, then they’re probably not contending in 2021 and the owner should really sell the team.
Ah, but here’s the fun part: What if there’s room for both players? La Stella appears to be a good enough hitter now that he could provide value as a DH, and then his defense isn’t an issue anymore. He could still be on-hand as a backup infielder if somebody gets hurt, with Chad Pinder back in the outfield where he belongs. La Stella would basically be the infield version of Matt Joyce, which went quite well when the actual Joyce was here and healthy. Or, if Wong can handle shortstop, then he and TLS could join forces up the middle, with Tommy’s glove masked by a trio of multiple-time Fielding Bible winners surrounding him on the diamond.
Perhaps all of that is dreaming a bit too big during a winter that’s expected to be marked by low spending, especially since the pitching staff needs some help as well. It might be more reasonable to just hope that one of these second basemen ends up here, and be happy with the crucially helpful strengths of whichever individual it turns out to be.
There’s no wrong answer between the two of them, but even speaking as one of the biggest La Stella fans in the world, Wong is probably the slightly better pick. But dang, inking both of them would be even cooler. And if neither of them come here, hopefully it’s because significant money got spent wisely elsewhere on the roster.