By Ross Newhan
Name a department (management and development in particular) and the St. Louis Cardinals are so respected in baseball that any club thinking of trading with them has to be leery about being had.
I'm not saying the Angels were had Friday when they traded Peter Bourjos for David Freese (those were the two principals), but this much is certain:
The Gold Glove caliber upside of center fielder Bourjos, at 26, is far beyond that of 30 year old third baseman Freese, who went backwards in every way last season.
Of course, if Bourjos had played more than 55 games and wasn't coming off wrist surgery the Angels might have either 1) decided to keep him as their center fielder or 2) pried Shelby Miller or another young starting pitcher away from the talent rich Cardinals.
So far in this baseball winter, for what the Angels are willing to give up (and with Bourjos' value having taken that injury marred hit in 2013), the Angels haven't been able to manufacture interest among the few teams possibly willing to deal a young starting pitcher.
It's a complicated situation with which General Manager Jerry DiPoto is dealing.
He won't trade Mike Trout, can't unload the contracts of either Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols, and would prefer not to trade either Mark Trumbo or Howie Kendrick.
In addition, with 10 roster players already guaranteed $126 million and another nine (including Freese) eligible for arbitration, and with Arte Moreno putting a payroll ceiling at the luxury tax level of $189 million, DiPoto has to take a bargain route in free agency, a pitching market that is thin and quickly getting thinner.
The goal is to find two starting pitchers and rebuild the bullpen in front of closer Ernesto Frieri. Initially, the Angels only needed one starting pitcher, but because of the dollar restraints they refused to go beyond a three year, $24 million offer to their own free agent, Jason Vargas, who got that fourth year and $32 million from Kansas City.
So, with the pitching void taking on the appearance of an albatross, DiPoto opted to use Bourjos to fill a vacancy at third base.
The National League champion Cardinals are delighted.
They ended their postseason hoping to dump Freese, move Matt Carpenter from second base to third and put the young prospect, Kelton Wong, at second. They are also now in position to use Bourjos, assuming he is 100% and back to 2011 form when he stole 22 bases, led the league in triples and slugged .438, at any of the outfield positions, particularly center, where John Jay is no longer that entrenched.
If the Cardinals are counting on Bourjos to rebound, the Angels are hoping the same for Freese, who was MVP of both the 2011 LCS and World Series and then slugged 20 homers and batted .293 in 2012 before opening last season on the disabled list with a back strain and slipping to nine homers and a .262 average while ranking 33rd defensively among major league third baseman.
While Freese may or may not be in decline, he is a better choice than any of the internal options for the Angels, who will also be hoping that Kole Calhoun is ready for a fulltime outfield role with Trout staying in center fulltime.
There were two other players in the trade and both may prove to be more than throw ins.
Fernando Salas, 28, could fill a bullpen role with the Angels, and Randal Grichuk, 22, could in time join the St. Louis outfield.
Grichuk was a first round selection of the Angels in 2009 (selected, in fact, ahead of Trout) and hit 22 homers in double A last season, a standout season in a thin minor league system.
Clearly, there is more than one way in which time will be the determining factor in this trade, but the Angels have a historic knowledge of the inherent risk in dealing with the Cardinals.
In March of 2000 outfielder Jim Edmonds, then in a comparable situation to Bourjos, went to St. Louis and won six consecutive Gold Gloves and played in two World Series.
That time, at least, the package coming to Anaheim included Adam Kennedy, a seven year fixture at second base for the Angels and a key to their 2002 LCS (he was MVP) and World Series victories.
That time, at least, there was an upside on both sides.