Complete player my foot. Prototypical leadoff man my other foot. What Michael Bourn is, offensively, is an adequate bat (given that he plays center field) that relies completely on his legs. Where he is going to be earning his payday is as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game today. It wasn’t too long ago that good gloves were drawing relatively little interest – but now, just as Beane’s magic eliminated the opportunity to buy low on walks, GMs are chasing gloves once again. As much as I hope that Dave Dombrowski makes an effort to improve the Tigers’ outfield defense this offseason – I hope he doesn’t do it by handing a big check to Bourn.
Jon Heyman of CBSsports thinks that Bourn is going to wind up with a 5-year, $80 million deal. That’s $16 million per season. Not what Josh Hamilton is asking for (though maybe not that far off from what Josh Hamilton will actually get) but that is a hefty chunk of change. Whenever I hear about a table setter getting – potentially – an enormous free agent contract (like Carl Crawford did a while back) I get the impression that certain baseball reporters or even certain GMs are stuck fantasizing about Rickey Henderson. Rickey Henderson was a tremendous player and also a rare breed. Henderson was the perfect leadoff man and the perfect centerfielder that helped to define what GMs would look for in the position for ever after. There is no Rickey Henderson on the free agent market, there is no Rickey Henderson in the league, but a GM ought to be careful about throwing big bucks at a guy just because he most closely resembles Rickey Henderson’s shadow.
Aside from great speed on the basepaths and great range in center field, the “tool” that Bourn brings to the table is a high BABIP – with a career mark of .344 and a 2012 mark of .349. He hits relatively few fly balls (and very few infield pop-ups) so part of this could be chalked up to the “type” of hitter that he is. Bourn has also – over the course of his career – done a pretty good job of legging out singles on ground balls and bunts, which helps. He needs that BABIP because he has no power (his 9 HR in 2012 were a career high) and strikes out quite a bit – 22% of the time in 2012. He walks enough for a table-setter, but not enough to keep him valuable without singles and doubles to back it up. In 2008 when Bourn’s BABIP dropped to .290 – which is only a hair below league average – his on-base percentage was .288 and he was below-replacement level at the plate. When Henderson’s BABIP dropped to .292 at age 30 – he still had an on-base percentage of .411 and was 8.8 wins above replacement level. Just sayin’.
The problem with giving Bourn big money over a 5-year contract is that stolen bases, defensive range and BABIP are all “young player skills” that tend to fall away rapidly in a player’s 30s. Through his age 31 season, Rickey was +120 in center field, over the rest of his career (spanning 13 seasons) -57 and only above average in 2 of those 13. Bourn might add a bit to or at least maintain his plate discipline and power, but in the very near future we are going to see his defense drop from amazing to good to average. He may already have begun to slow a little on the basepaths and leg out fewer infield hits. Rickey Henderson didn’t just play good D, steal tons of bags and hit for high average. He also walked significantly more often than he struck out and hit for a bit of power – he even led the league in OPS at 31 in 1990. Between the ages of 30 and 38, while his defense was tailing off, followed by steals and even power, Rickey never posted an on-base percentage lower than .400. That is what made him a leadoff hitter worth the big bucks usually reserved for power hitters and ace starters – well into his 30s.
I would expect between 3.5 and 4.0 wins out of Bourn next year – and with the premium you pay for those wins in the free agent market $16 million seems like a fair deal. That said, by the end of a five-year deal I’d only expect about 1.0 to 1.5 WAR out of him… his BABIP is going to come down and I just can’t imagine him being – by 35 – an above average center fielder. Bourn is a guy that could make the Detroit Tigers a better team next year and the year after – given their need for, effectively, a second center fielder to roam the enormous left field – but given the money he is expected to have thrown at him (and the fact that the team that signs him will lose it’s first round pick) I’d just as soon he was never considered an option. I doubt the deal he signs will wind up looking as bad as the one Carl Crawford got, but I don’t think it will look good either – though, again, I think it will look fair as of October 2013.