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Lyle Spencer

Cards improve with a pair of under-the-radar moves

Cards improve with a pair of under-the-radar moves

Cards improve with a pair of under-the-radar moves

Tens of thousands of words have been devoted to evaluating an offseason spree of free agency moves and trades reshaping the Major League landscape.

Somehow, the team that missed reaching three consecutive World Series by one postseason victory in 2012 has managed to remain relatively off the radar. St. Louis created a few ripples with the signing of former Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, but that quickly was buried under an avalanche of bigger news.

Quietly and with financial restraint, in their fashion, the Cards have made two other moves that will have significant impact in the heart of their defense. The imports should improve a pitching staff that figures to be even more dominant with the maturation of the sport's purest collection of young arms.

Peter Bourjos and Mark Ellis, both arriving from Southern California, will have St. Louis faithful recalling the good old days of Willie McGee and Tommy Herr -- or, going back even deeper in the past, Curt Flood and Julian Javier.

In Bourjos, who comes at the cost of popular David Freese, St. Louis has acquired arguably the best defensive centerfielder and fastest player in the sport.

Entering his physical prime at 27, Bourjos will prove how supremely talented he is if he manages to avoid the kinds of freak injuries that effectively wiped out a frustrating 2013 season.

In 2011, his one full season in center for the Angels, he was pure magic with the glove, saving 21 runs and stealing three home runs according to Baseball Info Solutions. He also was a more productive hitter than media and fans seem to recall, ranking third on his team in slugging (11 triples, 26 doubles, 12 homers) while stealing 22 bases and hitting .271.

In 2012, Bourjos got off to a slow start -- along with virtually every other Angels player -- and ceded his position to Mike Trout, merely the game's premier all-around talent. Those who have watched Bourjos play the game freely and confidently know how good he is.

Cards manager Mike Matheny and his new teammates will love Bourjos' dedication and attitude. The man from Scottsdale, Ariz., was made for the heartland and the Runnin' Redbirds.

"I'm really excited and feel fortunate to be going to such a great organization with a tremendous fan base," Bourjos said following a trip to St. Louis in the wake of the Nov. 22 deal. "You always hate to leave the place where you grew up, and I'll miss the Angels. But this is a tremendous opportunity for me -- and I'm planning to take full advantage of it."

The presence of Trout and need for a third baseman motivated the Angels to part with Bourjos along with power-hitting prospect Randal Grichuk, taken one pick ahead of Trout in the memorable 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

Freese, the hometown kid who made his enduring imprint in the 2011 postseason for the champion Cards, can give the Angels leadership along with offensive production in their bid to regain relevance in the intensely competitive American League West. Veteran reliever Fernando Salas also hopes to reclaim his '11 form in Anaheim.

The acquisition of Bourjos, who figures to make a right fielder or fourth outfielder of Jon Jay, has the ripple effect of potentially upgrading the Cards defensively at three positions.

Matt Carpenter, the hit machine, should flourish at third in his transfer from second. St. Louis now has the sure, capable hands and glove of Ellis at second in support of young, athletic Kolten Wong, who figures to get the first crack at the job.

Ellis, in Oakland and Los Angeles, has been among the sport's most underrated players for a full decade. You have to see this guy play every day to fully appreciate everything he brings. The Dodgers will miss him.

Turning 37 in June, he might have lost a half-step, but he is still a magnet at second. Over the past three seasons, only Dustin Pedroia (44) and Darwin Barney (40) -- each playing significantly more games -- have saved more runs than Ellis' 39 at the position.

While he doesn't drive the ball the way he did in 2007 when he produced 19 homers and 257 total bases for the A's in their cavernous Coliseum, Ellis is a smart situational hitter who can give Matheny lineup flexibility.

The first option should be giving Bourjos a shot batting first or second, where he can create runs with his blinding speed. With the Angels, he was a measurably better hitter at the top of the order than at the bottom, batting .271 leading off with a .819 OPS (on base plus slugging) in the No. 2 hole.

Bourjos, a .391 career hitter when he puts the first pitch in play, scores from first in a breeze on Carpenter's MLB-high 55 doubles. In 2011, Bourjos ranked ninth in the AL in manufactured runs with 28 despite spending most of the season batting ninth.

The immediate dissatisfaction of Cardinals Nation with the trade is perfectly understandable given the attachment to Freese. But the faithful will be amazed by Bourjos' athlete's gifts, and they will appreciate Ellis' understated style as the season moves along.

"As we look back over the last six weeks," Cards GM John Mozeliak said, "we feel like we were able to improve this club."

The wonderful Carlos Beltran will be missed, for sure, along with the vibrant presence of Freese. But Allen Craig will be back, healthy, and the defense will be a joy to watch with Bourjos turning extra-base hits into spectacular outs and Ellis making all the plays.

The Redbirds, it says here, will be a better team in 2014 than the one that fell two wins shy of a second World Series championship in three seasons.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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