On the surface, the trade that sent Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals and David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels looks like two teams trying to turn areas of depth into players that can fill holes in areas of weakness. At the trade’s most basic level, that is certainly the case but it also reflects the serious differences between the two organizations and how they have approached the last several seasons.
Grichuk remains a prospect who could turn into a major league outfielder and Salas is a middle reliever with some history of success, but the real focus of this deal was Bourjos and Freese. The Cardinals came away with the younger, cheaper player, but that in itself doesn’t mean very much.
What does mean something is that Bourjos is probably already the better player in addition to being younger and cheaper. The new Cardinals centerfield has dealt with injuries and spotty playing time across four seasons, but when he has been on the field he’s averaged 4.8 FanGraphs’ WAR per 600 plate appearance. That isn’t a nice role player, that’s a player who makes All-Star teams.
Certainly projecting Bourjos forward has to include some measure of uncertainty around his playing time due to injury, but even if you drop him down to 400 plate appearances 3 wins doesn’t seem out of the question. Various defensive metrics don’t align perfectly, but inning for inning Bourjos has been one of, if not, the best defensive centerfielders in the game over the last few seasons. If I had to take all the available data and combine it with my own impressions watching Bourjos, I would argue he is the very best defensive outfielder in the game today.
If he plays something close to a full season, saving ten runs in centerfield is reasonably likely and twenty runs isn’t out of the question. Put that together with positional value, replacement level, and high quality baserunning and you have a player who could easily be worth two or three wins before you consider his offensive value.
And despite the impression that Bourjos is a defensive specialist, he’s actually around league average at the plate with a career 96 wRC+ after a 2013 season in which he was three percent better than league average. Bourjos isn’t going to hit like Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen in centerfield, but he’s going to hit well enough not to eliminate the value he brings with his legs and glove.
Bourjos is also entering his age 27 season, which is the year in which the plurality of players have their best season. Hitters tend to peak around 26 to 30, so the Cardinals aren’t just getting a better player, they’re getting a better player entering his prime. And this doesn’t even consider the fact that they needed to improve their outfield defense in a big way.
Freese, on the other hand, is trending in the wrong direction. After a terrific finish to 2011 and a strong 2012, he had a rough year in 2013 in which he hit about league average thanks to a loss in power and a decline in BABIP. Freese had posted higher than average BABIP over his career, so it probably isn’t fair to expect him to fall all the way down to league average in that department, but even with a .320 BABIP in 2013, he didn’t provide much value with the bat.
And Freese is a below average baserunner and had a rough defensive season as well that dropped him from 4.0 WAR in 2012 to 0.3 in 2013. Even if you squint, it’s hard to imagine Freese, who will be 31 in 2014, having a better year than Bourjos in 2014 barring some sort of injury.
I’m not someone who thinks that you always have to “win” a trade for it to be a good idea. Certainly, the Angels had an excess of outfielders and needed a third baseman, so as long as they got better overall they shouldn’t care too much about what the Cardinals got in return. But that said, this trade points to a difference in decision making philosophy between the two teams.
The Cardinals seem to make rational, passionless decisions about what a player will be going forward and the Angels make decisions about who players were before. You don’t have to look beyond the last two offseasons to see this pattern in action.
Albert Pujols is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow, but when he asked the Cardinals for a huge contract after 2011, they wouldn’t meet his demands. Pujols will likely turn out to be the best player of his era but the Cardinals weren’t going to pay him for what he had done for the team in the past. They were only willing to pay for his future. The Angels happily paid for his name and his history. This isn’t to say that Pujols won’t be valuable in his thirties, but he’s not going to be the player he was in his twenties.
The same is true with Josh Hamilton, who the Angels signed on the downside of his career. They paid for what he did at his peak without coming to terms with the fact that all signs pointed to a rather precipitous decline.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, have not only let Pujols walk but have traded one of the most iconic players in their history. David Freese’s 2011 postseason was one for the ages and his two massive hits in Game 6 of the World Series are among the biggest moments in Cardinals lore. But as soon as he became expendable, the Cardinals didn’t let that history cloud their judgment. Loyalty is a good quality to have, but it should only impact your roster construction at the margins.
The Cardinals acquire players based on who they are going to be and it seems the Angels acquire players based on who they were. The two ideas overlap, but forecasting into the future is an area in which the Cardinals are way beyond the Angels. They know what indicators to trust and which to ignore.
The entire thing can likely be understood by Angels GM Jerry Dipoto’s comments about Freese. Dipoto said, “[Freese] really knows how to drive in important runs. That’s something that really fits into our lineup.” But the reality is that Freese has driven in important runs in the past, and there is very little evidence that such a thing is a predictive skill. We’ve all seen Freese come through in the clutch, but only one of the teams involved in this deal is banking on it happening again.