ST. LOUIS -- Seeking to upgrade their defense and infuse some speed into the roster, the Cardinals on Friday flipped hometown favorite David Freese to the Angels to land center fielder Peter Bourjos and Minor League outfielder Randal Grichuk. Joining Freese in Los Angeles will be Fernando Salas, the final piece in the swap.
For the Angels, the trade fills two holes they intended to address this offseason. As for the Cardinals, they were able to deal from a position of depth in order to address other deficiencies. Freese was no longer assured everyday playing time, and Salas had been pushed out of the bullpen mix.
"As you can imagine, trading somebody with the history of David Freese and what he meant to this organization is never an easy decision," general manager John Mozeliak said during a news conference on Friday afternoon. "When you think back to earlier in the year, when we talked about what we needed to do to improve this club moving forward, we keyed on a couple of things. We keyed in on shortstop, and we talked about center field, adding some speed. What really drove this decision was being able to identify a player that could do just that for us in the outfield."
Before settling on the four-player trade, Mozeliak and Angels GM Jerry Dipoto discussed the possibility of something grander. The Cardinals were interested in Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, and the Angels liked St. Louis' plethora of young pitching. In the end, the two sides could not agree on a deal that would include both.
With the Cardinals still having several moving pieces in their outfield, Bourjos will compete for a starting job this spring. But as things stand now, he's the favorite to win it. He offers the club more speed and improved defensive ability over the left-handed-hitting Jon Jay. The fact that Bourjos hits from the right side is also appealing to the Cardinals, who otherwise risked leaning too left-handed heavy in their starting lineup.
Top outfield prospectOscar Taveras will remain in the center-field mix, too, though he may be a better fit now in right field, at least for the immediate future. Allen Craig has the flexibility of ending up at first base or right field depending upon Taveras' spring.
Not only does the move improve the Cardinals' center-field defense, it should shore up the infield defense as well. Matt Carpenter will shift back to third base, his natural position. Kolten Wong is in line for a starting job at second. Mozeliak noted that another middle infielder could be brought to camp to compete for playing time at second base but that the Cardinals are confident Wong is ready for the increased exposure.
"I don't think the snapshot you guys got of Kolten Wong is necessarily what's going to be his DNA," Mozeliak said, referring to Wong's struggles off the bench after his August promotion. "I think he's going to hit, and I think from an offensive standpoint, he will contribute."
Bourjos is entering his first year of arbitration, meaning that this deal sheds additional payroll for the Cardinals, who would have been in line to pay Freese just north of $4 million had he been tendered a contract. Bourjos, 26, will likely see his 2014 salary settle just above $1 million. Salas is also first-time arbitration-eligible.
Having seen his name attached to various trade rumors in recent days, Bourjos had braced himself for the possibility of being moved. He learned of his destination while in the middle of a rehab workout in Arizona on Friday.
"I've admired the Cardinals from the time we played against them in the Minor Leagues, just the fan base that they have all the way down in the Midwest League to when we played them in the Texas League and the Pacific Coast League," Bourjos said. "It was unbelievable, so I can't wait to get to St. Louis."
Injuries limited Bourjos to 391 plate appearances the last two seasons, but he is nearing the end of his rehab from surgery on his right wrist. He underwent a season-ending procedure in September, a little more than two months after the wrist was broken by a pitch. During surgery, a pin was inserted to offer stabilization.
A CT scan on Thursday showed the bone to be healing properly. Bourjos expects to resume swinging the bat in a couple of weeks.
"From where I was at the end of the season to where I'm at now, it's night and day," he said. "I was in a lot of pain swinging the bat. Right now I feel great just with normal stuff around the house. Previously, in August and September, it was really bothering me."
The injury affected his production, too. Bourjos had a .333 batting average in 40 games before taking the pitch off the wrist. When he returned in August, he went 5-for-46 before being shut down. Back in 2011, he hit .271 with 12 homers, 11 triples and 22 stolen bases.
"You obviously want to have the optimism that he can go into a year and not be injured," Mozeliak said. "But one of the things is, he plays fast. You have to try to find ways to contain that to some degree to help his health. In a lot of ways, I'm just excited to see someone like that on the field."
Prospect acquired by Cardinals
Randal Grichuk, OF: Grichuk, ranked No. 4 among the Angels' Top 20 at the time of the trade, has largely been known as the "other" high school outfielder taken in the first round of the 2009 Draft. Whereas Mike Trout has done pretty well for himself, Grichuk has been a little slower to develop. Injuries didn't help, as the right-handed-hitting corner outfielder played in only 117 games in 2010 and 2011 combined. He's stayed healthy for the past two years, allowing him to make progress. He's always had good raw power; it started showing up in games more consistently as he got more reps at the plate. Grichuk has hit 40 homers in his last two Minor League seasons, blasting a career-high 22 in Double-A in 2013. He can still refine his approach in terms of plate discipline, though his strikeout rates have not been horrendously high. A solid average runner with a strong arm and good defensive skills, he has all the tools to still develop into a run-producing corner outfielder at the highest level. He'll play nearly all of 2014 at the age of 22, so there's still plenty of time.
Whereas Bourjos will have an instant impact on the Cardinals, Grichuk was a "critical" piece in getting this deal done, Mozeliak said. Grichuk, 22 and the 24th overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, spent this past season in Double-A, and he ranked sixth in the Texas League with 22 homers in 128 games. He started games in both right field and center field and finished with a .256 average and .306 on-base percentage. He has a career .284 average in 433 Minor League games.
"Randal has got skill," Dipoto said. "He's a talented young player. He's got tools. He's got power. He's a very good defensive player, and he can grow. There is still some growing he needs to do with his approach at the plate and his consistency in the box, but Randal has the upside to play at the Major League level."
With the arrival of Grichuk, outfield has become a position of depth for the organization. Outfielders Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Grichuk will be among the organization's top position player prospects in 2014. This could also be of immediate help for the Cardinals if they make a trade that thins out their depth at the Major League level.
As for Freese, his chapter with the Cardinals comes to a close after a disappointing 2013 season. An instant hometown hero following his postseason performance two years ago, he continued to live in the shadow of that hype. He had a decent 2012, reaching the 20-homer mark for the first time in his career. This year, though, the power dropped drastically, and he never really did pick up production in a year that started with a back injury in Spring Training.
"My time here in St. Louis was awesome," Freese said. "To be a Padre was great, and then to just randomly get brought home by [Mozeliak], I think it was his first deal, it was heaven on earth, so to speak. We had some great runs, did some exceptional things and won a World Series. This is a fresh start. You just close a chapter and move on."
Freese was prepared for the possibility of being traded this winter and hoped that if a deal was done, it sent him to a contender. He anticipates the Angels bouncing back to fit that description in 2014 and said he has a "chip on his shoulder" to have his own bounceback season.
In parts of five seasons with St. Louis, he hit .286 and one never-forgotten Game 6 home run.
"I just hope people remember me as a good teammate and a guy who worked hard and went about it the right way," he said. "Obviously, you go through your ups and downs and go through some stuff here or there. But I think when I come back to throw out that first pitch when I'm 60, it's going to be great. ... When you look back at it, you just want people to remember the good times that you had. And I think that's what St. Louis will do."