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Bourjos, Jay competition center of attention for Cards

JUPITER, Fla. -- To comprehend why the St. Louis Cardinals needed speed to man the open range of center field at Busch Stadium, consider the first-hand view Jim Edmonds offered of the position. He played center as well as any Cardinal ever has and was one of the finest and savviest center fielders of his generation.

He doubts he would have been as good if he had spent his career covering the new field.

"That ballpark is so much bigger than the old one," said the retired All-Star, who won eight Gold Glove awards, five at round Busch Stadium II. "It comes in handy when you can run. I think I would have been able to play at a high level at the new ballpark, but I don't think I would have been as good. There's too much ground for me to cover at my speed. ... I don't think it would have been as dramatic where and how I could have played."

Edmonds arrived at the Cardinals' Roger Dean Stadium complex as guest instructor Tuesday for the first official full-squad workout of spring training. What awaited him was a chance to see the opening days of a duel for his old position -- incumbent Jon Jay against newcomer Peter Bourjos.

The Cardinals' first move of the winter was a telling one as they traded former World Series MVP David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for Bourjos and a prospect. As chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said this past weekend, "Speed and defense was a theme." Bourjos personifies both. He is considered one of the fastest runners in the game and one of the top-tier center fielders, when he cracks the lineup. But the Cardinals already had a .300-hitting former leadoff man in center, Jay. The position is there for the taking.

As he made his annual first-workout address Tuesday morning, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny strummed a familiar chord.

He spoke to the defending National League champions of expectations and how the loftier ones will always be "internal." He introduced the Hall of Famers present and the All-Stars like Edmonds as a way to connect the present team with the past. He outlined "why we do what we do." And he hit on a topic that he has referenced almost daily with the media -- competition.

It is a shield against complacency.

Nowhere is the competition clearer than in center.

"They know they're competing," Matheny said. "Not to keep beating on this, but I want them all thinking that way and not singling out a few of the guys where you know there's an opportunity. ... I don't think we've seen either of them maxed-out."

Jay, 28, had a sluggish start last season as he tried to rework his swing on the job. He would spend several hours before the game in the cage tinkering and then hit for another hour after the game trying to alter the timing of his approach. He stirred for a .327 average in August and a .311 average in the season's second half. He also had hiccups defensively and was, by a defensive metric that measures range and plays made, a below average center fielder. Bourjos, 26, had his hot start to the season halted by two injuries, including a fractured wrist that limited his ability to produce late in the season. His career on-base percentage (.306) is not too distant from Jay's career batting average (.293), but Bourjos rates as one of the best center fielders in the majors. Since 2011, his 20 defensive runs saved -- a measure of plays that steal hits from opponents -- rank seventh in the majors.

There is a contrast as well as a competition.

Bourjos' "skill set is driven by great defense and game-changing speed," general manager John Mozeliak said. "When you think about the elements of our team and where we could directionally move things, this was one area where, if possible, we could upgrade (by) finding someone who could be an elite defender in the league. ... There's no doubt when you look at what Jay has accomplished offensively. I look at Bourjos' addition as an injection that is a very rare commodity to find. How it all gets used and put in place we'll see."

Both players arrived several days early for spring training, and both expect to see the same amount of playing time as games arrive later this month. They do have similarities, some even sartorial. Jay made "High Sock Sundays" a fad by showing his stirrups for Sunday games. Bourjos wore high socks out to his first official workout Sunday.

When Jay arrived at camp one of the first things he did was introduce himself to Bourjos and, Bourjos said, offer him any help or assistance he needed to adjust.

On the day the Cardinals made the trade with the Angels, Matheny called Jay to explain the move and tell him what it meant for him.

"It's not the first time I got that phone call," Jay said.

It happened before when he appeared earmarked for an everyday job and the Cardinals signed free agent Lance Berkman to play right field. It happened before when the Cardinals acquired Carlos Beltran and left open the possibility he might see time in center field. Jay, a second-round pick for the Cardinals back in 2006, has come to expect it.

"This is an organization that has always done what it feels it takes to win," Jay said. "We're going to add pieces. They're not scared to change. They're not scared to bring guys in to challenge the guys who are already here."

Jay spoke with Edmonds on Tuesday about how he went back to video of his games this winter to see where some things had eroded. The two of them started working on improving Jay's arm last spring, and the outfielder said he continued the work this winter. He said it is important to "settle on a routine" that doesn't ignore a facet of the game. Bourjos hit the cages, where he intends to build upon the .333 average he had after 40 games last season. He described how he "started controlling the strike zone better when I was healthy."

There is also a complement to this competition.

Bourjos is a righthanded option in center with the speed and ability to steal hits. Jay is the lefthanded option with the better career numbers at the plate and a familiarity hitting at several spots in the lineup. Their time-share at this position could extend into the season, and a starter in April could be a platoon in May and a hot hand in August.

"There are ways to split the atom here if necessary," Mozeliak said. "That may be the best way to think about it -- the sum of the team parts. When you look at how you put a lineup together or the roster together, what is the right balance to be most optimal? When you think about tools in the tool box, we've brought new tools to our team. Different, but exciting."

Where there is competition there is combination.

And that brings the contest back to the ballpark. Jay knows the depth and challenge of Busch well, and he approaches center as Edmonds did -- scouting hitters and positioning. Bourjos has instincts for the position and the closing speed that brings a new dimension to Busch. As Mozeliak said, with the outfielders in the corners and Busch's big space, "having somebody who has the ability to cover more ground is just logical."

Having a blend of skills at the position is where they'll start.

"This challenge between these two will be interesting," Edmonds said. "I've always wondered if you had both of those things (speed and savvy) how much better you could be here. If you had a guy like Jon Jay or me who could run like Peter, how great you'd be. I'd take that. I'd take four really good outfielders any day over three. You can always find ways to play them."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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