ST. LOUIS — On the day the Cardinals traded for center fielder Peter Bourjos last November, manager Mike Matheny called Jon Jay and assured him that he would not be overlooked.
While the gesture was appreciated, Jay said it was unnecessary.
"I’m here to compete, I’m here to help the team win any way I can," Jay said. "That kind of move shows how this organization is willing to do whatever it takes to win."
As the season played out, the call from his skipper was unnecessary for another reason, too.
The way Jay played in 2014, no way could the Cardinals overlook him. When Bourjos struggled early, Jay was ready. He did not step in and take off as much as he just played his steady game. By the end of April, he was hitting .284 to .160 for Bourjos. Though Bourjos would get plenty of chances over the next several weeks, he never showed Matheny enough to beat out Jay.
By the second half, center field belonged to Jay. He finished the season playing in 140 games with 468 plate appearances; Bourjos finished at 119 with 294.
Jay led Cardinals regulars with a .303 batting average, finished second to third baseman Matt Carpenter with a .372 on-base percentage and led the majors by being hit by a pitch 20 times. Just as important as his offensive contributions was that Jay’s defense returned to his pre-2013 level (though don’t suggest that to Jay, who said he could not tell a difference between 2014 and 2013). He wasn’t quite Bourjos in center field, but he was well above average.
Jay’s overall performance was strong enough that general manager John Mozeliak said he won’t be shopping for a potential upgrade in center field this offseason.
"How he played the second half was, frankly, altering how we look at him moving forward," the GM said.
Perhaps it’s time everyone looked at Jay a bit differently. While he’s not likely to win an MVP or even make the All-Star Game, he has proven to be quite a winning player. Consider this: In the Cardinals’ four-year run of advancing to at least the NL Championship Series, Jay is their only player to appear in all 57 postseason games. For a guy who says he doesn’t judge his season on his numbers, that stat matters.
"My goal in the beginning of every year is to be playing a lot in September leading into October," he said. "I know that to be in the lineup at that point, I must have done something during the year."
Jay has played in only five big-league seasons since being taken in the second round of the 2006 draft but he already is tied for fourth in franchise history for most playoff games. Though he shrugs off talk about his individual performance, he does not downplay the significance of reaching the NLCS four times.
"You want to be part of that Cardinals history," he said. "We see it when guys come into town for reunions of the World Series (winners). That’s a cool thing you point out to a young guy: ‘Hey, man, that should be us one day. Twenty years from now when we’re old with our families, we’ll be coming back to St. Louis to celebrate a world championship.’ That’s what it’s about."
Jay doesn’t turn 30 until March 15, but he no longer is one of the youngsters being mentored by the likes of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter. These days, Jay is one of the old guys showing the youngsters the way as they arrive in St. Louis and are immediately expected to contribute.
"I got so much information and support and advice from guys before, from Albert, Carp, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran," Jay said. "I feel like it’s my turn now to share that with the younger guys. It’s a fun process. Every day I thank God for this opportunity I’ve been given."
Jay said this the day before he started in center field in the 2014 NLCS. Though spring didn’t start the way he would have preferred, he was right where he wanted to be in October.
"It was different for him this year," Matheny said late in the season. "But to his credit, I can’t think of one day all season when he didn’t say, ‘Hey, whatever you need me to do, I’ll be ready.’ And it was sincere. It was nice to see a guy like that take off and prove it to everybody."
Jay did so despite playing the final two months of the regular season and the playoffs with a sore left wrist that required arthroscopic cleanup after the season. The surgery is not expected to slow him in 2015.
That should not come as a surprise, though — not after he proved last season there isn’t much that can hold him back.