On Tuesday, The Brewers made their first of two decisions on contract options for next season, exercising Kolten Wong’s 2023 club option.
The Brewers have exercised the club option on 2B Kolten Wong. pic.twitter.com/hHk6cjoYlC— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) November 8, 2022
Wong turns 32 next season and saw his previously-elite defense crater in 2022, leading to speculation that the Brewers would decline his $10 million option and look elsewhere to fill second base.
Wong himself was surprised to hear that the Brewers are retaining his services.
I asked Wong if he was at all surprised the Brewers are bringing him back.— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) November 8, 2022
"A little bit," he said. "You know the business side of the game, and the Cardinals didn't pick up my option. Having it picked up, it didn't seem like it was going to happen but I'm real stoked."
The state of the second base market likely played into the decision to keep Wong around. Jean Segura is the only free agent who hit at an above-average clip (105 wRC+) as an everyday second baseman in 2022.
The Brewers could have parted with Wong, moved Luis Urias to the keystone, and pivoted to the third base market, where veterans Justin Turner, Brandon Drury, and Evan Longoria all posted solid offensive seasons. However, injuries limited the 37-year-old Longoria to 89 games, and the Dodgers may exercise Turner’s club option for 2023. The pickings become slim after those three players.
Milwaukee also could have stayed in-house at second base by cutting Wong loose and handing the reigns to Brice Turang. While the 22-year-old has excellent plate discipline and made strides in the power department in AAA this year, he still has room to grow offensively and currently projects to be a below-average bat. It makes more sense for the Brewers to take advantage of Turang’s defensive versatility and ease him into the big leagues as Jace Peterson’s replacement in the utility role.
Meanwhile, Wong is coming off his two best offensive seasons, slashing .262/.337/.439 for a 113 wRC+ across 2021 and 2022. He has also hit 29 home runs in that span, setting new career highs in back-to-back seasons.
In a largely underwhelming pool of free-agent infielders aside from a couple of big fish at shortstop, the Brewers determined that they weren’t going to find a better value for their budget than what they already have in Wong. Rather than try to save $8 million (Wong’s $10 million option included a $2 million buyout), they opted to bring back a familiar face.
That doesn’t mean Wong is risk-free. He noticeably overperformed his Statcast expected metrics and DRC+ in each of the past two seasons and struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in 2022 (.441 OPS).
In the field, it’s uncertain if Wong can recapture his previous defensive form. A bounce-back of some kind will be necessary now that the ban on infield shifts will increase the importance of individual range.
Wong attributed his struggles to lower body injuries and vowed to get in better shape to avoid the same problem next season. While that’s the right mindset, it’s easier said than done.
More Wong: "I just wasn't healthy and able to do the moves I do natural. I wasn't natural last year. I was in some bad positions defensively with my legs, and that led to me not being the defensive guy that I am. That definitely took some sleep away from me."— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) November 8, 2022
Wong said he'll be entering 2023 highly motivated, considering how this past season went for him.— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) November 8, 2022
"I haven't stopped working out since we finished the season. Getting my legs stronger, my core right. Those were the things that were kind of keeping me on the injured list."
Picking up Wong’s option does not automatically lock him into a spot on next year’s roster, as the Brewers could be open to trading him for the right return. However, they would not have exercised his option if they did not feel comfortable penciling him in as their starter at the keystone for another year.
Wong is not a perfect player, but he has a leg up on the other available options at second base by performing better at the plate in recent years. When it was time to make a decision, the Brewers chose the proven commodity.