Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bourn Settles for Cleveland

With spring training only days away and another long winter without baseball drawing to a close, Michael Bourn has found a home at last.

The most attractive free agent still on the market agreed to a four-year deal with the Cleveland Indians worth $48 million. While that figure is substantially less than the Scott Boras client expected to get when the offseason began, it includes a vesting option that could tack on a fifth year worth another $12 million if Bourn reaches 550 plate appearances in 2016. Bourn will be 33 by then, a tricky age, but should be able to reach the benchmark as long as he's a) relatively healthy and b) still batting leadoff for the Tribe.

Bourn joins Nick Swisher, who signed his own four-year deal, in Cleveland's madeover (and crowded; who will man left field--Drew Stubbs or Michael Brantley?) outfield. Gone are longtime Indians/fan favorites Grady Sizemore (free agency) and Shin-Soo Choo (traded to Seattle). Whereas Swish adds power and patience to fortify the heart of Terry Francona's lineup, Bourn brings speed and defense. A two-time Gold Glove winner and elite center fielder, Bourn has twice saved more runs with his glove than any other defender in baseball. He also uses his legs to his advantage on the basepaths, averaging 51 thefts per year since 2008 and leading the majors in steals over the past half-decade.

Though Bourn is nothing special with the bat (.704 career OPS), his combination of speed and defense at a premium position make him very valuable. According to Baseball-Reference, the two-time All-Star has been worth exactly 19 wins above replacement over the past four years. FanGraphs agrees and is even more generous, crediting him with 20.1 wins in that span, more than Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, and Prince Fielder.

But rather than bring Bourn back, the Atlanta Braves made a splash by opting to shell out over $75 million for B.J. Upton and trade for his little brother, Justin Upton, instead. Considering that Bourn rates as the more valuable player and Cleveland nabbed him for two-thirds the cost of Bossman Junior, I'd say the Indians scored a solid bargain. Since the going rate for a win on the open market is roughly $5 million these days, all Bourn has to do is contribute ten wins over the next four seasons, an average of 2.5 per year, for the Indians to break even. Given that he was worth six wins last year alone, I'd bank on him living up to his end of the deal.

There is an element of risk with Bourn, though; the fear is that he could be the next Carl Crawford. Most of his value is tied up in his speed, a young man's skill that diminishes with age (though Juan Pierre and Ichiro Suzuki are still going strong). Now that he's on the wrong side of 30, Bourn has already peaked and it's possible he's about to enter his decline phase. I think Bourn still has a few four-to-five win seasons left in the tank, but wouldn't be surprised to see him struggle a bit in his first year with the Tribe as he adjusts to the new league, city, and ballpark, as most free agents seem to do after signing a new contract.

But even if Bourn slumps, at least he figures to play everyday, which is more than Grady Sizemore can say.

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