The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2013 draft class includes a host of promising young players. Nick Ciuffo, Ryne Stanek, and Riley Unroe, the first and second round picks, are all touted as potential stars. So far, however, fourth round pick Kean Wong has been the most impressive of all the draftees. The 19-year old Wong was aggressively assigned to full-season ball at Low-A Bowling Green to begin the year while higher draft picks Ciuffo and Unroe are being held back in short-season ball. He has responded with a .339/.377/.417 line and has shown instincts at the plate that are well beyond his years. His bat is the most impressive part of his game, and he has the ability to hit for average, draw a lion’s share of walks, and deliver decent gap-to-gap power as he moves up the ladder.
Where Wong struggles, though, is his defense. He has a plus arm and outstanding instincts, but poor range severely limits his ability in the field. Wong currently is a second baseman, but his range makes him an average defender at best at the position, and that is all he will ever be. The best position for Wong would likely be third base, where his range issues could be masked. The problem with doing so is that Wong’s bat never figures to have the kind of power to slot into a corner infield spot. His strong arm would be nice as a corner outfielder, but once again his range would limit what he can do. With that in mind, Rays should get creative about how they use Wong in the field to maximize his value.
The way the Rays would do this is to turn Wong into a super, super utility man by teaching him how to play catcher, but also continue his development at other positions. Wong’s profile actually could work at catcher, as his strong arm and baseball instincts would give him a chance to be a good defender. However, teaching him enough to where he could become a capable starter at catcher would significantly delay his development time, so the Rays elected not to move him to the position. In addition, the Rays minor league system is stacked at catcher, so it doesn’t make much sense to move Wong there on a full-time basis. But why not teach Wong enough catching skills to where he is at least passable at the position? He wouldn’t be considered a team’s starter, or even their second catcher, but by having the ability to be more than an emergency catcher, Wong would add huge value to his team as a utility player. He would allow his team to be less cautious about pinch-hitting for their catchers, as Wong would be ready to fill in if needed. Wong would also learn how to man the corner outfield spots, as well as third base, first base, and second base. Even if he was only an average defender or worse at each position, think of how much he could contribute to his team, especially if his bat can reach its potential.
So how would the Rays go about developing Kean Wong at so many positions at once? First of all, they need to keep Wong at second base for this year. Going pro right out of high school offers plenty of distractions, and the Rays need Wong to worry about as little as possible as he not only gets used to pro pitching, but also his first time away from home. But the Rays could start everything this year in Instructional League. They would begin developing his catching skills there, and also give him cameo appearances all around the diamond. Then, in future seasons, the Rays would move him all around the diamond. A configuration of around 40 games at catcher, 40 at second base, 25 at third base, and 20 in the corner outfield in a given minor league season could make sense. Yes, moving him around the diamond so much would keep him from developing into a great defender at any position. Given Wong’s iffy defensive profile, though, this could be the best way to maximize his future value.
This idea of developing Wong as a catcher is extremely unlikely to happen, but it is intriguing nonetheless. It presents the added distraction of learning multiple positions at the same time, and there is a risk that his development with the bat would be hurt because of it. That being said, Wong is so much of a tweener defensively, and making him one of the most versatile players in baseball would be the best way to get his bat on the field as often as possible. If there is any team that will experiment with a super-utility man that can play catcher, it is the Tampa Bay Rays, and Kean Wong would be the ideal player to try it with.