By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist
WHILE THE rest of the National League Central Division sits back and watches, St. Louis has shuffled the Cards with two trades, stacking the deck to become the favorite to repeat in 2014.
Although St. Louis won both its division and league pennant in 2013, outfield defense and shortstop offense worried the Cardinals throughout the season.
Last Thursday, the Cards shipped third baseman David Freese to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos, considered by more than a few experts to be the best defensive centerfielder in baseball.
Bourjos’ arrival coincides with the almost-certain departure of Carlos Beltran, aka in Pittsburgh as the new Albert Pujols. Beltran assumed the role of the Cardinals’ former first baseman, who thrived in situations that led to the Bucs being thrashed in key situations.
But lest you think that the loss of Beltran will make Bourjos’ arrival a wash, think again. The Cardinals could insert any one of three players who have the potential to have St. Louis fans asking, “Carlos who?”
Allen Craig, injured and on the bench for most of September and October, inherited first base when Pujols bolted for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Cardinals never missed a beat with their former masher gone. Craig is capable of playing right field, as in John Jay, a corner outfielder forced to play center field for most of 2013.
But the player they’d like to see roaming around Busch Stadium is Oscar Taveras, one of the best outfield prospects in baseball. Taveras is ranked higher, is closer to being major-league ready, and is younger than the Bucs’ Gregory Polanco, labeled by some as the second coming of Dave Parker.
Whoever is out there for St. Louis, Bourjos’s speed will give the Cardinals a defensive upgrade and will help cover the defensively deficient left fielder Matt Holliday.
Not only does the move improve the Cardinals’ outfield defense, it allows manager Mike Matheny to improve the infield defense with player musical chairs. Matt Carpenter will shift back to third base, his natural position. Rookie Kolten Wong will slide in at second base, with Slippery Rock University grad Matt Adams at first, assuming Craig moves to right.
And over the weekend, St. Louis addressed its offensive liability at shortstop by signing Jhonny Peralta to a four-year $52 million contract. The 31-year-old Peralta hit .303 for the Tigers last season, with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs in 107 games. Cardinal shortstops last year combined for a .222 mark with four homers and 54 RBIs.
Certainly there are no guarantees that the moves will make the rest of the NL Central concede the division to St. Louis. They do carry some risk: Although medical records indicate all is well with Bourjos, he is coming off season-ending wrist surgery after missing much of the past two seasons with physical problems. Further, there is no guarantee that Taveras and/or Wong will be able to handle a full season of daily major-league baseball. And Peralta lost 50 games in 2013 after being suspended for PED use.
However, the point is that St, Louis has moved rather quickly and decisively, using the additional $25 million given to all teams from tv revenue to address their concerns
What have the Pirates done?
Unlike last year when they outmaneuvered the Yankees for catcher Russell Martin early to address their defensive woes behind the plate, they allowed Marlon Byrd’s departure to leave them where they have been before: no viable answer in right field.
And the only attempt to find a first baseman—another area of major concern—occurred last week when they inquired about 37-year-old Lance Berkman, who missed all of 2012 and half of 2013 due to injuries, batting .242 in 73 games last year and were told he expects to retire.
They have let opportunities to spend their additional $25 million to pass them by, just as the Cardinals may do again in 2014.