Back in October, MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes ranked Michael Bourn as the third best free agent behind Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, but Bourn's market never developed. His most recent employer, the Atlanta Braves, eliminated any chance at a reunion by signing B.J. Upton and trading for Justin Upton. Other prospective fits also went elsewhere to fill their center field openings; the San Francisco Giants re-signed Angel Pagan, the Washington Nationals traded for Denard Span, the Philadelphia Phillies traded for Ben Revere, and the Cincinnati Reds traded for Shin-Soo Choo. The Texas Rangers were once thought to be a possible destination but reports to date indicate no interest coming from Arlington.
The Seattle Mariners have been a speculative and rumored match for Bourn all offseason and appear to be one of the last teams standing.
Why didn't Bourn's market develop? It's hard to say for sure, but it's probably a combination of factors. One has to wonder if the pricetag agent Scott Boras placed on Bourn early in the offseason scared teams off. Most of Bourn's value comes from defense and baserunning, a skillset that is appreciated more now than five years ago, but Boras may have tried to cash in prematurely. In Dierkes above-linked post, he mentioned that there was talk of Bourn getting "Torii Hunter 2007" money: 5 years/$90 million. Bourn may be the best defensive center fielder in baseball and a game-changing threat on the basepaths, but while he may very well be worth that kind of money based on a metric like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it's hard to imagine a ballclub giving that kind of cash to a 30 year old who is an average hitter at best.
Most teams also have to surrender a first round draft pick if they sign Bourn. (If you haven't done so already, this is the point in the program where you go read Brendan's article from Saturday evening before pressing on.) While Bourn is certainly valuable enough to justify surrendering a pick, the combination of that plus Boras pushing contract terms extending beyond the comfort levels of most GMs could be damning. This problem is compounded given that two of Bourn's current supposed suitors, the New York Mets and Mariners, occupy the first two non-protected spots in the draft, picks 11 and 12, respectively. Those picks are deemed more likely to land a top prospect than ones later in the round, and any draft pick is going to be valued a little more than normal by rebuilding clubs such as the Mets and Mariners.
Bourn's price has to drop and probably has. There has been some speculation of Boras and Bourn considering taking a one year deal just to get through 2013 and give it another shot next winter, but given the draft pick problem, that one year deal would probably have to come from one of the 10 teams with a protected pick, of which there are a few potential fits.
Spring Training starts in just a couple weeks so we'll get to see this play out sooner than later. I think I'd be on board with a Bourn signing if his pricetag has been slashed to the 5 year/$60-70 million range ($12-14 million per year). If it's dipped below that in terms of years or dollars, even better. The big question at this point is whether the Mariners would still have money to spend on upgrading the starting rotation if they signed Bourn, but we'll leave that for another day.
I like the idea of a Bourn signing for a few reasons:
Upgrades defense behind a thin starting rotation
The Mariner rotation currently consists of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and a number of young players of varying appeal competing for three spots. Upgrades can still be made, but barring something very unexpected the rotation probably won't be considered one of the Mariners' strengths on Opening Day 2013. Any defensive improvements should be welcomed.
Bourn might not provide a significant instant upgrade in center field given that Franklin Gutierrez is currently slated to start, but he is a better bet to remain at the position all season. Furthermore, the Mariners could opt to use Gutierrez in a corner spot. On days when one of the weaker or fly-ball-reliant starting pitchers takes a turn, manager Eric Wedge could roll out a bulletproof outfield of Gutierrez, Bourn and Michael Saunders, bumping Michael Morse to first base/designated hitter.
Even if Morse remains in the outfield on occasion, having Gutierrez as a spot-starter and late game defensive specialist certainly doesn't hurt the pitching staff.
Takes Dustin Ackley out of the leadoff spot
The Ackley we were promised would have made a great leadoff hitter. The Ackley we received shouldn't have been hitting there. Until he proves that he can be an on-base threat as advertised, the Mariners will be better off with someone else in the leadoff spot. If shedding the pressure that comes with that role has a positive impact on Ackley, even better.
Bourn is the traditional leadoff hitter in that he has speed for days, but he also possesses good enough on-base skills to qualify by modern standards. Bourn has a .348 OBP over his past four seasons and has extensive experience in the role.
Increases likelihood of a Justin Smoak demotion
Wedge recently stated that Smoak will open camp as the frontrunner at first base. As I wrote earlier in the week, I'd prefer the Mariners begin the season by leaning on the veterans they've acquired while letting Smoak prove his latest offensive hot streak in AAA. An injury or someone's ineffectiveness could create an opportunity for Smoak to return sooner than later, while a July trade of one of the vets sharing first base could give him additional breathing room.
There are good arguments to be made for Smoak being in the big league lineup as long as he's showing anything at all, but the idea of keeping Morse out of the outfield is far more appealing to me. Bringing in Bourn could help persuade Wedge and Zduriencik that Morse is a non-outfielder or, as alluded to above, at very least a non-everyday outfielder.
Ends the Jason Bay experiment before it starts
Smoak making the team probably kills Bay's chances, but a Bourn signing definitely would. While it would be great to see Bay resurrect his career, most reasonable people would agree that the odds of it happening are so low that it's hardly worth taking the flyer.
Fans seem to be warming up to the idea of Bourn now that the other "big" options are off the table and the Mariners have brought in some power. I would have been fine with the signing early in the offseason, but at this point I find myself almost rooting for the Mariners to make it happen. With Bourn and, if possible, a pitcher, the Mariners seem capable of at least keeping their A.L. West rivals honest.
How do you see this playing out? Would you like to see Bourn in a Mariner uniform?