JUPITER, Fla. — Early in spring training, Peter Bourjos was huddled with Willie McGee after a morning workout at the team’s camp in Jupiter, Fla. The topic was speed, a trait both the present and former Cardinals center fielders are quite familiar with.
As a new Cardinal, Bourjos was trying to set up a time when he could work with McGee, in camp as a roving instructor. "I’ll get here as early as you want," Bourjos tells him.
Such an exchange is promising for all kinds of reasons. First, it shows that Bourjos wants to improve. While he is considered one of the game’s elite outfield defenders, his offense has room to grow as evidenced by a career .251 batting average and .308 OBP.
Also, it’s cool to see a young player — Bourjos turns 27 on March 31 — reach out to a great from the past. Bourjos might not have memorized the back of McGee’s baseball card but, as the son of a long-time scout, he can appreciate those who came before him.
But this exchange is about more than displaying a positive attitude and an appropriate appreciation for the past. To see Bourjos hook up with McGee says something much more important about the Cardinals. For the first time in a long, long time, St. Louis has an honest-to-goodness speedster on its side.
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Bourjos hasn’t stolen more than 22 bases in any of his four big-league seasons but make no mistake, he is a flyer. He is considered one of the five fastest players in the majors, and that’s after the arrival of Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton.
The challenge is figuring out how to best use Bourjos’ exceptional wheels.
Stealing bases, of course, is an easy answer. The Cardinals finished 2013 with fewer steals than any team in the National League, 45. Bourjos has maintained since the Winter Warm-Up that he wants that many by himself.
"Forty is a good goal for me," he said. "If I come up short a little bit, I’ll be in the 30s and that still will be a really good year."
Bourjos knows a knock on him is that he hasn’t been a big base-stealer. "It’s tough when you don’t have a green light," he said. "(With the Angels), it always came from the bench, which was fine. That’s the way they ran their game over there."
How often he is given the freedom to steal in St. Louis remains to be seen. Manager Mike Matheny is coy whenever he is asked about letting his players run on their own. After Kolten Wong, another speedster new to the lineup, stole a base in an early exhibition, Matheny replied only that "sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t" call it from the bench.
Asked specifically if he is likely to give Bourjos a green light, Matheny told me it was too early to say. I won’t be surprised if he is as noncommittal at the All-Star break.
But speed can have value even when bases aren’t being stolen as they were during McGee’s days with the Cardinals. The mere threat of Bourjos taking off for second can bother not only the pitcher but the entire defense.
"He’s in scoring position as soon as he gets on base, especially on a team that hits a lot of doubles," Matheny said. "Speed is going to play no matter what. So we just keep preaching to get on base, grind those at-bats. We need you to be out there causing havoc, and you’re going to do that by getting on base. So let’s figure out how we can get you on base."
Walks are one way, but patience does not describe Bourjos’ approach at the plate. While Matheny wants Bourjos to take tough at-bats, he hasn’t asked Bourjos to draw more free passes.
"You see some of his stats and he’s had a lot of swings and misses inside the (strike) zone, so that opportunity early (in the count) might be his best," Matheny said. "We’re not asking him to go up there and take a lot of pitches. We’re not changing somebody’s overall hitting philosophy, but just putting a different twist to it. We want him to be successful like we want everybody else."
Bunting is one way, and Bourjos has shown he is accomplished in that department. In the only season that he played more than 101 games, he finished second in the majors with 17 bunt hits. While he spends much of his time with McGee working on bunting, they are talking strategy more than they are working on form.
"I’ll bunt for a while and then we’ll take a break and talk," Bourjos said. "I ask him about all different situations. I’ll think about it at night and try to come up with a question for him, just to pick his brain."
Bourjos said they’ve discussed at least 30 different situations, such as whether it’s better to bunt hard or soft against a lefty (it depends on the pitcher, but typically a soft bunt is safer when trying to move runners over).
"These guys know what to do and how to do it," McGee said. "I’m just trying to reinforce them to use their speed and pushing them to use it more. "
Like the threat of stealing a base can disrupt a defense, so can faking a bunt. At least twice in the first half of March, Bourjos showed bunt on one pitch to draw in the infield and then grounded a hit past the third baseman.
"You want to get it in the pitcher’s head if you can," McGee said. "It’s like a pitcher who throws me inside early in the game, I don’t know when he’s going to do it again. Say it’s 3-2 with bases loaded late in the game and I’m thinking, ‘Is he coming inside?’ It’s a mental thing. You just try to utilize what you have."
How the Cardinals make the most of Bourjos’ speed could take a while to unfold. But after all these years, they sure don’t mind having the option.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.