Versatility appeared to be the key concept behind the maneuver, with the Cubs adding a player who could play multiple positions. Of particular interest is Freel's experience at third base, a spot where regular starter Aramis Ramirez has endured injury issues this season.
"It just became apparent that we would be better off with a little more versatility," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said via pregame conference call. "Ryan can play the infield or the outfield, so he seemed to make sense in that role.
"We knew there would come a time when we'd have to give [Micah] Hoffpauir a chance, and we weren't positive he was going to make it over the winter out of camp. We knew there was going to come a time when we would have to shuffle the deck and end up with someone who can play the infield. With Rammy's injury, that became more apparent. Obviously, with Reed [Johnson] and Hoffy, we're covered in a lot of ways in the outfield."
The 33-year-old Freel can play all three outfield positions, though he has also spent significant time at second and third base -- roughly 35 percent of his big league innings. With the Cubs realizing unexpected depth in the outfield thanks to Kosuke Fukudome and Hoffpauir exceeding expectations, they are more interested in Freel's infield glove.
"Probably we'll see his game more suited in the National League than the league he was in," Hendry said. "He's a guy [manager] Lou [Piniella] can double switch with. ... If someone pulls a hammy or something, you can put him in any of the outfield spots. He's a baseball player. I remember when we saw him a lot in our division, he played the game a lot like Reed Johnson, except he could play infield as well."
Freel had two hits in his first 15 at-bats with Baltimore before landing on the 15-day disabled list with a head injury on April 20. He recently completed his rehabilitation assignment and had openly welcomed a trade elsewhere.
Freel was traded to the Orioles from Cincinnati, where he spent six seasons, in an offseason deal that sent catcher Ramon Hernandez the other way. In eight big league seasons, Freel has a .358 on-base percentage, .272 average and .731 OPS.
"Hopefully he'll come back and be the player he was before," Hendry said. "We did have a few of our scouts see him recently and feel like he was going to be able to help."
Hendry said scouts felt the current head injury would not prove problematic, comparing it to the situation faced with Jim Edmonds last year. Freel will be activated from Baltimore's disabled list, and the Cubs will add him immediately to the 25-man roster once he reports to his new club Saturday.
The Cubs, who needed to make a roster move anyway to activate Friday's starting pitcher Randy Wells, will then need to make another roster move. Infielder Bobby Scales was among the candidates to make space.
Gathright, in his sixth Major League season, had made just 15 plate appearances this season, with three singles in 14 official at-bats. After stealing 21 of 25 bases last season with Kansas City, Gathright was signed to a one-year deal in the offseason primarily as a speedy option off the bench, with the ability to play all three outfield roles.
To make the move possible, Gathright was outrighted to Triple-A Iowa and accepted his assignment. He will initially be a member of Baltimore's Triple-A roster as a result. The Orioles will assume responsibility for the difference between the two contracts.
JR Radcliffe is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.