One of the features of old-timey baseball, back before Branch Rickey of, appropriately enough, the Cardinals standardized player development, was the flash-in-the-pan player. These were players who usually came up a bit older than the traditional prospect, either because they hadn't come to the attention of scouts, took some extra time to develop in the lower minors, or simply found that they liked the nice weather and better-than-majors salaries of the Pacific Coast League, and had a good season or two before vanishing again. Because aging curves and small samples weren't well understood, these players sometimes got mistaken for arriving stars rather than lucky journeymen, but quite often they'd play themselves back to the bench or the minors in fairly short order. It took a couple of decades, but eventually Rickey's farm system largely euthanized the "late bloomer," which meant fewer surprises but better career value for both teams and players.
David Freese, who on Friday was traded from the Cardinals to the Angels along with reliever Fernando Salas in return for outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, is a throwback to that time. It's not that he was missed so much as he didn't get drafted until he was 23, took a few years to make it through the minors, was traded, and underwent major surgeries on his left foot and right ankle. As such, he didn't make it to the bigs until he was 26 and, having subsequently endured several more injuries, including surgery to repair a broken left hand, he didn't get in a full season until he was 29.
When Freese did play he was a solid hitter, posting a 109 OPS+ in 70 games in 2010, 118 in 97 games in the regular season in 2011, adding in both NLCS and World Series MVP honors, hitting .545 with three home runs in the former and .348 with one homer in the latter. Finally relatively healthy in 2012, he hit .293/.372/.467 with 25 doubles and 20 home runs. He also hit well in the NLDS before going cold in the next round.
That might be it for Freese in terms of All-Star-type seasons. Although he made it into 138 games this year, he was hampered by a back injury he sustained diving into the stands during spring training and hit only .262/.340/.381 with poor defense, making him a sub-replacement-level player on the season. He continued to hit poorly in October. Not only is a back injury the kind of thing that might linger and/or become chronic, but Freese is heading into his age-31 season, a point at which many players with a mid-range skill set are already starting to slip -- a player who starts slow and loses half a step is often in trouble. Further, Freese has more than established that he has a friable body; staying healthy is a skill he does not possess, so there is likely more downtime and further erosion of his skills on order. Add in that he's going to a park in Anaheim that is unlikely to give him much help (not that Busch Stadium did either) and you have a picture of a player who stands a pretty good chance of continuing to underwhelm.
The Angels paid a fairly high price to acquire Freese and Salas, sending away one of the top defensive outfielders in the game (albeit one who has trouble staying healthy and whose bat may limit him to the eighth spot in the batting order or fourth outfielder status) and a prospect who, though limited by lack of speed and patience, was one of the better-looking chips in a thin system. That being said, they needed a third baseman and the ranks of the position are quite thin right now. The average age of the class of free agent third basemen is about 35; most of the players on it, such as Placido Polanco, Kevin Youkilis, and Michael Young, are well past their sell-by date. Freese probably has as much upside as any hot corner-man likely to be available this winter, which is to say more than none.
Because third base was a position at which major league teams could not quite figure out if they preferred offense or defense until relatively recently (somewhere between Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt), the position has had a ton of those short-term wonders that Freese may yet come to exemplify in baseball's second millennium. A few nominees for the Freese Flash in the Pan Third Base All-Star Team:
Art Devlin, 1906 New York Giants: Devlin had a very solid career, one worth 36.7 wins above replacement in just 10 years, but he was more of a glove man with a decent bat than an MVP type. The one exception came in aught-six, when he hit .299/.396/.390 with 54 stolen bases. That looks like nothing special now, something you could hide on the back of Chone Figgins' baseball card, but Devlin did it in a league that hit .244/.310/.310. The combination of offense and defense meant he was worth eight wins, or roughly twice what he was worth in most other seasons.
Debs Garms, 1940 Pittsburgh Pirates: There are only so many players named after leading socialists of the early 20th century (no, Indians great Hal Trosky doesn't count), so Garms is special before we even get to the fact that he won the 1940 batting title with a random .355/.395/.500 season (146 OPS+) while playing third and the outfield corners for the Pirates. That batting title was controversial; Garms had had only 385 plate appearances. He had also finished the season in an eight-game 0-for-23 slump. Still, it was a good season.
Whitey Kurowski, 1945-1947 St. Louis Cardinals: The third baseman on the Cards' 1942, 1944, and 1946 championship teams had three great years, peaking at .310/.420/.544 with 27 home runs and 87 walks in 1947. He was just 29 years old, but he was done; a childhood injury had wrecked his throwing arm, and after that big year he could barely play.
Pete Ward, 1963-1964 Chicago White Sox: The words "Chicago White Sox" and "great third baseman" almost never go together. In fact, other than Bill Melton, between Willie Kamm and Robin Ventura that almost didn't bother with third base at all. Ward is one of those players who accounts for the "almost." The Sox moved him around a lot, injuries cut his career short, and he played at a time when no one hit much so his stats don't look like much, but his .295/.353/.482 and .282/.348/.473 seasons in 1963 and 1964 translate to 4.1 and 6.3 WAR, respectively.
Ken McMullen, 1968-1969 Washington Senators: More of a glove man than a slugger, McMullen had his best years while playing for a now-defunct expansion team that didn't know what it was doing at a time when offense was at an all-time low. That's why you have to squint to see how special his .248/.326/.382 with 20 home runs in 1968 and his .282/.349/.425 in 1969 really were.
Billy Grabarkewitz, 1970 Los Angeles Dodgers: Hit .289/.399/.454 with 17 home runs as a 24-year-old rookie. Injuries and a crowded outfield meant he never played more than 87 games in any other season.
This is the club the Angels can look forward to joining, perhaps along with the aforementioned Figgins, whose 7.7 WAR in 2009 represented more than one third of his career total.