When the offseason began, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs led a passel of stat-savvy analysts who said Michael Bourn had a chance to be one of the winter’s biggest mistakes for someone. I only just barely agreed with him then. Now, barely three weeks from the reporting date for pitchers and catchers to spring camps, I am firmly in Bourne’s corner.
Very probably, Cameron has softened his stance by now, but I’m betting neither he nor any other prominent thinker is as bullish on the deal Bourn will probably end up signing as I am. I write in support of the notion that any team considering a Bourn deal should stop considering, already, and go get him.
What is a Michael Bourn?
Bourn was a Philadelphia Phillies prospect about a decade ago, established himself as a Houston Astro and played the last season and a half for the Atlanta Braves, getting his first deep breaths of contending, open air. He’s a very fast, very polished left-handed hitter and center fielder, a leadoff hitter, without power.
I should deliver some caveats on that profile, because it’s one that conjures images and comparisons Bourn neither fits nor deserves. For one thing, despite his lack of pop and the fact that he stands just under six feet tall, Bourn is not a puny guy. Don’t think Juan Pierre here. (Don’t worry, I’ll repeat that last bit as we go.)
Bourn weighs 180 pounds, and is thin, not skinny. His hips and shoulders are of average width. He’s not narrow, just lean. This helps him in terms of hitting the ball hard, even though he doesn’t often leverage up and swing for the fences, and it also gives him an average or average-plus arm in center field. Don’t think Juan Pierre defensively, especially throwing-wise.
Bourn also differs from most players of his profile (Pierre, Lance Johnson, Mickey Rivers) in the way he approaches plate appearances. He’s unafraid to strike out, and has always done so at a slightly above-average rate for his league. He also walks slightly more often than an average hitter, though, and has even made marked steps forward in that area in the past few years. Do you remember Otis Nixon? Think about how Nixon battled in his at-bats. Bourn is like Otis Nixon that way. Bourn saw a career-high 4.15 pitches per plate appearance in 2012, which is an underrated asset for a leadoff guy.
There are some other things about Bourn that set him apart from other players of his general profile. For instance, he nearly never bounces into double plays: Just two in a career-high 84 chances in 2012, and only 5% of all chances for his career. (For reference, Pierre is at 8%.) Part of that is about striking out instead, but then again, this is one reason those who have studied it seriously downplay the importance of making a ton of contact.
Bourn is also unusually non-reliant upon infield and/or bunt hits, or was so in 2012. He had only 27 infield hits last year, seven on bunts. Ryan Braun had 27 infield hits in 2012. Ryan Braun! It’s a relatively small number for a Bourn type to post in a full season, considering how good Bourn was in that season.
It’s too soon to equate Bourn’s offensive game to Braun’s in any other way, but Bourn did also set a career high with a .117 ISO (isolated power, slugging average minus batting average) last season. He’s never been short on doubles-plus-triples, just homers, and in 2012, he suddenly cracked nine of those. Don’t think Juan Pierre in terms of extra bases. Bourn blows him out of the water.
Bourn has manageable, basically average platoon splits. He has a career .727 OPS against right-handed pitchers, .642 against southpaws. As one would expect, he does much better in terms of strikeouts and walks (18.6% whiffs, 9.5% walks) against righties than against lefties (24.4% strikeouts, 6.9% walks), but around that, not a ton changes.
One note relates to those splits, and should be borne in mind when considering an already-good 2012 for Bourn: He faced more lefties than one would have expected. Most lefties see right-handed pitchers in roughly 75 percent of their plate appearances, and Bourn is historically in that range, but last year (in a lefty-laden Braves lineup), he saw righties just 63 percent of the time. Using his career splits and turning 10 percent of his plate trips from .642-OPS PA to .727-OPS PA, he could have gotten a nice nudge from just below average to just over it. He will probably see that treatment even out next year, so give him some bonus points.
Why is he still available?
I have made Bourn sound awfully good, because I think he is. I hope I haven’t undersold his defense. His arm is average or better, as I said, but his speed and instincts are also great. He’s one of baseball’s five best defensive center fielders right now, and will be first-division on defense at least another few years.
Yet, he remains a free agent. Scott Boras may love using time crunches and thin supply as leverage, but not this much. He would have preferred Bourn already signed by now. We need to examine why teams are reticent to jump in with a multiyear deal for the right kind of money on an asset of which, at the very least, we can say that I wasn’t working too hard to paint rosily.
One major reason, of course, is the qualifying offer attached to Bourn. Plenty of teams would love a left-hitting leadoff hitter with defensive value, but losing a draft pick (and the bonus-pool money allotted thereto) hurts much worse under the new CBA, and most of them are unwilling to pay that price, on top of Bourne’s salary.
Other factors are in play. The research to date on aging various skill sets doesn’t generally smile on guys without power, or guys whose primary value is on defense. The Juan Pierre precedent is hurting Bourn, too: Pierre signed a five-year contract prior to 2007 that ended badly, with Pierre forced to move off center field early in the deal and unable to meet the offensive responsibilities of a left fielder.
I may be overstating the degree to which people are equating Bourn to Pierre and his ilk, but I find it overwhelmingly necessary to make clear how dissimilar they are, and how much better Bourn is. At any rate, Bourn is a rare talent, better than most position players who will reach free agency for the foreseeable future. He deserves a solid deal, and I now think he will end up a steal for some team who eventually throws up its hands and adds him.
Again, several teams have interest in Bourn, the collection of skills and talent. What they are balking at, so far, is the prospect of losing a pick and paying what Bourn and Boras are asking for monetarily, too. Still, there are several different paths to Bourn finding a home:
Just Stay Home
Atlanta is the only team who can sign Bourn without losing a draft pick. He played well for them, they have a hole both in their outfield and atop their lineup, and presumably a price exists at which the Braves would want Bourn back.
Unfortunately, that price is likely to be lower than the one at which Bourn would be interested in coming back. Atlanta has already signed B.J. Upton this winter, costing them a draft pick, so they will be loathe to give up the one Bourn might earn them elsewhere. That would drop their offer price. Bourn, though, will want more money from them, because by re-signing, he would be wading into a situation in which his ultimate role might be very unclear. Upton muddied those waters. It’s fairly hard to see Boras going to Atlanta on a deal smaller than the one they handed out to Upton, but that contract (five years, $75.5 million) is way out of Bourne’s reach now.
Weird Ohio Fits
Cincinnati is by no means known as a team eager to spend, and they have three major commitments to outfielders already on their 2013 ledger. They also have Chris Heisey. On the other hand, none of the projected starters there is a true center fielder.
The Reds are the favorites in the NL Central, and quite well-positioned to profit from every marginal win this year. Their top prospect is a Bourn starter kit, or maybe even better, named Billy Hamilton, so Bourn would be settling for a short-term deal with the Reds, but at the right price and with the right conditions included, there may be a fit there.
Few teams would lose less by making this addition. Cleveland’s first-round pick is protected, and they lost their second already by signing Nick Swisher. Losing a third rounder would essentially mean punting a chunk of the June draft, but it might be worthwhile.
Put Bourn into the outfield mix in Cleveland, and things get interesting. Either Drew Stubbs or Michael Brantley could become trade bait. The Indians could strengthen their rotation further. It’d set off a flurry of other-shoe moves, in fact, and maybe it’s too late in the winter for that, but the resulting Indians team would be fascinating.
In the midst of a rebuild on a broad scale, the Cubs will not want to part with a draft pick, even though their first one is protected. If the price drops far enough, though, and/or if they find a taker for David DeJesus, this could be a fit. Although DeJesus is passable and there are a couple center-field prospects in-house, Bourn would mark an immediate upgrade at the top of the order and (especially) on defense in center field. He’d be a good fit at Wrigley Field, likely able to stay in center for the entire contract thanks to the small center field there.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Tentatively committed to a half-decade of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers have made occasional noise this winter about trading Ethier. That would bump Kemp (maybe baseball’s worst center fielder with the glove) to right and open center for Bourn.
This is an especially intriguing scenario because of the Dodgers’ winter-long aggressiveness and their apparently infinite operating budget. They are hurting for a leadoff guy. There’s no set of moves they could make to better line up for a run at the 2013 World Series than to trade Ethier and sign Bourn.
New York Mets
This one is sort of out there. Although listed with the other wealthy long shots, the Mets might be more akin to the small-market teams circling Bourn just to see how far his market rate falls. The David Wright extension committed New York to at least modest efforts to contend in the near term, but nothing about their offseason since reflects that. Bourn would lend some stability and spark to a very fluid situation in the outfield, and another at the top of the order.
Dark Midwestern Horses
Chicago White Sox
No team moves more stealthily in spots like this, so even if the Sox were on Bourn, we probably wouldn’t know yet. Now, team officials say the budget has been met, but they could always sign Bourn and package an outfielder with Gavin Floyd to create space. That might also help them get stronger at some questionable spots, like at backup catcher and in the bullpen.
Whether they get Bourn or not, I would not be surprised if the Sox were involved in his signing. They could easily be the landing spot for Ethier that allows the Dodgers to make their move.
Kansas City Royals
Hey, if you’re all in, be all in. The Royals traded baseball’s best offensive prospect for a front-line pitcher, so they’re all in. Bourn would allow Alex Gordon to slide down in the order if necessary, and would finish off one of baseball’s very best defensive outfields. It might even allow Dayton Moore to trade Lorenzo Cain and some prospect bulk to get a Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco or Bud Norris for the Royals’ overhauled (but still somewhat lacking) rotation. You have to wonder where Poor David Glass would find the cash, though…
St. Louis Cardinals
Jon Jay is an acceptable center fielder and leadoff hitter. Bourn is a better one. St. Louis has the farm system to withstand losing a first-round pick easily, and Jay could become part of a package to bolster their weak middle infield.
The Main Contenders
Who knows what Jack Zduriencik is doing this winter? It sure looks like he’s done, but if he could find find a landing spot for an outfielder or two on the current roster, he could bring Bourn aboard, and the Mariners would be better. Michael Saunders is a fine player, but no Bourn. Ditto Casper Wells and Franklin Gutierrez.
By the way, Seattle has the last of the protected first-round picks, so the one they would lose (in the second round) would be as far back as anyone but the Indians could go.
Like Seattle and St. Louis, Texas has the minor-league talent on hand to forsake their top draft choice without cracking too cold a sweat. Like Cincinnati, they have all kinds of talent and are good playoff bets, but lack a clear starting center fielder.
Bourn’s arrival would out Leonys Martin on the block, and he could help head up a package for a starting pitcher of the sort on which the Rangers missed out entirely this winter.
What the market will bear
I see Bourn ending up in Texas, at this point. They seem very unwilling to surrender Jurickson Profar or Mike Olt in any deal, but that stance has cornered them, and they need a starting pitcher badly. I think they’ll ink Bourn, then pursue either Matt Garza (if healthy) or Gavin Floyd during Spring Training, with Martin heading up their offer.
That said, it feels wide open. I listed and encapsulated 11 teams above, and may not have even mentioned the right answer. I’m firm on only one thing: Bourn’s deal will be considered team-friendly before it’s over.Next post: What Sports Offers Society, or: Why I’m Not Much Interested in Manti Te’o
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