I’ve been looking for an excuse to write at length about Collin Cowgill for a while, and his return to the starting lineup after a month on the DL seems as good as any. That’s a pretty terrible hook, so let’s try adding a hint of intrigue:
Player A: .277/.354/.407 in 200 PA, +9 DRS, +3.8 BRR
Player B: .219/.284/.342 in 218 PA, +5 DRS, +2.6 BRR
Those are the 2014 lines for Cowgill, who you certainly guessed, and former Angels fan-favorite Peter Bourjos, who you probably haven’t thought about since April. A lot has been made of the David Freese trade in the nine months since it went down, but not much has been said about the role Cowgill might have played in making Bourjos fungible and, thus, less valuable to the Halos than what his perceived market price could have dictated.
Bourjos has been his normal self in center for the Cardinals, but his prolonged subpar performance at the plate continues to make his 2011 season, when he posted a stellar .335 wOBA, look like a severe outlier. In the 609 plate appearances since that career year, Bourjos has been a .237/.302/.345 hitter. Adding fuel to the growing fire, his strikeout rate has skyrocketed up to 27% this season. All told, he’s been worth 0.8 WAR for St. Louis this year through 80 games–not terrible for a fourth outfielder, but pretty underwhelming for a starting center fielder.
Cowgill, on the other hand, has been a godsend for the Angels this year as an understudy for Josh Hamilton and Kole Calhoun. Despite appearing in just 69 of the club’s 111 games so far this season, Cowgill leads the team in both defensive runs saved (+9) and base-running runs (+3.8), and is tied with Albert Pujols for fifth on the team in overall value among position players at 2.4 WAR.
There’s no denying that the Kentucky native’s .367 BABIP this year is a bit flukey, but that doesn’t mean his true talent is all the way down at the .236/.288/.328 he hit in his first three MLB seasons (378 PA). More likely is that he’s somewhere in between the two extremes, probably close to where his career line of .250/.311/.354 now sits.
When the Halos acquired Cowgill from the Mets last June, they had no reason to believe that he would break out with the bat this season. He batted just .231/.271/.374 down the stretch for the club, amounting to -2.7 batting runs. What the team did know, though, from various scouting reports and his 50-game test run in Anaheim, was that they had an elite defender and baserunner on their hands who wouldn’t be arbitration eligible for another season. If his bat eventually turned around, great, but with his plus skills elsewhere and his ability to play all three outfield positions, any offensive production would be surplus value. In other words, Cowgill was (and is) a cheaper Peter Bourjos.
The idea that the Angels were trading from a position of depth has always been a part of the Freese trade narrative, but not to the extent that Bourjos was seen as an imminently replaceable piece. If we adjust the narrative to include Cowgill as Bourjos’ peer, though, then the decision to move P-Bo for less than what many thought was his full value makes a bit more sense. With Cowgill’s carbon-copy skill set in the fray, the Angels weren’t losing anything by moving Bourjos and could afford to use him to fill another position of need, even if it meant selling low.
I’m sure Jerry Dipoto and friends would have loved to use Bourjos’ glowing defensive reputation to land a bigger return than Freese, but sometimes you just have to take what’s available, especially when there’s a black hole where your third-base depth chart is supposed to be. And when you’ve got a player like Cowgill waiting in the wings, it makes the decision all the easier.