Good news: spring training is less than a month away! While other teams are still searching to fill major holes in their lineups, the Detroit Tigers’ roster is almost set. It has been for months now, with the Alex Avila signing the only major move the Tigers have made since early November. Other teams need a fifth starter; Tigers fans are simply hoping their team picks the right fifth starter.
Unfortunately, the Tigers still have a hole in center field. General manager Al Avila hinted that the Tigers might not sign a free agent before the start of spring training, but called it “a work in progress.” While this sounds an awful lot like a man who has already penciled in Anthony Gose as the Opening Day starter, stranger things have happened.
One of the few remaining center fielders available on the free agent market is Michael Bourn. His four-year, $48 million contract with the Cleveland Indians was a complete disaster, but the speedy 34-year-old finished strong in 2016. Could he be the answer the Tigers are looking for in center field?
Who is he?
Bourn was a fourth round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2003 amateur draft. He made his major league debut with the Phillies in 2006, but was shipped to Houston as part of the Brad Lidge trade in 2007. He put up rough numbers in 2008, but quickly established himself as a top-flight center fielder. Bourn won Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2010, and was named to the 2010 NL All-Star team. He led the league in stolen bases three years running (pun intended), swiping a total of 174 bags from 2009 to 2011. He nabbed another 42 bases with the Atlanta Braves in 2012, who acquired him for a stable of prospects.
The 2012 season was the best we have seen from Bourn. He was worth 6.1 rWAR that year, leading to the aforementioned lucrative deal with the Indians. He was still productive in 2013, posting 2.3 WAR, but his defensive value quickly eroded. He was worth just 0.8 WAR in 2014, and has essentially been a replacement level player over the past two years. The Indians dumped him and Nick Swisher on the Braves in 2015, and Bourn has spent time with three other clubs (Toronto, Arizona, and Baltimore) since then.
Why should we care?
While his best days are probably behind him, Bourn was really good in his heyday. He produced a whopping 19.6 WAR from 2009 to 2012, nearly five wins per season. A lot of this value came from his defense. He was worth +61 defensive runs saved in that four-year stretch, while UZR pegged him at +46.8. He was a terror on the bases as well. From 2008 to 2012, he stole 257 (!) bases, and topped the 50-steal mark three times. While a lot of this was by volume — he was caught stealing 10+ times in each of those five seasons — he consistently rated well above average as an overall baserunner.
Bourn was also very adept at getting on base. He walked over nine percent of the time during his best four-year stretch, and has walked in 8.4 percent of plate appearances throughout his career. Bourn even upped his walk rate to 9.5 percent as recently as 2015, but saw that figure dip back down to 6.8 percent last season.
Most encouraging of all, however, may be how Bourn finished 2016. He only played in 24 games with the Baltimore Orioles down the stretch, but hit a robust .283/.358/.435 in that time. While the slight jump in power is probably not sustainable for someone with a career .091 ISO, the rest could be. Bourn upped his walk rate to 10.9 percent during that span, and cut his strikeout rate to 16.4 percent. He was also successful in both of his stolen base attempts, and otherwise looked rejuvenated after a dismal finish to his time in Cleveland.
Why should we stay away?
One of the likely reasons why Bourn declined so quickly upon arriving in Cleveland is his lengthy injury history. He never suffered a long stint on the disabled list during his prime years, but was consistently banged up with a number of nagging injuries. Baseball Prospectus’ injury history notes past issues with his ankle, groin, hamstrings, obliques, and thumb. Oh, and those all came before he signed with the Indians. He missed 20 games with a finger injury in 2013, and missed over 50 games with a hamstring issue in 2014. All of these things can take a toll on a player’s body, especially one so reliant on speed like Bourn.
The other major concern is Bourn’s general lack of production over the past four years. We can stare at his short stint with the Orioles all we want, but he hit a pedestrian .261/.307/.362 with the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier in 2016. Over the past four years, he has hit just .256/.314/.344. His walk rate dipped to just 7.6 percent, and he was only slightly above average as a baserunner. Worst of all, Bourn only stole 65 bases in 95 attempts, a lousy 68.4 percent success rate. His defensive value also took a major hit; he was worth +4 DRS and -11.5 UZR over the past four seasons.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It’s hard to see the Tigers taking a chance on Bourn when they have a similar player already in the system in Anthony Gose. Yes, Bourn’s peak was much higher than Gose’s is likely to be, but the past four years have shown that those days are probably long gone. There is some hope to be found in Bourn’s strong finish to 2016, but plenty of hitters have rejuvenated their careers in the cozy confines of Camden Yards. Bourn’s best attributes do not age particularly well either, which we have seen in his numbers. Still, he’s probably an upgrade over the Tigers’ current options in center. I might advocate for someone with a more diverse skill set — Austin Jackson and Desmond Jennings — but grabbing Bourn on a cheap deal would be better than nothing.