Cardinals and Angels clear logjams with trade centering on Freese-for-Bourjos
It's not exactly a Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler blockbuster, but on Friday, the Cardinals and Angels pulled off an interesting four-player swap that reconfigures both teams' infields and outfields. Heading to Los Angeles are third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas, while going to St. Louis are outfielder Peter Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. At the center of each package is a player whose struggles to remain healthy have crowded them out of their respective lineups.
The 30-year-old Freese is the biggest name in this deal, thanks to his 2011 postseason heroics; he hit a combined .397/.465/.794 with five homers and 21 RBIs in 71 plate appearances, winning NLCS and World Series MVP honors as he helped the Cardinals to the championship. The pinnacle of that astounding run came in the epic Game 6 against Texas. In the ninth inning, with St. Louis down to its final out and then final strike, he clubbed a game-tying two-run triple, and in the 11th, he followed with a walkoff solo homer that forced Game 7 -- where he added further heroics via a game-tying two-run, first-inning double.
Freese hit just .262/.340/.381 with nine homers this past season, well off what he did during an All-Star 2012 campaign: .293/.372/.467 with 20 homers. For his career, he's a bit light in the power department, with a .286/.356/.427 line, and he's had a very tough time staying healthy, averaging just 112 games a year over the past four seasons due to ankle, wrist and lower back woes, though to be fair, he's played in 282 games over the past two seasons. His defense at third base prior to 2013 had been more or less average, but both Defensive Runs Saved (-14) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-16.5) saw his work as brutal, and it's fair to wonder if the back trouble that forced him to the disabled list to start the year was a factor. In all, he was 0.3 wins below replacement via Baseball-Reference.com WAR, down from the previous year's 3.8; over the four year period, he's averaged just 1.5 WAR per year, numbers that project to only 2.2 WAR per 162 games -- basically a league-average starter.
Freese made $3.15 million last year, his first of arbitration eligibility. Heading toward a raise, his problem is that the Cardinals are a well-oiled talent-producing machine with the ability to get younger, cheaper and quite possibly better without much trouble. Namely, they're poised to shift soon-to-be-28-year-old Matt Carpenter back to his natural position at the hot corner after an MVP-caliber year at second base and turn the keystone over to 23-year-old Kolten Wong, a 2011 first-round pick who ranked 84th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list coming into the year and hit .303/.369/.466 with 10 homers and 20 steals at Triple A Memphis. Wong was 47th on BA's midseason list and 34th on that of Baseball Prospectus. He didn't show a whole lot in his 32-game, 62-plate appearance trial with the Cardinals, most notably — and most humiliatingly — being picked off of first base to end Game 4 of the World Series, but he projects as a solid all-around second baseman.
In heading to the Angels, Freese inherits a position that's become something of a cursed ancient burial ground, with different Opening Day starters every year dating back to 2009 (Chone Figgins, Brandon Wood, Maicer Izturis, Mark Trumbo and Alberto Callaspo). In 2013, Callaspo (later traded to Oakland) and several others combined to hit all of .246/.304/.333, for the third-worst OPS at the position in the league, and they were also four runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved. Freese should be able to leave that sorry performance in the dust if he's anywhere close to healthy.
To upgrade that position, L.A. parted with the 26-year-old Bourjos (27 in March), an outstanding defender who has nonetheless struggled to maintain a foothold in the starting lineup due to injuries and a crowd that has included fellow centerfielder Mike Trout, whom he bumped to leftfield when he was available, which hasn't been all that often. Bourjos has played just 347 games over four seasons, with a high of 147 in 2011, followed by 101 in 2012 and 55 in 2013. This past season, he spent a total of 124 days on the DL due to hamstring and wrist injuries, hitting .274/.333/.377 with three homers and six steals in 196 PA. Via defense that came in as average by both DRS and UZR (-1 and −0.3, respectively), he was worth 0.7 WAR, well off his 5.1 in 2011, when he hit .271/.327/.438 with 12 homers, 22 steals and 12 DRS. Overall, he's 33 runs above average in the field for his career; on a per-162 game basis, he's been worth 3.8 WAR, considerably more than Freese.
It's less clear how Bourjos will fit into St. Louis' plans. He's a much better defender than incumbent Jon Jay (-10 DRS in 2013, +5 career), but not as good a hitter; while Jay's 2013 numbers (.276/.351/.370) were similar to those of Bourjos they came in a much larger sample size of 628 PA, and for his four-year major league career, Jay is a .293/.356/.400 hitter. The two could fit into a platoon, since Bourjos is a righty and Jay a lefty, but the Cardinals also have one of the top prospects in baseball in 21-year-old centerfielder Oscar Taveras, who came into the year ranked second behind the Rangers' Jurickson Profar on the BP and ESPN Top 100 Prospects lists, with Baltimore's Dylan Bundy bumping him down to third on BA's list. Taveras reached Triple A Memphis for the first time in 2013 and hit .306/.341/.462, but he played in just one game after June 23 due to a high ankle sprain and wound up undergoing surgery in August to repair ligament damage and remove bone chips.
When healthy, Taveras is viewed as a player who can handle centerfield now but is ultimately bound for a corner, a trajectory that fits in with the departure of Carlos Beltran via free agency. That doesn't mean he'll be St. Louis' Opening Day rightfielder, but it's possible the team could play Bourjos in center and Jay in right until Taveras is ready. More likely, the Cards could trade Jay, who's 28 and arbitration-eligible for the first time (as is Bourjos), and use Bourjos in center and Allen Craig in right with Matt Adams at first base. Regardless, the shuffling required once Tavares arrives is a nice problem to have, to say the least.
As for the Angels, the trade of Bourjos leaves Trout as their centerfielder, but they have a crowd to sort through as well. With a healthy Albert Pujols returning to first base, Trout will likely be flanked by Josh Hamilton in left and Kole Calhoun in right, with Mark Trumbo at DH. The latter and J.B. Shuck could be in the mix at the outfield corners as well. It's possible Trumbo will be traded, and given that dealing Boujos didn't help Anaheim address its biggest area of need — the back of the rotation — that probability may have increased with Friday's deal.
As for the other two players involved, Salas is a 28-year-old righty who saved 24 games for the Cardinals in 2011 but was supplanted by Jason Motte as closer before season's end, and since then has pitched his way out of high-leverage duty. In 2013, he threw just 28 innings of 4.50 ERA ball at the major league level, adding another 23 2/3 at Memphis. His career numbers (3.42 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine) are better than what he showed in 2013, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's in the mix for a setup role — or bouncing between Triple A and the majors again.
Grichuk, meanwhile, is a 22-year-old righty who has spent some time in centerfield but more in rightfield. He is probably better known as a footnote — the outfielder the Angels chose with the 24th pick in the 2009 draft, one pick before they took Trout — than as a player. That's not really fair, particularly because it's not like it cost them the opportunity to pick Trout (who was allegedly supposed to be tabbed with the earlier pick), but he's had a much tougher go in pro ball thus far. Thumb and wrist injuries in 2010 and troubles with both knees in 2011 limited him to a combined 117 games in those two years, but he's had better fortune since then. At Double A Arkansas, he hit .256/.306/.474 with 22 homers in 2013, numbers that reflect impressive in-game power but a lack of plate discipline; as ESPN's Keith Law put it, "He has never been able to recognize off-speed stuff enough to get into favorable counts, never mind draw actual walks. BP's Jason Parks ranked him sixth on the Angels' Top 10 Prospects list earlier this month, projecting him as a second-division player or platoon bat/fourth outfielder, one who may taste the majors late in 2014 but will likely have to wait longer — or for another trade — for a real opportunity to make an impact.