Not in the Cards: Kolten Wong thanks team, fans after St. Louis lets him hit free agency

  • Kolten Wong can sign with another team Sunday after the St. Louis Cardinals declined his $12.5 option. (Associated Press)

  • St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) throws the ball to first base for an out during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ballpark, in Cincinnati, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Kamehameha. University of Hawaii. St. Louis Cardinals. … To be determined.

A Gold Glove, with the possibility of a second on the way, and seven-plus years of keystone service weren’t enough to keep St. Louis from letting Kolten Wong hit the open market. Not during a pandemic.

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In a sign of what figures to be a down and perhaps brutal market for Major League Baseball free agents in the offseason, the Cardinals elected Wednesday to decline Wong’s $12.5 million option. John Mozeliak, St. Louis’ president of baseball operations, said the move was “conservative and the safer play” for a club lacking flexibility as it looks to cut payroll because of lost revenues.

The 30-year-old Wong will receive a $1 million buyout and is free to sign with any team beginning Sunday.

“I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for an amazing 7 years!” Wong wrote on his Instagram account. “To my teammates and coaches I love you guys! You guys not only grinded with me on and off the field but you also turned this kid from the little town of Hilo to the proud man I am today.”

Mozeliak didn’t shut the door on Wong returning to St. Louis — “we have both agreed to keep the door open,” he told the media in a Zoom call – but as of now, he said, Tommy Edman is the starting second baseman.

In previous years, picking up Wong’s option would be a layup.

The club’s first-round pick out of UH in the 2011 draft, he took over the leadoff roll for the Cardinals in 2020 and in the shortened season hit .265 with a .350 on-base percentage and a .675 OPS, with one home run and 16 RBIs as the Cardinals reached the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Wong is only one year removed from perhaps his best season in St. Louis, batting .285 with 11 homers, 59 RBIs and a career-high 24 steals in 2019, with a .361 on-base percentage. He is a .261 hitter with 53 homers, 281 RBIs and 88 steals in 852 career games, and over the past four seasons has defined himself as a player with the on-base percentage of a table-setter and the one of the best gloves at his position in the majors.

A leader in many defensive metrics the past three seasons, he was awarded his first Gold Glove in 2019. He’s a finalist for the award this season as one of the top-three second basemen in the statistics used by Rawlings to determine the awards for 2020.

The uncertainty for this year is the financial situation the Cardinals and face coming out of a season with 60 games and no tickets sold by individual clubs. The Cardinals are not yet sure if they will be able to sell tickets for the 2021 season, how many fans they’ll be able to have at games, or even how many games the 2021 season will have. There is a 162-game schedule that has been released, but the league acknowledges it has to be responsive to the coronavirus crisis and what the months ahead bring for the country and its COVID-19 spread.

Baseball’s labor contract expires after the 2021 season, putting 2022 at risk of a work stoppage.

“I told (Kolten) that with some of the uncertainties, we’re just not in a position to (pick up the option),” Mozeliak said. “The (financial) success of the Cardinals in terms of the last 20 years has been our gate revenue. I do think we might be more negatively affected than others (teams) … One thing we did not plan for was a pandemic and a year like we just experienced. From a payroll standpoint we are already starting at a pretty high number.”

After breaking into the big leagues in 2013, Wong signed a five-year, $25.5 million extension during spring training 2016. He spoke that day about the commitment the Cardinals made to him, and the challenge presented to become the player they were betting on him to be.

He has.

“To the fans, Thank you guys so much for welcoming me into this prestigious organization where I got to play in front of the best fans in baseball!” Wong wrote on Instagram. “STL will always have a special place in my heart and I will never forget all the amazing people who impacted me along the way!”

Free agency looms

After the final game of the World Series, 147 players were declared free agents.

For the first time in his career, that group includes Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. At 38, Molina has spent the previous two decades with the Cardinals organization, and each time he neared free agency he and the team negotiated an extension months ahead of time. Molina is coming off a three-year, $60-million contract.

The other three Cardinals declared free agents early Wednesday were Adam Wainwright, Brad Miller and Matt Wieters

Others cut free included:

• Arizona pitchers Mike Leake ($5 million instead of $18 million) and Hector Rondón ($500,000 instead of $4 million)

• Washington right-hander Anibal Sanchez ($2 million buyout instead of $12 million salary), outfielder Adam Eaton ($1.5 million instead of $10.5 million), and infielders Howie Kendrick ($2.25 million instead of $6.5 million) and Eric Thames ($1 million instead of $4 million)

• Colorado first baseman Daniel Murphy ($6 million instead of $12 million)

• Seattle second baseman Dee Strange-Gordon ($1 million instead of $14 million)

• New York Mets catchers Wilson Ramos ($1.5 million instead of $10 million) and Robinson Chirinos ($1 million instead of $6.5 million) and infielder Todd Frazier ($1.5 million instead of $5.75 million).

About 50 more players would be eligible for free agency if their options are declined by Sunday, among them Chicago White Sox designated hitter Edwin Encarnación and left-hander Gio González; Cleveland first baseman Carlos Santana, catcher Roberto Pérez and left-hander Brad Hand; Yankees left-handers JA Happ and outfielder Brett Gardner; Texas right-hander Corey Kluber; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo; and Pittsburgh right-hander Chris Archer.

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Players already free agents include catcher JT Realmuto, infielder DJ LeMahieu, pitchers Marcus Stroman and Masahiro Tanaka, and outfielders George Springer and Marcell Ozuna; shortstop Didi Gregorius; and designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Tribune News Service) and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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