In St. Louis, the End of the David Freese Era Marks the Start of the Kolten Wong Era

Joe Sargent

By trading David Freese, the Cardinals have triggered the start of the Kolten Wong era at the keystone.

On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals traded third baseman David Freese and righthanded reliever Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for centerfield speedster Peter Bourjos and slugging outfield prospect Randal Grichuck. While the deal with the Angels had been developing for a few days, the end of the Freese era in St. Louis had been brewing for months.

Freese injured his back during spring training, which caused him to miss the start of the 2013 season. The Cardinals activated him from the disabled list for the club's home opener; however, Freese looked hindered at the bat and in the field throughout the season. While Freese's batting average sat around what one would expect, the third baseman's power had fallen off dramatically.

In August, the Cardinals found themselves neck-and-neck with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the race for the Central Division title. On August 16, with Freese slashing .269/.348/.386/.733, the Cardinals promoted top second-base prospect Kolten Wong to the big leagues. MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch reported at the time of Wong's promotion what the club's plans for the second baseman were and the ripple effect it would have on the infield:

Though Wong wil not immediately be an everyday player, the Cardinals intend for him to play regularly. That means decreased playing time for Freese and more bounding around by Carpenter, who has been the team's starting second baseman this season. Carpenter's natural position is third, so there are no concerns about moving him back there.

The Cardinals' plan for Wong to play regularly meant Freese would find himself the odd man out, and on the bench, regularly. So manager Mike Matheny spoke with Freese and made diplomatic statements to the press, such as:

"All we're trying to do is maximize what we have," Matheny said. "Kolten has been our most consistent guy in Triple-A. ... And in order to use him, we're going to have to be creative and guys are going to have to understand that we're trying to help our club as a whole."

Freese, for his part, handled the rookie's presence on the 25-man roster and in the August 26 starting lineup vs. the Cubs, with a grace that Crash Davis would appreciate:

"This organization is about winning," Freese said. "I'm about winning. I think everybody in the clubhouse is about winning. I hope Kolten comes in here and helps us get to the postseason. And I think he's going to do that. He's obviously a talented guy, a great person. As far as my playing time, I'm just going to be ready every day. If Kolten is at second and Carpenter at third, I'm going to be ready to come off the bench. I'm going to still have my opportunities. I've done a lot for this organization, and I plan on continuing to help this team be successful.

"To get to the postseason, everybody has to be on the same page. You want to have the best 25, especially going into the last part of the year where you're fighting for the postseason."

Mozeliak made comments that were a thinly veiled critique of Freese's 2013 performance relative to Wong's skill set. Again, from Langosch's MLB.com article:

"I'm still hopeful [Freese] can get things going," Mozeliak said. "Right now, my responsibility for the organization is to make sure we put the best team out there that we can. I still think David could be part of that, but we are also trying to inject some new life into the club."

****

"To Kolten's credit, his game is a little bit of everything," Mozeliak said. "He's going to add a speed element to our team. He's going to add a defense element to our club. And hopefully from an offensive standpoint, he can handle this league. That's always the big question mark when you bring a young position player up."

In the heat of a pennant race, Matheny did not show much patience for the rookie. The Wong experiment was short-lived because the second baseman didn't hit early or well, and Freese returned to his role as the starting third baseman. Wong wound up only starting three games in September, one of which was Game 162, when the Cards had the division title sewn up. Wong finished the year with a big-league slash line of .153/.194/.169/.363. Freese slashed .214/.315/.366/.681 after Wong's promotion and down the home stretch.

At Fangraphs, the Steamer projections for 2014 are up. They forecast the following for Wong and Freese:

Player

G

PA

BB%

K%

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

Freese

-

-

9.1%

20.8%

.274

.347

.417

.764

.143

.337

117

Wong

84

350

6.6%

12.5%

.269

.321

.387

.708

.118

.312

99

The Steamer system projects Freese to be the better batter in 2014, due to a better walk rate and the return of his career power levels. However, there is little debate that Wong is a far superior defender and baserunner--the "elements" Mozeliak cited as pluses for Wong in August.

Friday's trade necessarily triggers the shift the Cardinals intended to impose during the season's dog days. In Friday's press conference, Mozeliak stated the obvious: Wong is slated to get 500 at-bats at second base for the Cardinals in 2014. Carpenter--whose Cano-esque batting made him the National League's best second baseman last season--will move to third. Freese will get a fresh start in Orange County.

The Cardinals received Bourjos, a world-class defender with excellent speed. Langosch reports that Bourjos is the favorite to start in center field next year for the Redbirds. If this proves true and the Cardinals have swapped Freese and Jay for Bourjos and Wong, it is a reflection of the club's thinking regarding the elements of defense and baserunning. After years of discussing players with an emphasis on their batting lines, get ready for a change. 2014 and beyond will likely require assessing players' value because of--as opposed to in spite of--their skill on defense and at baserunning. With this trade, Mozeliak has ushered in a new era in Cardinals baseball.

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