Even before Opening Day 2011, the Angels figured Peter Bourjos would play Gold Glove-caliber center field. What they didn't know was that, by season's end, he'd be one of the best all-around center fielders in the game.
Last season was about growth from the team's surprising crop of young players. Nobody grew up faster than Bourjos, 24.
His speed, rivaled on the Angels' roster only by Mike Trout, allowed Bourjos to make the big outfield at Angel Stadium less accommodating to opposing hitters. Based on the stat Defensive Runs Saved, only Austin Jackson of the Detroit Tigers played better center field than Bourjos last year, and it was close. Jackson saved 22 runs, Bourjos 21 and the next guy -- Cameron Maybin -- 12.
The fact that neither Jackson nor Bourjos won a Gold Glove last year probably tells you all you need to know about how much attention the league's managers and coaches are paying to other teams' rosters.
The defensive part seems to come relatively easy to Bourjos. His strides in the batter's box were less expected and more impressive. Based strictly on batting average, his second half wasn't much different than his first. He batted .272 before the All-Star break and .270 after it. But that only obscures the strides he made.
One of the fastest guys in the game, Bourjos used to waste his primary asset with high strikeout rates. But as last season progressed, his contact rate shot up dramatically. In 72 fewer at-bats after the All-Star break, Bourjos struck out 34 fewer times. He also made harder contact, with nine of his 12 home runs coming after the break.
Does that mean the Angels can expect a linear progression from their young center fielders? Of course not -- how often does this game confound projections -- but his solid follow-up season to that late-2010 debut cemented him as one of the team's bedrock players. He's also an exceptional value, earning around the league minimum for the next two years, as the cost of defense has risen in recent years.
The next step in Bourjos' improvement -- and the most convenient for the Angels' needs -- would be for him to mold his game to the leadoff spot. The Angels really don't have many other good options there, with Erick Aybar's inability to get on base consistently and Alberto Callaspo's lack of speed.
There's hope. Bourjos seemed more willing (and able) to walk in the minor leagues, his .346 on-base percentage there contrasting with his .303 mark in the majors. Based on the course of 2011, it would be foolish to bet against Bourjos making another key adjustment.