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December 27, 2012

Overthinking It

Bourn to Be ... What?

by Ben Lindbergh

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Michael Bourn turns 30 today, but barring a buzzer-beating offer, he won’t get the gift of a new contract until after his birthday. Bourn, the highest-ranked free agent remaining on the market, hasn’t attracted the widespread interest that he and agent Scott Boras had hoped for. Some teams may be concerned that the center fielder’s speed-based skill set could suffer once he loses a step; others might be reluctant or unwilling to forfeit the draft pick Bourn would cost them because of the qualifying offer he received from the Braves. Regardless of their reasons for looking elsewhere, several potential buyers for Bourn have already removed themselves from the running by making other moves: the Nationals, Phillies, Reds, and A’s have landed center fielders via trade, while the Giants and Braves have invested in other free agents, re-signing Angel Pagan and bringing in B.J. Upton, respectively.

It’s still too soon for Bourn to panic or consider seeking new representation. While it’s possible that he’ll have to settle for the so-called “pillow contract” that some Boras clients have had to swallow when their expected megadeals never materialized, Boras has often wangled the biggest possible payday by waiting until late in the offseason, when some teams are desperate for an upgrade and there are few attractive alternatives to his high-profile clients.

While the pool of potential suitors has shrunk, several destinations are still in play. Of course, some teams with vacancies in center probably aren’t realistic possibilities: Bourn would improve teams like the Mets, Astros, or even Rockies (in the event of a Dexter Fowler deal) as much as anyone, but those clubs are too strapped for cash or too far from competition to consider signing such a big-ticket item. Assuming he’ll eventually land an Upton-esque deal—or at least a contract of equivalent annual value over fewer years—the following three teams would both be able to afford Bourn and benefit most from his services:

Seattle Mariners
After inheriting a weak defensive Seattle team in 2008, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik made it his mission to build a club that could catch the ball. The M’s have been one of baseball’s best defensive teams in every season since. Incumbent center fielder Franklin Gutierrez was a vital part of Zduriencik’s initial defensive makeover, but health problems have limited him to just 132 games over the past two seasons, and he could be a year away from free agency if Seattle doesn’t exercise his $7.5 million option for 2014. While Bourn might have made an even bigger impact before the Mariners decided to move Safeco’s fences in, the park should still play plenty big. Signing Bourn, sliding Gutierrez over to an outfield corner, and trading some of the team’s surplus outfield parts for a starter would solve a lot of problems for Seattle.

Bourn would also bring some on-base ability to the top of an order that’s sorely in need of anyone who can avoid making outs: Mariners leadoff batters (mostly Dustin Ackley) managed only a .281 OBP last season, by far the lowest of any AL team. The M’s have largely been linked to hitters who would have improved the team's power output, like Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher, but putting more men on base would go a long way toward curbing their offensive ineptitude. Improving their performance after they reach base wouldn’t hurt, either: the Mariners were the AL’s second worst baserunning team in 2012, at more than eight runs below average. Bourn, who led the majors with 11.7 Baserunning Runs last season, could have put them in the black by himself.

Texas Rangers
Texas has been one of the least active contending teams this winter, but not for lack of trying: the Rangers have expressed interest in nearly every top free agent and trade target, but they haven’t inked anyone more expensive than A.J. Pierzynski. Meanwhile, the division-rival Angels have raided the Rangers’ roster for Josh Hamilton, leaving Texas in a tenuous position for 2013 unless the team makes another move. On Wednesday afternoon, Rangers GM Jon Daniels admitted, “It’s a decent chance we’ll look to add somebody,” and that somebody might be Bourn.

The addition of Bourn would do nothing to replace the home runs the Rangers lost when Hamilton and Mike Napoli left, but runs prevented are about as beneficial as runs scored, and what Bourn lacks in extra-base power he makes up with his ability to deprive opposing players of hits. Texas had a middle-of-the-pack defense last season, and Bourn’s elite play in center would help address that deficiency. The biggest obstacle for Boras might be that Texas already has two speed-and-defense-oriented center fielders in Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry, who could platoon in center and provide a decent approximation of Bourn’s value for a fraction of the price. Daniels might not consider the different between Bourn and his in-house options worth the premium he’d have to pay.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs make less sense as a suitor for Bourn than the other two teams (and much less sense than Seattle), but they haven’t hesitated to spend this winter, they spoke to Boras about Bourn early in the offseason, and their center field situation is something of a cipher. The Cubs’ current center field depth chart is topped by David DeJesus, who hasn’t played center as his primary position since 2007; prospect Brett Jackson will start the season in Triple-A after his ugly 2012 debut, and he’s far from a sure thing. After signing Nate Schierholtz, Chicago might need to trade Alfonso Soriano to make room for Bourn, but a Soriano trade has long been on the Cubs' agenda anyway.

Although they might still be a year or two away from contention, the Cubs have been aggressive on the free-agent market, and they showed they weren’t unwilling to make a multi-year commitment when they locked up Edwin Jackson. It’s a long shot, but if Bourn’s asking price falls far enough, it wouldn’t be out of character for Theo Epstein to try to take advantage of a down market.

It’s possible that another team could get involved in the Bourn bidding, but it would likely require a trade, a position switch, or a dramatic reduction in the outfielder’s demands. The Dodgers and Red Sox have reportedly toyed with the idea of trading Andre Ethier and Jacoby Ellsbury, respectively, which could free up space for Bourn. The Phillies have been tied to Bourn despite their trade for Ben Revere, who’s best suited for center. Dealing for Revere only to consign him to a corner wouldn’t seem to make much sense, but it’s never wise to bet against Ruben Amaro making a splash. Maybe the Blue Jays, who’ve already signed or traded for a roster’s worth of stars this offseason, could throw caution to the winds and bench or trade the disappointing Colby Rasmus in favor of Bourn. The Jays haven’t been rumored as a destination for Bourn, but signing him wouldn’t be the first major move Alex Anthopoulos has made without warning. That might sound far-fetched, but aside from Seattle or Texas, there are few natural fits for Bourn—which helps to explain why he’s still looking for work this later in the winter.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Michael Bourn

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