Why isn’t there more interest in Michael Bourn? A six-win center fielder is on the market, and our most recent article on the subject is whether or not his agent has waited too long to get him a deal. We don’t know what his asking price is, but the idea that a player coming off a career year and four straight seasons with more than four wins now needs a pillow contract seems to suggest that either there’s a reason to doubt Bourn’s work, or there’s a lack of demand for his services in the market place.
There really aren’t many indications that Bourn’s 2012 was a luck-driven affair. His batting average on balls in play was .349. His career BABIP is .343. His batting average was .274. His career batting average is .272. He put up the best UZR/150 of his career at +22.5. His career UZR/150 is +10.5, and he had a +20.6 season as recently as 2010. He walked (10%, career 8.8%) and struck out (22%, career 20.2%) at about his career rates, too. Doesn’t seem like a fluke.
Maybe the power wasn’t a typical part of Bourn’s identity. His .117 isolated slugging percentage (and nine home runs) were career highs, above and beyond his previous career-highs (.101 and five, respectively) and career averages (.093 and four). He’s a slight ‘push’ hitter — the left-hander’s fly balls head towards left field on average — but he hasn’t changed that in the last two years and his batted ball distance has only inched forward from bad (267 feet in 2010) to okay (290 feet last season according to baseballheatmaps.com, or between Howie Kendrick and Joe Mauer). All the park factors for left-handed power stats are under 100 in Atlanta, so it’s not a symptom of his home park for the last year and a half.
On the other hand, we’re not talking about a difference maker when we talk about his power. You want Michael Bourn for defense, patience, and speed. His defense has been a positive every year but one during the thirty-year-old’s seven-year career. Other than the occasional seasonal blip in his walk rate, Bourn has had an above-average walk rate. Judged by Bill James‘ speed score, Bourn’s wheels have fallen off his peak slightly (8.6 in 2009), but he’s still well above average (7.5 in 2012, 8.0 in 2011).
Could it be the market? The Braves went with B.J. Upton, and that took an option away. And the Twins filled two teams’ center field needs with center fielders of their own and don’t figure to enter the free agent market for a new one. But the Cubs (Brett Jackson, Tony Campana), Houston Astros (Brandon Barnes, Justin Maxwell), New York Mets (Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Collin Cowgill), Seattle Mariners (Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders), and Texas Rangers (Leonys Martin, Craig Gentry) — all of these teams could use a Michael Bourn despite their current options. That seems like enough teams to get a little bidding war going for his services.
But you might notice something about the list, too. Due to circumstances — either the current state of the roster, or team finances — most of these organizations aren’t in the market for a high-priced free agent center fielder. Realistically, there might only be two general managers having serious conversations with Scott Boras about the best free agent on the market.
And yet, as the Angels seem to teach us every season, just because a team has an adequate incumbent at a position, doesn’t mean they won’t sign a free agent there. The Braves could push Upton to left field. The Blue Jays could make Colby Rasmus a great fourth outfielder on their quest to win now. The Royals could do the same with Lorenzo Cain. Or one of the rebuilding teams could decide that Bourn will age well — there’s some evidence that speed does help players remain more productive, longer — and that he would make sense for a team that might be two or three years away.
It’s not that Bourn is chopped liver. He may not put up another six wins next year, but his patience, defense and speed are all legitimate, and he’ll be an above-average center fielder for his new team. It’s just that this year, that team has not yet stepped up. If he takes a pillow contract, it will be because of the market, not the player.