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Kean Wong and the window of opportunity

Kolten Wong rightly defends his family, but is he right about the Rays?

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Kolten Wong, Cardinal’s infielder and brother in Durham Bull infielder/outfielder Kean Wong, ripped into the Rays for their handling of his brother, calling them a “bad organization”:

“He’s just in a bad organization which doesn’t give chances to guys who deserve chances...The guy’s done everything. He’s been an All-Star. He’s been an All-Star MVP. I think he’s gone above and beyond for that organization to not have a chance. To do it in the biggest games and not get a nod … it’s a slap in the face to him. I had to talk to him and kind of keep him going. They called up a couple of guys that were below him. They just kind of overlooked him. That’s crazy, for what he’s done in his career.”

Personally, Kolten sounds like a fantastic big brother. So props to him for defending the family crest. It’s a little less wise when you consider that maybe some day — baseball being what it is — the elder Wong could be playing for the Rays, but you live and learn. I still like the fire.

But that doesn’t mean I’d hire him to be my talent evaluator. Because while little brother Kean did have some bad luck with his small window of opportunity, there isn’t anything wrong with the way the big club has handled him.

First, let’s deal with the general critique that the Rays aren’t giving chances to guys who deserve it. Let’s look at the roster’s rookies across 2018:

  • SS Willy Adames
  • 2B/OF Brandon Lowe
  • 1B/OF Jake Bauers
  • OF Johnny Field
  • C Nick Ciuffo
  • C Michael Perez
  • UTIL Andrew Velazquez
  • OF Justin Williams
  • RHP Diego Castillo
  • LHP Ryan Yarbrough
  • RHP Yonny Chirinos
  • RHP Jaime Schultz

All these guys made their debut for the Rays this year. Other than Jaime Schultz, who probably got his shot because he was already on the 40 man roster, these players each earned their chance in one way or another. Some players were forced up by injuries like Nick Ciuffo, who got his shot because he’s a catcher in an org bereft of catchers (plus some truly weird circumstances), Justin Williams (who got one plate appearance), and Andrew Velazquez, who filled in for an unavailable Kevin Kiermaier.

Others performed at a high level and are now starting for the Rays, including Lowe (who hit 22 HR in the minors), Bauers, Perez, and Adames. The rest of that list are pitchers and Johnny Field, who made the Rays out of camp.

Say what you will about starting the year with Ref Walksnyder making the opening day roster (who was also at one time a highly touted prospect, by the way), but you just cannot say with a straight face that this team doesn’t prioritize giving young guys a shot.

At least, not this year.

Which does makes the case of Kean Wong — a guy repeating AAA who is by all accounts experiencing or continuing a breakout year — a little odd. So let’s take a deeper look.

Kean Wong has been with the Rays since 2013, when the team made him a 4th round choice out of Waiakea High School in Hilo, Hawaii.

It’s been a steady-if-unspectacular climb for the second baseman, who only landed in Baseball America’s organizational top 30 list once (#22 after the 2014 season), where he was lauded for hands and advanced approach, but dinged for a lack of power and below average arm.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Following his numbers through the minors, that appears to have stayed true. Wong never hit more than five homers or slugged more than .400 before this season, though he has shown decent doubles power. There was a reason Wong went unprotected for the Rule 5 draft last year, and there was a reason no one selected him.

Still, he was the closest thing to a “next man up” when the Rays went out and acquired the likes of Ryan Schimpf and Joey Wendle last off-season. And it has been Wendle’s unexpected success (111 wRC+) that put up the biggest roadblock for Wong.

Even during his “breakout” year, Wong is slashing .282/.345/.406 with just nine homers. Sure, he added some versatility to his repertoire by playing left field, but so has Wendle (shortstop/third/left) and Brandon Lowe (left/right). It’s hard to see Wong’s arm playing at short the way Wendle’s does, nor his power equaling Lowe’s surprising tally in 2018.

In truth, Kean Wong faces steep competition in the Rays system.

His promotion was skipped when Brandon Lowe put together his power stroke, and TB was quick to promote the young second baseman during the rebuild to see if the game power was real. So far the answer has been yes, with Lowe already adding 5 homeruns to his tally in 109 PA (.247 ISO).

And it not just Brandon Lowe bringing the heat.

The Rays also went out and got seemingly every second base prospect on the market this past off-season. The acquisition of Nick Solak in the Souza Jr. trade put even more pressure from below, with new arrival Tristan Gray and the already on-board/this year’s über-spect (non-Wander Franco Division) Vidal Brujan waiting in the wings.

For a guy not currently on the 40-man roster, this is a lot of competition to fight off.

What does this mean for Wong’s future with the Rays?

First there’s the Triple-A championship game tonight. Then the final two weeks of the season will tell a lot.

If the Rays see a path for him (and there were rumblings that his name was being bandied about for a call up in August), don’t be surprised if they make room for him after the AAA season is complete. If not, there’s a solid chance he goes unprotected again. Though this time, the chances of him slipping through are more remote.