With less than 22 days before Spring Training officially starts, a few high-profile free agents still haven't signed with major league teams. Players like Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, and Joe Saunders* are still looking for contracts, probably at least in part due to the new rules about draft pick compensation. But the best player available is still probably former Phillies / Astros / Braves center fielder Michael Bourn.
[ * Note -- I guess Joe Saunders counts, but I don't like it.]
Bourn had a tremendous season in 2012, posting a .274/.348/.391 slash line, good for a 104 wRC+. And while the hitting line isn't world-beating, the defense and running ability is. According to UZR, Bourn was worth 22.4 runs above replacement as a fielder, more than two wins just with the glove. And beyond that, his preternatural speed allowed him to rack up 6.6 runs above average as well. The total package, then, appears to be worth 6.4 wins above replacement, which was good enough to make him the 13th most-valuable position player in baseball via this metric.
So how does Bourn not have a job right now? Well, the short answer is probably that he possesses a skill set that may be undervalued, but signing Bourn will probably cost a signing team a first-round draft pick in the upcoming Rule 4 Draft. In addition, teams might be wary that his fielding and defense might not really make him as valuable as advanced stats / WAR values might reflect. Single-season defensive numbers can be a little sketchy in terms of true talent level. While there's no real question that Bourn is a good defensive outfielder, perhaps teams don't think his defense *really* adds two wins, or that his speed is worth more than half a win.
So, today Michael Bourn is unemployed. There's literally thirty possibilities as for the major league team that he ends up on next season. For whatever it is worth, here are the five most interesting fits I could see for Michael Bourn. Keep in mind that this is pure speculation, and not based on any discussions with any front office sources. Primarily because I currently do not have any front office sources.
Kansas City Royals
Okay guys, hear me out. The Royals are obviously pushing hard to win in 2013, what with their trade for James Shields and Wade Davis, and currently the team has a gaping hole in right field named Jeff Francoeur. If the Royals were to sign Michael Bourn, the team could plug Bourn in center field, and move Lorenzo "Kwai Chang" Cain over to right field. This would give the Royals an unbelievable defensive outfield*, while giving the team a player who can hit leadoff, get on base, and steal bases.
[ * Note: You may hear this again in this article.]
Of course, the Royals are a pretty decent drafting team, so giving up a first-round pick doesn't seem like something Dayton Moore would normally do. But Moore's probably on the hot seat, looking to justify his "Process" as soon as possible, so maybe the cost isn't prohibitive for the team. And the upgrade from Jeff Francoeur to Michael Bourn might be several wins, putting the Royals that much closer to their stated goal of reaching the playoffs.
Maybe Michael Bourn would be the last piece the Royals need to get to the promised land. Wouldn't that be interesting?
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have often been compared to the Royals this offseason, in part due to their trading of multiple prospects for an ace starter, like the Royals. But the Jays actually added three great starters this winter, and stand a reasonable chance of contending thanks to the stars they've added in the offseason. Like with the Royals, if the Jays were to add Bourn, the team could set off a chain of positional moves that could fill a gaping lineup hole: the one at first base.
Adding Bourn could mean moving Colby Rasmus to right field, and all-world hitter Jose Bautista to first base, where the Jays have a marked weakness. With a Cabrera / Bourn / Rasmus outfield, the Jays would also have a very strong defensive outfield, while Bautista would anchor a very strong infield.
The Jays have already added a huge amount of payroll during this offseason, as the costs of Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey aren't insignificant. However, the team is this close to being an elite team. Adding Michael Bourn, again, may put the team over the top. Then again, the team won't get the same WAJF (Wins Above Jeff Francoeur) that the Royals get ... instead, it might be Wins Above Adam Lind ... or David Cooper, or another player who might not drag the team down as much as Francoeur anchors the Royals.
Of course, there's another consideration: the Jays already have two players on the roster who, if you squint, kind of resemble Bourn: Anthony Gose and Emilio Bonifacio. While neither player is nearly as good as Bourn, it may not be enough of a difference to spend the money and draft pick to bring in a similar player. But hey, we can dream.
New York Mets
The Mets have a lot of outfielders, and that's probably a good thing. The Mets' stable of outfielders, however, doesn't seem particularly good. And that's where Michael Bourn comes in. If the season started tomorrow, the Mets might roll out a starting outfield of Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and Collin Cowgill or Mike Baxter. While there's some potential there, it's hardly stable and lacks impact. I'd venture to say it looks poor defensively as well, in no small part due to Lucas Duda, who tries hard, but fails.
Pro tip: If you're going to run Lucas Duda out there in the outfield every day, at least flank him with an elite defensive outfielder with otherworldly range. Like, say, Michael Bourn.
A Duda / Bourn / Kirk-or-Baxter-or-Cowgill outfield looks a lot more manageable to me. Bourn also fits the prototypical leadoff role for the Mets, something the team has lacked since losing Jose Reyes last season. I'd see Bourn as a substantive upgrade over Andres Torres from last year, though he'd bring much the same skillset to the team.
In my opinion, the Mets are a fine fit for Bourn, if the team can afford him. I'm also not a huge fan of some of their recent first-round draft picks (Brandon Nimmo and Gavin Cecchini), so maybe losing a first-rounder wouldn't hurt this team as much as some others?
The Mariners have a similar problem to the Mets: too many outfielders, but hardly any of them are "good enough." The recent acquisition of Michael Morse fills one hole (unless he's the DH or first baseman), and Michael Saunders appears to have earned a regular starting role. Every other outfielder on the Mariners has serious issues ... from veteran retreads Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez, to young Casper Wells, to walking disabled list report Franklin Gutierrez.
Unlike the Mets, players like Wells, Saunders, and Gutierrez even have real upside ... and Ibanez and Morse could provide decent value if used at the DH spot. If Gutierrez is healthy*, he provides a good-to-elite glove in center field. But relying on Franklin would be foolish, while relying on Michael Bourn has been a pretty safe bet over the last few years. Adding Bourn in center makes it much more palatable to have a poor defensive left fielder like Ibanez or Morse, especially if Gutierrez can't play. Bourn / Saunders / Morse won't change the world as a defensive trio, but there's hope there.
[ * Note -- This is like saying "If eating glass is a good idea ... " ]
Then again, Saunders and Wells probably still need a chance to play. And the Mariners aren't close enough to contention to make the addition of Bourn on the short-term a good fit. I can't imagine the team would want to ink the fleet center fielder to a five-year deal, and it may be at least two or three seasons until the Mariners are really ready to compete in a loaded AL West. Do you want to invest the money / draft pick to upgrade your team from 75 wins to 79?
New York Yankees
This is the least interesting of the five options, at least in my book, because the Yankees are boring in their excellence. The current Yankee outfield consists of Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, and Ichiro Suzuki, so the team already has two outfielders who aren't very powerful hitters flanking Granderson. Beyond that, the team has committed to not shelling out big bucks in 2013, so it'd be hard to see a way in which this would be a fit financially.
At the same time, maybe Michael Bourn's stock has fallen low enough that he'd be willing to take a one-year deal to ink with the Bombers. And though Ichiro nominally has a place in the team's outfield, it would be no big loss for the team to move him into a reserve role, given his diminishing skillset. And any lineup with a Bourn / Gardner combo would give pitchers fits, with two prolific basestealers in the lineup.
Maybe I just like considering a Gardner / Granderson / Bourn outfield, which would definitely be one of the strongest defensive outfields in baseball, and perhaps one of the best in history. Granderson would likely move to right field (which I see as his eventual landing place, eventually, anyways), and Bourn could man center ably.
Unless ... can Michael Bourn play catcher, I wonder?
FIVE BONUS INTERESTING LANDING PLACES FOR MICHAEL BOURN!
- MInnesota Twins (MLB)
- Rakuten Golden Eagles (NPB)
- Montgomery Biscuits (SOU)
- Springfield Isotopes (SIM)
- Mars (SPACE)
All data from FanGraphs.
The Royals are a really interesting landing spot, one I hadn't thought of. However! They are even more interesting than you thought, since you haven't taken draft protection into account.
The first ten picks of the draft are protected, meaning that if those teams sign a Free Agent given a Qualifying Offer, they give up their second-round pick instead. The Royals have the 8th overall pick, so they would only have to give up their second-rounder (and, you know... tens of millions of dollars) to get Bourn. A transaction well worth it when you've already committed yourself to winning now.
Likewise, the Mets are even less likely to get Bourn, because they have the 11th overall pick, the best pick possible that's unprotected. Also, I'm a bigger fan of Nimmo and Cecchini than you are, and their two first-rounders before that were Ike Davis and Matt Harvey, so I wouldn't personally qualify the Mets as poor drafters to whom the pick is worth less. And, as you mentioned in passing, the team might not be able to afford him. Or, really, anyone at all, given their financial state. (Though they did just sign Shaun Marcum!)