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Signed OF-L Michael Bourn to a four-year deal worth $48 million with a vesting option that could push the deal's worth to $60 million. [2/11]
Imagine reading this headline back in November: Bourn signs with the Indians as camps open. You'd think it was from 2017 or 2018, but it's not. With a few strokes of a pen all the talk about the Mets and their unprotected pick goes by the wayside. Instead the Indians, whose first-round pick is protected, stepped up and signed the best remaining free agent. The deal still comes at a draft-pick cost: Cleveland will lose pick 69, a selection added in the competitive balance draft lottery. Cleveland already lost its second-round pick for signing Nick Swisher, leaving them one pick in the first 70.
In return the Indians get one of the game's best outfield defenders. The same athleticism and explosiveness that propels Bourn to here and fro in the outfield shows up in his offensive game. Bourn is a threat to lead the league in steals, having swiped 40 or more in each of the past five years. He's opportunistic about advancing during the run of play, and the bunt is part of his offensive toolbox. While the previous sentences seem to build to a conclusion about Bourn being the typical leadoff hitter, he's far from it. Rather Bourn is not as contact-heavy as you might expect: He fanned a career-high 22 percent of the time in 2012, and owns a 20 percent strikeout rate since 2010. The overall package still lends itself to above-average production, however.
The risk comes in the latter years of the contract. If Bourn's speed deteriorates or his strikeout rate worsens then the dynamics change. He doesn't walk or hit for enough power to make up for going down on strikes a quarter or more of the time. Nate Silver once showed that center fielders tend to worsen at a more rapid pace than the normal player, with a precipitous drop coming at age 32. Bourn will play this season at age 30. Should he adhere to Silver's aging curve then most of the value gained will come in the first two years, which seems like a fair estimate anyhow.
Terry Francona has lineup options to consider in the coming weeks, but here's a guess on how it'll all turn out: Bourn will take over in center field and will be flanked by Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs. The trio will form one of the best flyball defenses in the league. Nick Swisher's defensive reps will come at first base and Mark Reynolds will become Cleveland's everyday designated hitter. That alignment beats the alternative, which includes Swisher in the outfielder, Reynolds at the cold corner, and a merry-go-round of unappealing options at DH.
And let's not ignore Francona's impact on Cleveland's offseason. He was the first big domino to fall. From there the Indians have asked him not to babysit youth, but to guide a veteran-laden group. Cleveland grabbed Swisher and Reynolds to provide offensive support to Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Jason Kipnis. They dealt Shin-Soo Choo and gained the maddening pair of Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs in return along with Matt Albers. Brett Myers was brought in to provide stability in the back of the rotation. In recent days the Indians have signed big-league veterans Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka to minor-league contracts. Over the course of one offseason, the Indians have gone from an afterthought to a fringe contender waiting on the Tigers to slip. Even if Francona had no say in the moves, he will serve as the symbol for a renewed optimism in Cleveland.