Selected 23rd overall by the Cardinals in the 2011 Draft, Kolten Wong was seen as a sure-handed middle infielder with above-average speed and a compact but powerful swing.
Concerns about lack of a natural position and a smallish frame (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) may have led to Wong falling a few spots, but his baseball IQ and on-field makeup have many people within the organization excited for the future.
The Hawaii native adapted quickly to pro ball, batting .335 with 25 RBIs in 47 games in the Class A Midwest League in the summer of 2011. This year, Wong posted a .287/.348/.405 line with Double-A Springfield en route to Texas League mid- and postseason All-Star selections, a spot in the Futures Game and an invitation to the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game.
MiLB.com spoke with Wong about homering on every Hawaiian island, working out with Matt Holliday and facing baseball's top prospects in the AFL.
MiLB.com: When did you first start playing baseball?
Kolten Wong: I grew up around baseball. My dad was playing baseball when I was born. He played a bit of independent ball and some Minor League ball and he ended up playing in Canada. There are pictures of me still in diapers hitting fake balls with fake bats. I grew up just constantly playing baseball every single day. Living in Hawaii, baseball is such a year-round thing. There are no seasons like on the mainland, where it's snowing. It's always 85 degrees.
I played my entire life, just growing up constantly playing baseball. My dad always had a story he would tell of me when I was around 9 or 10 years old when I went to my first professional baseball game. We were watching the Angels play and the first time I got in there I was drawn back, not knowing too much about professional baseball. I saw the field they were in and how good they were and the amount of fans that were there. I turned to my dad and was like, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
I don't think he really took me seriously, but he told me that if that was what I wanted to do, then we would start working extremely hard from that point on to give me an opportunity to hopefully get to that level. The rest is history.
MiLB.com: What are your fondest memories of playing baseball as a kid?
Wong: Growing up, the one thing with me was that I loved playing on different fields. It was perfect in Hawaii because to play other teams you would have to travel to different islands or travel to the mainland. That's the one thing I absolutely enjoyed.
I loved going to different parks and seeing how each park was made or trying to hit home runs on each island. I think I hit a bunch on each island. I have that fact down for me. That's one thing I miss, being at that age where I accepted the little things like going to new fields. I remember at Christmas time, instead of asking for a new bike or a contraption to get hurt on, I would ask my dad for a new glove or a new bat or catcher's gear.
MiLB.com: Most people think of Hawaii as a football state. How did baseball compare with the popularity of football growing up?
Wong: Not even close, not even close. I think peewee football was on Sundays and that was where everybody was at. All the kids, the athletes at the time, were playing football. Baseball wasn't big when I was growing up, but it got bigger and bigger as the years went on when guys like Shane Victorino and Kurt Suzuki and Onan Masaoka got up to the big leagues. Then all the kids from Hawaii realized they had a chance to make it.
MiLB.com: Why didn't you pursue football?
Wong: It was too hard to do football. Being someone of my stature, I'm not too big and I didn't have anything to really wow people in football. I wasn't big and I wasn't super fast. But in baseball, I realized you didn't have to be a specimen. As long as you could play the game right, you had a chance.
MiLB.com: Do you sometimes get the feeling that scouts are looking for guys who fit the prototypical athlete mold -- 6-foot-4, 240 pounds?
Wong: Absolutely. Everyone wants the baseball player that is like that. I can say that is one thing that scouts always looked down on me for. They didn't give me the chance to show them I could play, no matter how big I was. It took me going to college and really proving myself in every place I went for them to actually give me a chance to show them that I was a good player.
MiLB.com: When it came to the fundamentals, how much of an impact did your father have on how you learned the game?
Wong: It was big. Being around baseball his entire life, he understands the game. Not all players can coach, but he is one of those guys who can. He was born to be a teacher. He taught me how to play the game as well as the mental side of things. It was really good having someone like that to look up to because he got me playing the game hard, understanding the game inside and out and playing the game the right way.
MiLB.com: What kind of things did he teach you that you may not have gotten from another coach?
Wong: Everyone has their own instincts, that's the one thing he constantly dug into my head. He'd put different scenarios in my mind, what to do in this situation or that situation, quizzing me in different aspects. By doing that, it allowed me to react quicker than most people in pressure situations. People were constantly drawn back by how quickly I decided things. That's all on him because he got me to the point where every second of the game I'm thinking about how I can get somebody out or thinking about what I need to do.
MiLB.com: I'm guessing that's more relevant in the field than in the batter's box. Have you always been a second baseman?
Wong: Not at all. Growing up, I was a catcher. My dad always thought that catching was the fast track to everything, to getting your scholarship and getting to the pros. Everyone needs a good catcher, a captain of the field. But as a I got older, I realized that due to my size and my speed, catching wasn't really the best fit. We worked at second base and we worked in the outfield, we worked on everything. The majority of the time, though, I played catcher.
That was the main reason I think why out of high school I wasn't drafted as high as I had expected because I just didn't have a position. When I talked with Coach [Mike] Trapasso at the University of Hawaii, he basically told me that he wanted me at second base. That was the position he wanted me to be at for the four years I was going to go there. But when I got there my freshman year, there were two seniors already at second base.
I went into fall practice and he realized that I was good and that I was hitting and that I deserved the chance to start as a freshman. He told me to go to the outfield and take some fly balls, so I did that and I did decently well in the outfield. Once those other guys graduated, he told me to go to second base.
MiLB.com: When the Twins drafted you in the 16th round out of high school, what conversation did you have with your parents about whether it was the right time to go pro?
Wong: I talked to my dad about it. My mom was excited that I got drafted because for a kid out of Hawaii to get drafted was a big thing. My dad asked me if I was ready. The Twins offered me money, a decent amount and more than what I had at the time, but when I sat down and he told me about how the season was and about being on my own six or seven months of the year, I told him I didn't think I was ready to do this.
He was kind of drawn back by that because the whole time we had talked about the Draft, he thought I was ready. I had always talked about this being my dream and when I told him I wasn't ready, he was shocked by it. But I told him that I didn't feel like I was ready to live on my own for six months, and I thought it would be better for me to go to college and further my education and maybe get more out of college. And luckily for me, I did.
MiLB.com: What was it like in 2011 when the Cardinals selected you?
Wong: It was crazy. I was full of joy and just the sense of satisfaction. I turned down my dream of playing pro ball to go to college, not knowing what would have happened if I would get hurt. You never, ever know what is going to happen and that is the risk that I took. That was the one thing my dad was worried about, about something happening in college or not doing as well and never getting that chance to play pro ball.
But to get drafted as high as I did, a lot of emotion came out and I was excited to get my dream job going. Close to 100 people were there at my uncle's house where I went to school at. We watched the Draft there and when it happened, I was really excited. We were having a Draft party and everyone had a blast.
MiLB.com: How long before the Draft did the Cardinals contact you?
Wong: It was right before their pick. We were trying to figure out what exactly was going to happen. We kinda knew where I was projected to be taken, but we had no calls or no indication of where I was going to be taken until one or two picks before the Cardinals chose me with the 22nd pick. When it happened, it didn't really sink it. I sat on the couch and just stared at the TV until they called my name out.
MiLB.com: Going from Hawaii, where it's 85 degrees and sunny, to Quad Cities, where it's, well, considerably colder, how was that transition?
Wong: It was really fun because I'm one of those guys who never looks at it like a burden to play. I always try to broaden my horizons and get out because I know I'll be back in Hawaii. I was born and raised there, but I know it's not going to leave. I wanted to get away and play baseball where I've never played before. That's what I tell myself, "Always enjoying playing somewhere else because you never know when your time will be up."
MiLB.com: This season, you moved up to Double-A. Talk about the difference in the level of competition.
Wong: It was a huge difference. You only have eight teams in the Texas League, so you're constantly playing the same eight teams for 140 games. When you start doing that, teams will start taking charts of you and trying different ways to get you out. That's really what I found out.
Pitchers start to figure you out. They try to come at you different every single time. They're never going to start you off with the same pitch in the same spot. I've had times when they've tried to come in on me with a fastball and I've had times when they're gone away with curveballs and changeups. That was the one thing I learned from the Texas League -- you have to be able to adjust quickly. If you don't adjust quickly, you won't be able to handle playing.
MiLB.com: And what does the chart say about you?
Wong: To be honest, I'm still trying to figure it out. That's the one thing, I hope I constantly change the book that's on me. At the beginning and middle of the season, I saw a lot of off-speed stuff and pitchers tried to work me away. Then I adjusted and people tried to come in. I was getting tired and my hands started to slow down. The mental and physical grind of trying to push and give everything you've got to try and succeed really goes up another notch. Luckily for me, I was injury-free the whole time.
MiLB.com: You helped Springfield to its first championship in 73 years. What did that mean to you and the club?
Wong: It was awesome. When we found that out, we were all super-excited. We knew we had a good team. We were excited to be on the same team, playing for a title, but when we finally won the whole thing, we sat down and said, "Yeah, this is what we were playing for the whole year." You've been battling with those guys since April. You play all the way through August or September, and winning that thing is the icing on the cake.
MiLB.com: Even after the playoff run, your season didn't end. What did you learn during your time in the Arizona Fall League?
Wong: Just learning how to be more of a well-rounded player, basically. I'm still struggling here or there with some things, but playing in the Fall League, you really learn yourself. When you're facing top-notch pitchers from every organization, you start to realize exactly where you're at. The one thing I'm very excited about is that even when I'm facing the best pitchers in the league, I'm still doing pretty well.
I'm confident in myself that I can play against these guys and do well against them. It's awesome to be in this league because it shows you where you're at in your career. You're playing against the best pitchers in the Minor Leagues. It's exciting.
MiLB.com: And where you're at in your career right now, do you see any comparisons with current Major Leaguers?
Wong: I hear a lot of comparisons with Jose Altuve, and I can see that. We're both small-statured guys, but I love the way he plays the game. He plays above and beyond his stature. He can do things that all the big guys can do. He hits home runs, he hits for power, he hits for average and he plays his position really well. To be in that category with him is an honor because he's an outstanding player. If I can be as good as him, I'll be very happy with myself.
MiLB.com: Have you had a chance to speak with any big leaguers about what you can do to improve?
Wong: I got a text from Matt Holliday, I think in January sometime. He asked me if I wanted to come up and train with him for a week in St. Louis. I thought it was a prank. I'd never talked with Matt before or anything, but I responded that I'd love to train with him and see what St. Louis was all about. I went there about a week later and met him for the first time and I was intimidated by him. He's a big dude and he's Matt Holliday. He's one of the best players in the game right now.
For him to invite me, I was just drawn back. You never hear that, you never hear of someone calling some rookie to spend time with him and train with him. To have that experience was awesome. I hit with him and worked out with him, and you realize how he's so good because he trains unbelievably hard. He was killing me in the training room, doing things I'd never done before.
I realized that he pushes himself past the point where a lot of guys would stop, but that's what makes him so successful. He's got to the point where he can do things and push himself to high levels so that during the season he can handle it without a problem. Now I'm just trying to get better every single day in every aspect of my game. I want to come into every year to do something to blow someone away.
MiLB.com: You saw the top Minor Leaguers and the best prospects every day of the AFL season. Who blew you away? Who's the next big thing?
Wong: Best hitter, I have to go with a guy I played with this year, Oscar Taveras. You watch the guy hit and he just amazes you every time. He'll hit a ball 400-and-something feet, then he'll hit a ball down the left field line for a double. The guy hits absolutely everything. It's amazing to see a guy with that good hand-eye coordination. No matter where the ball is pitched, he'll find a way to get the barrel on the ball. To watch him do that is awesome.
Pitching, I had the chance to watch Dylan Bundy. For how young he is, he's really mature for his age. He got a chance to pitch in the big leagues this year. To do what he did, as young as he is, he will be a really good pitcher. He handles adversity so well at such a young age. The experience he'll get in the years coming up, he'll be an awesome pitcher. I never got the chance to face him, but to see him do what he's doing is incredible.