Bourn takes a while to find new team
“Interesting winter,” I said to Michael Bourn.
“You have no clue!” Bourn replied, eyes wide, laughing.
Bourn had just entered the Cleveland Indians clubhouse for the first time. He had no nameplate above his locker. To his right was right-hander Fernando Nieve, No. 57. To his left was first baseman Mike McDade, No. 61.
Such is life for a free agent who agrees to a new contract only days before the start of spring training. Bourn, though, wasn’t about to complain as Indians clubhouse personnel fitted him for caps, helmets and shoes. No, he was his usual upbeat self on Friday morning, saying, “It worked out fine. It worked out fine.”
No one should pity Bourn, who received a four-year, $48 million contract — impressive for a leadoff man who has hit just 22 career homers at age 30. But could Bourn have signed sooner, for more money, with a more competitive team?
Those are the lingering questions, and perhaps only Bourn and his agent, Scott Boras, know the answers.
As it turned out, Bourn was a tough sell in free agency, a player who offered speed and defense but virtually no power. His market suffered because his previous team, the Atlanta Braves, made him a one-year qualifying offer, subjecting him to draft-pick compensation. Several executives also launched a familiar charge at Boras, saying that the agent overreached.
Those execs said that Boras initially asked for more than four years. According to one, Boras “clearly felt he’d get significant length, definitely five years, possibly six or seven.”
A second exec said that Boras cited shortstop Jose Reyes, who signed a six-year, $106 million free-agent contract with the Miami Marlins a year ago, as a comparison.
“No,” Boras said. “I never go to GMs and tell them. I always ask them, where do they place the player? If we have a fit within a range, we discuss it.
“Some people come to me and raise the question, ‘What do 25-home-run outfielders get? I go, ‘If you want to know what 25-home-run outfielders with 85 RBIs get, ask Jayson Werth.”
Werth, a Boras client, signed a seven-year, $126 million free-agent contract with the Washington Nationals after the 2010 season.
“When the Braves signed (B.J.) Upton, that’s a 25-home-run-hitting outfielder who has 80-something RBIs, well, that would be a comp I would use,” Boras said of Upton, who agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million contract.
“When you talk about (Bourn vs. Upton) ... they’re just different types of players. One is a defense and speed player. The other is more a power-hitting, down-in-the-lineup player.”
The more realistic offensive comparison for Bourn, Boras said, is Juan Pierre, a leadoff man who signed a lesser free-agent deal — five years, $44 million — after the 2006 season.
Neither Bourn nor Pierre is an on-base machine, and neither provides extra-base power. Using OPS-plus — that is, OPS adjusted for league and park effects — Bourn entered free agency at 90 and Pierre at 86, with 100 the measure for league average.
Yet, Bourn is a better defender than Pierre ever was, the best defensive center fielder in the majors last season according to several advanced metrics.
Bourn’s defense, in fact, was so outstanding, he ranked third among center fielders in Fangraphs.com’s version of wins above replacement (WAR), which incorporates offense, defensive and baserunning. Bourn finished behind only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen by that measure, despite batting just .225 after the All-Star Game.
Teams rate defense more efficiently than they did in the past. Most assign it greater value as well. Still, the Braves had Bourn pegged almost exactly right, viewing him as worth $40 million to $48 million over four years, according to major league sources.
Upton, 28, is two years younger. The Braves liked him better, and knew they could sign him quickly. They never made an offer to Bourn, believing they could not meet Boras’ expectations, sources said. They also weren’t worried about losing their first-round pick (No. 28 overall), knowing they would get a comparable selection back for Bourn (likely No. 32).
The Braves, though, were only one team. Even without them, the market for Bourn figured to be considerable.
Until it wasn’t.
First, two of Bourn’s most obvious suitors disappeared when Washington and Philadelphia acquired center fielders in trades, both with the Minnesota Twins.
“I called Terry Ryan on the phone. I said, ‘Can you take me off the back of your door, your dartboard? You’re closing up all the holes for my client,’” Boras joked, referring to Twins GM Terry Ryan. “He said, ‘Exactly. I had you in my mind. You made me sit through two arbitrations with (Kyle) Lohse.’”
Kidding aside, would the Phillies have signed Bourn for $48 million in November? Probably not — Ben Revere’s low salary was preferable for a team that needed to fill other holes, and Bourn also would have cost the Phils the No. 16 pick and corresponding slot money in the draft.
Would the Nationals have spent $48 million on Bourn? Probably not, either — the Nats ended up getting three affordable years of control on Denard Span for a single pitching prospect, enabling them to splurge on two other free agents, right-hander Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano.
So, things got complicated.
The San Francisco Giants re-signed Angel Pagan for four years, $40 million. The Boston Red Sox added Shane Victorino, a free agent without compensation, for three years, $39 million. The Cincinnati Reds traded for Shin-Soo Choo.
Boras frequently slow-plays the market, holding out free agents until January. The compensation issue, he said, further delayed the process. Teams balked at losing picks; the new limits on draft spending, Boras said, prevent clubs from relying on their “scouting intellect” to compensate for lost selections (a self-serving sentiment, perhaps, but one that a number of executives share).
Bourn, at a news conference after his first workout with the Indians, said he didn’t freak out over the delay.
“In a process like this, you have your ups and downs. You have some good days, some days you don’t know what’s going on,” Bourn said. “Things unfolded a lot of different ways because of the circumstances ... the draft-pick compensation.”
In the end, the Indians were in a unique position to strike. They had a top 10, “protected” pick in the first round. They already had sacrificed their second-rounder to sign Nick Swisher. And they lost only a newly awarded competitive-balance pick for signing Bourn.
Interesting winter. Maybe it could have turned out differently for Bourn. But there he was on Friday, slipping into Grady Sizemore’s old No. 24, yukking it up with his new teammates, talking with former Indians center fielder — and spring-training instructor — Kenny Lofton.
What, Michael worry?
Not anymore. Not after reaching agreement with the Indians.
“When I got the call,” Bourn said, “all the pressure was relieved.”