Angel in the Outfield

I wrote about the logjam in the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation last time. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the outfield situation heading into 2014.

By the end of the World Series a large slice of Cardinal Nation had become disenchanted with the productivity of both third baseman David Freese and centerfielder Jon Jay. By three weeks after the end of the Series, which the Cardinals lost, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak signaled the club’s own disaffection by packaging Freese with reliever Fernando Salas and sending him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for centerfielder Peter Bourjos and power-hitting prospect Randall Grichuk.

Many casual fans might have thought that Mozeliak had his wet finger in the wind, doing fans’ bidding in one fell swoop–disposing of the formerly universally beloved 2011 World Series MVP in Freese and relegating Jay to a peripheral role on the club. This would allow 2013 breakout star Matt Carpenter to shift from second base back to his preferred position at third base, (and open second base for Kolten Wong, their first-round pick in 2011). Bourjos would be ticketed to be the starting centerfielder.

But John Mozeliak is a leader–the leader of the organization, and his pragmatism, vision, and team circumstances will dictate just which group of players receives the bulk of playing time in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield next season. I assert in this post that the ideal lineup would not include Bourjos on a regular basis; that he will likely find himself in the situation he endured with the Angels as a part-time player. The devil may be in the details, but the (former) Angel will not be in the outfield very much if things work according to plan.

That’s mainly because the best hitting prospect in the organization since Albert Pujols is slated to arrive on the big club in 2014 in the form of outfielder Oscar Taveras. He has been compared to a left-handed hitting Vladimir Guerrero: able to square up a variety of offerings and drive them hard. His bat is deemed ready right now. He is the main reason the Cardinals essentially said goodbye to the productive rightfielder Carlos Beltran, who wanted a multi-year contract. The question is can Taveras handle centerfield. He isn’t considered an elite defender, so the thought is he’d look best in an outfield corner.

Those spots are taken by Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. Holliday is a fixture in left because of his contract and consistency. Matt has been a very good offensive producer his entire time on the Cardinals. He will be 34 in the coming season, with three years left on what is increasingly looking like a team-friendly contract. Craig is supposed to take over in right field next season. He has been injury-prone and will be coming back from a Lisfranc injury to his left foot. He’s been a very good #4 hitter the last two seasons, playing most of the time at first base.

The Cardinals have six outfielders on their roster. They won’t enter the season with Holliday, Craig, Bourjos, Jay, Taveras, and Shane Robinson.

By late in the postseason it appeared that the Cardinals liked the right-handed hitting Robinson over Jay, who bats and throws left, if you noticed the change in how assignments were being doled out. Robinson seemed more steady in the field and was putting the ball in play more often. Jay took a step back defensively in 2013; he went from being above average to a bottom-dweller, according to advanced statistics.

Bourjos and Robinson are similar players. Both bat right-handed. Bourjos may have a little more speed, pop, and baserunning ability. Taking into account their age difference (Bourjos is two years younger), and the fact they traded Freese for him, if it came down to Bourjos or Robinson the latter would find himself on the outside looking in.

They’d like to keep Jay since he reliably gets on base against right-handers. The problem–the irony really–is that neither Bourjos nor Robinson are especially good against left-handers, negating a potentially effective platoon rotation of outfielders. They’re trying to upgrade centerfield defense, and there are more right-handed pitchers than left-handed, so that mitigates against the idea anyway, as that would mean Jay still got most of the playing time.

This is predicated on a situation in which Craig is healthy and Taveras for some reason is not ready for regular duty. One could imagine an outfield of Holliday, Bourjos, and Craig from left to right. Bourjos is a premier defender who would upgrade the range in center, which would be needed with Holliday and Craig on his flanks.

But Bourjos has a worrying injury history. He has chronic wrist and hamstring problems. 2013 was pretty much a lost season for him. Taveras is coming off season-ending ankle surgery last July. His physical status is still uncertain.

One can see why with the loss of Beltran and the expected replacement of him by Taveras the Cardinals would still be looking for and stockpiling outfielders when they made the Freese trade. This is also why it would not be prudent for fans’ expectations to be too high for Peter Bourjos as a Cardinal.

Mozeliak did not fleece the Angels. This was a baseball trade–the two teams had different needs and they filled them with two guys who weren’t very good last season. They may both bounce back, but the Cardinals had a strategic plan to reconstruct their roster and believed they could become more athletic and better in the field without losing too much offense. It was clear to Mozeliak that the Cardinals had to upgrade athletically at several spots to get better defensively while bolstering the diversity of the attack. The Cardinals were mediocre defensively and were 13th in the league in home runs. One reason is they got 9 all season from their third baseman. That’s OK if the defense is great, and there’s speed and dynamism elsewhere. His defense was putrid, and there wasn’t.

Holliday. Taveras. Craig. Two established sluggers who get on base at a good clip coupled with a 22-year’old hitter with a very high ceiling on his ability. That’s my favorite outfield. Bourjos is #4, chiefly as the first option in center. Maybe Taveras moves around, working his way in by playing in right one day and in center two days later. Jay can be on the bench.

It’s strange that although Robinson may have temporarily moved ahead of Jay on the depth chart he may be the one expendable with the arrival of Bourjos. The Cardinals seek balance and they presently have it. They also have a lot of talent. To top it off, they get a high draft pick from the Yankees since they signed Carlos Beltran yesterday.

Must be good to be Mo. Chris Carpenter retired. Jake Westbrook is off the books. Their third baseman and rightfielder are gone. They just made it to Game 6 of the World Series, and there’s little reason to think they won’t be a better club next season. I’ll cover the good news on the infield in the next Cardinals post.

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