Patience Pays Off for Tribe in the Form of Michael Bourn

Michael BournThe Cleveland Indians agreed to a four-year, $48 million contract with Michael Bourn, marking the second big-ticket outfielder signing of the offseason for the Tribe, and a clever recognition of a distorted market.

The deal marks a sizable discount from Bourn’s reported asking price of five years, $75 million — even if the vesting option on the contract kicks in and lifts the total value to five years, $60 million. And that’s what this deal comes down to: grabbing value, and working out the rest later.

Cleveland won just 68 games last season, thanks largely to a league-high 845 runs allowed and a brutal 5.25 ERA for the team’s starting rotation. The Indians made multiple moves this winter to try and upgrade the roster. They traded one year of Shin-Soo Choo plus spare parts for Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs, giving the team six years of control on a supremely talented young starter, plus another outfield option. They nabbed Mark Reynolds on a one-year deal, adding power on the cheap. They gave out two more one-year deals to Brett Myers and Daisuke Matsuzaka, hoping to add useful if unspectacular innings to the rotation. They picked up Jason Giambi and Mike Aviles to fortify the bench. And with their other big signing, they lured Nick Swisher to town on a four-year, $56 million deal.

These moves look likely to make the team better; the Indians also finished second-to-last in runs scored last year, so really, adding almost any sentient human could qualify as an upgrade. Just how much better they figure to be is an open question. The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog runs forecasts for all 30 teams using the CAIRO projection system plus some manual depth-chart input. For the latest update, made before Dice-K, Giambi, and Bourn signed on, CAIRO pegged the Indians at 74-88. Acknowledging that this is simply a back-of-the-napkin, hypothetical projection, it can be tough to reconcile a team picked to finish below .500 with spending more than $100 million on a pair of over-30 outfielders.

On the other hand, sometimes you just have to take what the market gives you. In the case of Bourn, what the Indians are getting is a bargain.

The going rate for adding a win on the open market is approaching $6 million, meaning Bourn’s annual salary of $12 million compensates him as if he’s a league-average player. He’s roughly a league-average hitter, posting identical wRC+ marks of 104 over the past two seasons, meaning he’s produced at a rate 4 percent better than league average. If Bourn were merely a league-average base runner and fielder, the Indians would be paying him about the going rate for his current skill set. But if you know anything about Michael Bourn, it’s that his best skills are specifically those not related to his bat. Ultimate Zone Rating can be a fickle measure of defensive value, especially when considered on a one-year basis. But other than a random blip in 2011, UZR (along with Plus Minus and other advanced defensive ratings) show Bourn to be one of the valuable glovemen in the game, at the premium position of center field to boot. Per John Dewan, since 2010, Bourn has 51 Defensive Runs Saved, the most of any center fielder in baseball. He’s also averaged 51 steals a season over the past five years, with a stellar career success rate of 81 percent and more overall baserunning value than any other player in baseball over the past four years, by a wide margin. Bourn turned 30 in December, so we should expect at least some speed erosion during the next four years, and thus a dip in his legs-related value. Still, if Bourn ages the way players like Kenny Lofton and Rickey Henderson did, we could reasonably expect two or three more years of elite or near-elite value on the bases and in the field.

All of which means that Bourn will be valuable to … someone. Maybe Cleveland pulls a Baltimore or Oakland, gets breakouts from players like Justin Masterson, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Bauer, and becomes a surprise contender this year. Maybe that move happens a year or two down the road, with the Indians continuing to add talent thanks to additional local and national TV money. Or maybe the Indians will see where Bourn takes them, then make him available in trade if the rest of the team can’t pull their weight. By offering him up that way, Cleveland would eliminate the specter of losing a high draft pick (and the corresponding slot money) that other teams fretted over this winter, in the process dropping Bourn’s asking price. As is, the Indians merely sacrificed the 71st overall pick in this summer’s amateur draft, given their first-rounder was protected as a top-10 selection and they’d already lost their second-rounder by inking Swisher. A pick that late, in what’s expected to be a weak draft, is already starting to approach crapshoot territory.

For now, the Indians do have something of a weird roster on their hands. The most obvious move would seem to be trading one of their surplus outfielders, Stubbs or Michael Brantley, for more starting pitching help. But it’s likely that neither player would fetch much beyond a fifth starter type. Meanwhile, Brantley actually outhit Bourn in 2012, and Stubbs, despite coming off two straight miserable offensive seasons, is still a career .276/.344/.476 hitter against lefties, as well as a prolific base stealer and plus defender in center. The Indians could conceivably field a Brantley-Bourn-Stubbs outfield on some nights, pushing Swisher to first and Reynolds to DH and creating a flyball-devouring defense that would almost certainly help the pitching staff improve on its nightmarish 2012 results. This is still a superstar-free team, but it’s one with a depth chart that creates all kinds of interesting options, if new skipper Terry Francona is able and willing to be creative.

One last point on Bourn. The Mets reportedly made an offer very similar to the one Cleveland did, and Bourn was said to prefer New York as a destination. But the Mets wanted to wait for baseball to assess the team’s claim that its first-round draft pick should be protected in the case of a Bourn signing because the Mets would have drafted 10th this year if not for the Pirates getting a compensatory pick after failing to sign top draft choice Mark Appel last year. When Bourn finally signed with Cleveland, we saw some rationalizing that the Mets would be better off keeping the pick than signing Bourn. Maybe you can argue the Mets are a couple years away from contending anyway. But in the here and now, they would have landed a likely bargain in Bourn, added a legitimate player to an outfield that’s easily the worst in baseball on paper, and sacrificed an 11th-pick slot that, other than a couple of big hits, has been a bust for most of the draft’s history. As is, the Mets will go into the 2013 season with one of the stealthiest collections of high-level young pitching talent in the game, a newly-reupped David Wright, and … very little else.

Filed Under: Cleveland Indians, MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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