ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals got a baseball rat with their first-round Draft pick on Monday, a kid who loves to play ball. They got a young man who, according to his college coach, "plays above his tools."
Mostly, though, they got a hitter. Kolten Wong, the No. 22 overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, was widely regarded as one of the two or three most advanced hitters in the Draft pool. He just finished his junior season at the University of Hawaii, and he's the first non-pitcher ever to be taken in the first round out of the school.
Wong raked in the elite Cape Cod League last summer, thriving even with wood bats. When college baseball switched this year to a new bat compound that depressed offense, he kept on hitting. Despite playing in a serious pitchers' park and facing a schedule that included powerhouses like Texas, Cal State-Fullerton and Wichita State, he kept on hitting.
CWS, DET, NYY and PHI did not have first-round selections.
The left-handed-hitting second baseman batted .378 with a .492 on-base percentage, a .560 slugging percentage, seven homers, 53 RBIs and 48 runs in 57 games. He also stole 23 bases in 30 attempts en route to his third straight selection as a first-team all-Western Athletic Conference player. Wong turns 20 in October, making him quite young for a college draftee.
He loves to hit, he's good at hitting and he's been thinking about hitting since he was a kid. Wong's father, Kaha, played two seasons of professional ball in the Class A California League.
"Since day one, me and my dad have worked on my hitting," Wong said on Monday. "Balance, hand path, bat plane, everything. We've worked on everything to be perfect. From day one, my dad's always had a batting cage in the back. We've always hit. That's been a big thing for me, just all the work with my dad. Learning my swing and understanding how to swing the bat my way. Knowing that if I ever get in a slump, I know how to fix it. That was really huge for me in my baseball career."
The selection of Wong continues a recent trend for the Cardinals. He is the third college infielder selected by the club in the first round in the past four years. That's not an accident. For an organization fairly deep in pitching, the infield remains an area of need.
"Kolten Wong is one of the best hitters that we saw all year, and he plays a position that we really feel is important for our organization," said scouting director Jeff Luhnow.
Wong follows Zack Cox (2010) and Brett Wallace (2008) as college infielders drafted high by the Cardinals. Luhnow hopes he can follow a similar development path to the one Cox is on. The club believes there is a good chance Wong will sign before the Aug. 15 deadline, allowing him to get out and play short-season ball.
From there, he could go to the Arizona Fall League and potentially begin next season at high Class A Palm Beach. Cox was recently promoted from Palm Beach to Double-A Springfield.
"We don't see their progression really too differently," Luhnow said. "And he's young. He's a young junior with some upside remaining."
Live coverage of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft resumes at 11 a.m. CT Tuesday on MLB.com, where fans will receive exclusive coverage of Day 2 and 3, featuring a live pick-by-pick stream, expert commentary and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of every Draft-eligible player. You can also keep up to date at Draft Central and by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
The Cardinals first saw Wong a year ago when they scouted Greg Garcia, who was Wong's double-play partner at Hawaii last year. Garcia, who St. Louis drafted in the seventh round in 2010, is now playing at Palm Beach after starting this season at low Class A Quad Cities.
The combination is a source of great pride not only for the Hawaii baseball program, but for the state. Wong is a native Hawaiian, a product of a state that loves its hometown heroes.
"We're a small state and we're a close-knit community," said Mike Trapasso, the Hawaii coach. "I've only been out here 10 years, but you see right away the pride in the Hawaiian players and our local players. It's a great story for a young man from Hilo, from the 'Big Island,' to first of all come to the University of Hawaii and excel, and then to become a first-round pick. It really is -- it's a great story. ... It really is a big source of pride here."
Trapasso is a Cardinals fan, making it extra sweet for him to see his two protégés wearing the "birds on the bat." He's fond of Wong as a young man, but warns not to underestimate him as a player. The easy conclusion is to see an undersized (Wong is 5-foot-9) player and assume he's simply a 'gritty,' hard-working type. Trapasso insists Wong is much more than that.
"[He has] a rare combination of outstanding ability that goes along with outstanding makeup," Trapasso said.
"While he's not tall, he's not small either. He's 190 pounds and he's strong. ... He really does play above his tools. [But] they're above-average tools."