In the World Series, broadcasts from both TBS and Fox kept telling us how good of a center fielder Jon Jay was. In between plaudits, Jon Jay would inevitably get a poor jump, take a bad route, or just drop an easily catchable ball, sometimes all in the same game. It became something of a running joke, as Jay appeared to be a defensive disaster in the postseason, even while the networks kept insisting that he was terrific with the glove.
Well, the Cardinals clearly weren’t swayed by the rhetoric, and today, they’ve acquired Peter Bourjos from the Angels to be their new center fielder. And now TBS and Fox can properly say that the Cardinals have one of the best defensive center fielders on the planet, because Peter Bourjos is what Jon Jay was supposed to be.
Since 2010, here are the top 5 center fielders in UZR/150 among players who have spent at least 2,000 innings in center field.
Defensive numbers have larger error bars than offensive numbers, but those error bars simply mean we’re asking if Bourjos is the best defensive outfielder in baseball or if he’s merely just very good. With a sample of 2,600 innings, you absolutely have to regress those numbers when projecting future defensive contributions, but even at a 50% regression, Bourjos would still rate as one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball.
And given what we know about Bourjos’ skills — his speed, his baserunning, and the fact that the Angels pushed Mike Trout to left field because they preferred Bourjos in center — we shouldn’t regress Bourjos back towards a league average mean. We know enough about Bourjos-like players to know that these types of athletes are usually good defenders, and we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the fastest players in the game also rates as one of the most valuable in the field. You don’t want to count on Bourjos maintaining a +20 pace in CF, but a +10 projection isn’t crazy at all.
And when you field like Bourjos does, you can be a pretty terrific player even if you aren’t an amazing hitter. But unlike some other defensive specialists, Bourjos is not a total zero at the plate. For his career, he’s a .251/.306/.398 hitter while playing in a pitcher friendly ballpark, so that grades out to a 96 wRC+. And that’s just what he does at the plate. He’s also one of the game’s best baserunners, so for his career, Bourjos has actually been an above average offensive player, grading out at +4 runs over 1,136 plate appearances. Put him in the #8 spot in an NL line-up where he’ll get walked a decent amount in front of the pitcher, and he could even be more deadly, especially if he regularly steals his way into scoring position.
Add average offense to elite defense and baserunning and Bourjos grades out as a +3 to +4 WAR player over a full season, depending on how aggressive you are with his fielding projection. Steamer gives him a very conservative +5 defensive rating, and still sees him as a +3 WAR player, so it’s reasonable to call that something close to his floor. Well, his healthy floor anyway.
That’s the big rub with Bourjos: health. There’s a reason he’s only racked up 1,136 plate appearances over four seasons, despite being highly productive when on the field. He missed most of the 2013 season with a broken wrist, and it wasn’t the first time his wrists have given him problems. He’s also had some hamstring issues, and we’ve never seen his body hold up under the weight of a full season as a big league regular. To some degree, health is a skill, and it’s one Bourjos hasn’t yet shown, though at the same time, there’s not much reason to believe that Bourjos is fragile for having gotten beaned in the wrist by an errant fastball.
So the Cardinals will take a chance on Bourjos’ health for the chance to get a pretty terrific center fielder, and one that they control for the next three seasons. Bourjos is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, and his lack of playing time should keep his price reasonable, so the Cardinals should have a productive player making basically peanuts for the next few seasons. This move also allows Jay to slide over to right field, replacing Carlos Beltran, until Oscar Taveras proves that he’s ready for regular action. While Jay is not a great center fielder, he should be a defensive asset in right field, and the Cardinals outfield defense will go from one of the worst in the game to one of the best.
To get Bourjos, the Cardinals sent Anaheim third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas. Salas is basically nothing, so this can be seen as essentially a Freese for Bourjos swap from the Cardinals perspective. And it’s hard not to love that exchange for St. Louis. Freese has value and is a decent buy-low candidate for the Angels, but his offensive performances have always been heavily driven by BABIP, and his defense went from okay to terrible last year. Even if you expect a nice rebound season, Freese still projects as an inferior player to Bourjos, he has one less year of team control, and will be more expensive in his final two seasons of arbitration. Oh, he’s also older, and not exactly the picture of durability himself.
It’s hard to see any area where Freese is better than Bourjos. This trade will be sold as speed-and-defense for power, but Bourjos actually has a higher career Isolated Slugging mark than Freese does. This is an average hitting elite defender for a slightly above average hitting meh defender, only the meh defender costs more and is closer to the end of his career.
Moves like this are why the Cardinals are one of the best run organizations in baseball. They get younger, cut costs, set up their team for the future, and get the better player in return. Oh, and they got the Angels to throw in a prospect, even if not a very good one, just for the fun of it. The Indians spent $48 million to buy this skillset in an aging Michael Bourn last winter, but the Cardinals figured out how to turn an aging third baseman coming off a bad year into a nearly free version of the same thing.
The Angels needed a third baseman, I guess, but they traded a good player for a worse player who costs more. Anaheim keeps spinning their wheels, while the Cardinals keep marching on towards sustained excellence. Some things really do stay the same.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.