Saturday, November 23, 2013

By Jonathan Northrop, Columnist -

Yesterday, Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto made his first big splash of the offseason, trading Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals for David Freese and Fernando Salas, and in so doing stirred up a hornets nest among Angels fans. A majority hated the trade; Bourjos was a homegrown talent and beloved for his incredible defense and dynamic play, while Grichuk was a former first-round draft pick in a farm system devoid of talent. Some, however, liked the trade in that it filled a need the team had for a solid third baseman.

Hopefully the dust is settling a bit today and we can start to get a clearer look at the ramifications of this trade. In this article, I'm going to try to take a broad view of this trade, or at least see it from multiple angles. To start, let's look at each player individually:

Peter Bourjos: We all know Peter is a great defensive center fielder. He is probably no more than an average hitter, although his career numbers--.251/.306/.398--aren't truly representative of his abilities because he's been injured a few times over the last two years and accrued less than 400 plate appearances in that span of time. When Peter is healthy, he's a game changer. I've likened him to Darin Erstad (sans Erstad's 2000 outlier). Again, if healthy Peter could very well hit .280/.340/.420 and be a 4 fWAR player. He's going to love playing in the National League and should be ecstatic playing for the Cardinals, who remain one of the very best franchises in baseball.

Randal Grichuk: Grichuk is (in)famous for being the player the Angels drafted one slot before Trout, presumably to slightly reduce Trout's draft money. Grichuk's rise through the minors has been much slower than Trout's, and without the impact or fanfare. But he's still a decent prospect, holding his own in AA last year at age 21, hitting .256/.306/.474 with 22 HR in a pitcher's park. Grichuk hasn't had that massive breakthrough Angels fans have been hoping for for a few years, but he's also still on the young side for his level. His main problem is - surprise, surprise - plate discipline. Right now he looks like another Trumbo.

David Freese: Freese is best known for his World Series heroics in 2011. He followed that up with a breakout season in 2012, hitting .293/.372/.467 and a 4.0 fWAR. Yet last year he fell apart, hitting .262/.340/.381 with a 0.3 fWAR and terrible defense. He's going to be 31 in 2014 and has serious health concerns, but when healthy he's a very good player. From 2011-12, among players with at least 500 plate appearances, he was 8th in fWAR (6.6) among all major league third basemen.

Fernando Salas: Dial back a couple years and Salas would be a welcome addition to the Angels bullpen. He was excellent in 2011, with a 2.28 ERA, 21 walks and 75 strikeouts in 75 IP. His walk and hit rate jumped in 2012, leading to a 4.30 ERA. Last year he only pitched in 28 innings, reducing his walk rate, but his ERA was still poor at 4.50. 

From the Cardinals Perspective
They didn't need Freese. Not only does he have major question marks, but they need to make room in the infield for talented Kolten Wong. Salas was probably a non-tender candidate with no place in their ultra-talented pitching staff. In other words, they were both spare parts and didn't lose anything by trading them away.

Peter Bourjos is the definition of a great buy-low player. He's coming off an injury-plagued year that saw him, when healthy, look like a game changer. Some Cardinals fans see him as the fourth outfielder, but (again, if healthy) he'll be the starting center fielder, with Jay returning to the role best suited for him - as a 4th outfielder.

As for Grichuk, he's a decent prospect with some upside. He's still relatively young for his level--22 in AAA next year. The Cardinals insisted upon his inclusion in the trade and may feel that they can help develop him into a very good player.

Best Case Scenario for the Cardinals: Bourjos is healthy and thrives, becoming a 4+ fWAR player and a minor star. Grichuk breaks out and gives the Cardinals a plus hitter in the future, or at least a more valuable trading chip.

From the Angels Perspective
Third base has consistently been the biggest hole in the Angels lineup since Troy Glaus departed after the 2004 season. Chone Figgins transformed from a super UT player to a solid, then excellent, defensive third baseman, but then departed after 2009. For the last four years the Angels have essentially filled the space with various players, particularly Alberto Callaspo, and then Chris Nelson last year, even trying Trumbo there for a few games. The hope was for someone to hold it down until top prospect Kaleb Cowart arrived in 2014 or 2015. But Cowart stalled big time last year and needs at least another year to find himself, and the Angels were hesitant to give the job to Luis Jimenez, whose glove is excellent but his bat not so much.

Freese is a health risk but could also produce well for the Angels in 2014 and possibly 2015, and give Cowart time to develop.

As for Salas, he's another possible reclamation project. He gives the Angels another option, and is certainly better than Gutierrez, but it might be too much to hope that he regains his 2011 form.

As with Freese and Salas for the Cardinals, neither Bourjos or Grichuk had a clear place in the Angels future, whether 2014 or beyond. The Angels organization is strong in two areas: outfielders and middle infielders, so their best trading chips come from those areas.

Best Case Scenario: Freese is healthy and hits .290/.800 or so, with solid defense. Salas thrives in Anaheim and becomes another solid middle reliever ala Dane de la Rosa.

My Take
I can understand why some are happy with this trade. It doesn't actually worsen the team next year, except possibly the outfield defense (although I think Trout will bounce back and be a plus center fielder again) and potentially  shores up third base for a year or two. If I put on my pollyanna glasses, I can even see how this trade helps the team, at least for a year or two. The Angels had three needs this offseason, two dire (starting pitching and bullpen) and one not as dire but still serious (third base). Dipoto could be seen to working his way up.

I also like the fact that Kole Calhoun is all but assured of a starting job in 2014. I've been a big supporter of Kole ever since he was drafted and started raking (and taking walks!) in 2010 at Orem. Somewhere around then I called him "Baby Brian Giles" in that I felt he had a similar profile. Kole continued to excel at every level, even skipping AA. I crossed my fingers that the Angels wouldn't trade him, feeling that he was under-appreciated and would be better than expected. So far it seems that I was right. While I never expect him to be as good as Giles was, I do think he's capable of being an above average player - even a borderline star, with an upside not far from Shin-Soo Choo.

That said, I don't like this trade. I understand that Bourjos wasn't getting the type of interest that we fans who have seem him play deserved, but that's exactly why you don't trade that type of player. Dipoto sold low, and made yet another desperation move. To add insult to injury, he traded away yet another of the organization's few decent prospects and only received a questionable middle reliever in return.

I wouldn't say I hate this trade as I see it potentially improving the team in the near future. It does trade from a position of strength to one of weakness, but while the Cardinals come off looking like geniuses - losing nothing and potentially gaining a lot - the Angels end up looking desperate.

There's also the matter of age. In 2014, Bourjos will be 27 and Grichuk 22. Freese, on the other hand, will be 31 and Salas 29. At a time when the farm system is arguably the worst in baseball, this is not the time to get older.

Now while I think this trade could help the team in the short term, it is yet another questionable move that clarifies my view that Dipoto is not who we hoped he was two years ago: a sabermetrically minded (or at least aware) GM that is able to make lemonade out of lemons. If you look at his transaction record over the last couple years, he's had far more misses than hits. In fact, there are no moves that really stand out as huge successes. Even someone like CJ Wilson, who has performed well for the Angels, is not quite as good as we hoped, or as he was for the Rangers - despite moving from a hitter's paradise to a pitcher's park (his fWAR total as an Angel in two years is the same as his last year as a Ranger, 5.4).

Even trades that looked good at the time they were made - like Amarista and Roach for Frieri, Chatwood for Iannetta, or Segura, Pena and Hellweg for Greinke - haven't turned out as well as hoped. Dipoto's supporters cry "hindsight is 20-20!" but the problem is that, we're finding that nearly every trade Dipoto makes ends up looking back in hindsight. At some point a GM - whose job is partially to be able to project into the future - has to take responsibility for this.

Maybe Jerry's just growing up. He's only been at the helm for two years and has the lurking (and meddling) presence of Arte Moreno forever over his shoulder. This isn't a trade of Wellsian proportions and so we shouldn't give up all hope for the franchise, the 2014 season, or even Jerry Dipoto. But I don't feel a lot of faith right now in his ability to turn this flailing franchise around; I'm still waiting for the lemonade.
Love to hear what you think!

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