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Peter Bourjos, Tony Cruz, and Sabermetric Revisionism

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The Cardinals received little back in trading Tony Cruz, but received nothing for Peter Bourjos.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Editorial Note: Please welcome John Fleming as a writer at Viva El Birdos. This is his first post as an official writer, but John got his start writing Fanposts and has written 34 of them. Fanposts are a great way to contribute to the site and gain writing experience.

On December 2, the St. Louis Cardinals made a series of decisions regarding salary arbitration eligible players. Most of the eligible players were tendered contracts, which is sensible—players, particularly in the early years of salary arbitration, make a fraction of the salaries they would garner on the free agent market. But in cases of players with less defined roles for the 2016 Cardinals than, say, Trevor Rosenthal, this was it. For instance, 2015 trade deadline acquisition Steve Cishek was non-tendered. Just like that, his time with the Cardinals was over.

Two players who have been with the Cardinals for years rather than months also departed. Following the club's signing of catcher Brayan Pena two days earlier, the now-redundant Tony Cruz was traded to the Kansas City Royals for 19 year-old shortstop Jose Martinez. And Peter Bourjos—who opened 2014 as the starting center fielder but was surpassed on the depth chart by Jon Jay, Randal Grichuk (formerly the other guy in what was formerly known as The Peter Bourjos Trade), Tommy Pham, and even, in the first two games of the NLDS, Jason Heyward—was claimed off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies, who agreed to a $2 million 2016 deal.

During his time as a Cardinal, Peter Bourjos was divisive. To some, his outstanding defense and speed clearly atoned for his pedestrian bat—in spite of a subpar 82 wRC+ at the plate, he was worth 1.3 Baseball Reference WAR and 1.7 Fangraphs WAR in 294 plate appearances in 2014. To others, he was fine defensively but an utter disaster at the plate—his 70 wRC+ in 2015 was surpassed by such players as former Cardinal Skip Schumaker and each of the three worst position players in baseball by Fangraphs WAR—Victor Martinez, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez.

I consider myself a Bourjos moderate: I understand why the Cardinals were willing to part with him, but I also recognize that he possesses some of the tools you want in a Major Leaguer, even if he is an incomplete package. He's an outstanding defensive player—since his 2010 MLB debut, Bourjos' peers in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating in center field are Carlos Gomez, Lorenzo Cain, and Juan Lagares, and even if you believe his mediocre 56% steal percentage as a Cardinal (and 38.4% in 2015, albeit with a very small sample size) is an ominous sign going forward, he has the defense. If nothing else, he has that.

Tony Cruz, bluntly, doesn't have that. There is a reason why, when Yadier Molina hit the DL in 2014 with a thumb injury, the team immediately signed George Kottaras and later A.J. Pierzynski to start at catcher in the interim. Tony Cruz has been below replacement level per Fangraphs in each of the last three seasons; the last four, according to Baseball Prospectus; in all five of his MLB seasons, says Baseball Reference. He, like any player, has his moments, but he mostly existed to the Cardinals as a low-cost backup catcher for the most durable catcher going. And now that Yadier Molina is 33 years old and, for lack of a better phrase, ain't as young as he once was, Tony Cruz has been replaced, and will now back up the new durability king of MLB backstops—Salvador Perez. It's a weird niche he's carved.

To be clear, the Cardinals didn't exactly acquire Carlos Correa for Tony Cruz. But they got something. A team gave up an asset of some magnitude for Tony Cruz. The Phillies gave up nothing for Peter Bourjos. He was just there for the taking.

The common refrain among the Bourjos faithful is that Peter Bourjos was misused by Mike Matheny, that Bourjos at the bare minimum had value as a pinch runner (his occasional baserunning gaffes aside, he was indisputably the fastest player on the team) and defensive replacement, and perhaps that Bourjos should have been starting, if not over Randal Grichuk, then over Jon Jay, particularly as the latter struggled in 2015. And while I don't necessarily disagree, it's interesting that the actions of the other 29 GMs seem to contradict this notion.

It is generally assumed among sabermetrically inclined baseball fans that MLB organizations have proprietary metrics akin to WAR measures we use to evaluate players. Granted, Bourjos was below replacement level in 2015, but this was the first such valley in his career by all measures, and if you assume his defense is still good, his WAR is misleading. So how did Bourjos draw so little attention? Is WAR that far off? Granted, he was claimed by the first team which could claim him, but how could he not yield at least as much as Tony Cruz, the ninth worst hitter in baseball in 2015 by wRC+ among players with 150 or more plate appearances?

As far as we know, the Royals were the only team interested in giving up anything for Tony Cruz, and the Royals may have less of a role for Peter Bourjos than any other team in baseball—they have a legitimately great all-around CF in Lorenzo Cain who is an elite fielder and baserunner and they have Jarrod Dyson, a below-average hitting, slick fielding/baserunning outfielder who is essentially what an idealized yet plausible version of Peter Bourjos would be. But why wouldn't the San Diego Padres, who counted on Travis Jankowski late in 2015 in center, give a low-tier prospect for a flyer on Bourjos?

Perhaps front offices distrust defensive metrics as we know them. Perhaps catchers are just valued in the brave new world of advanced catching metrics to such a degree that even guys like Tony Cruz, who aren't particularly ballyhooed for their defense, are still considered intrinsically valuable. Or perhaps front offices just think Peter Bourjos is still reeling from his 2014 hip surgery. There's a certain excitement to the mystery of it, that for all of our increasing sense that we as fans understand the motivations of front offices, we may be guessing as blindly as we ever were.