Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Newest Tribesman

Michael Bourn
Yesterday the Indians announced that they had come to an agreement with free agent outfielder Michael Bourn on a 4-year contract worth $48 million, or $12 million AAV. The contract has a vesting option for a 5th year worth $12 million pending Bourn reaches 550 plate appearances in the final year of his contract at which he will be 34 years old. When the offseason began, writers, pundits, and experts ranked Bourn as one of the top free agents. On my own big board of top-50 free agents, I had Bourn ranked as the fourth best free agent behind only Zack Greinke, B.J. Upton, and Josh Hamilton. The Dodgers signed Greinke to a 6-year $159 million deal, Upton got 5 years and $75.25 million from the Braves, while Hamilton inked a 5-year $125 million deal with the Angels. Of the top 4 free agents on my list, Bourn received the fewest years and least amount of money. For more on how Bourn compared to free agent center fielders check out my article from earlier this offseason. For more on Bourn's value, check out this recent Summerpastime article.

Essentially, Bourn is a speedy player. Every positive aspect of his game relies on his wheels. He has a good on-base percentage, but to continue as a dominant leadoff hitter past the age of 30, his walk rate needs to rise. Here's a snapshot look at some of the better leadoff hitters from 2012 and where Bourn ranks:

Name Team R SB BB% OBP fWAR
Mike Trout Angels 129 49 10.50% 0.399 10
Michael Bourn Braves 96 42 10.00% 0.348 6.4
Austin Jackson Tigers 103 12 10.90% 0.377 5.5
Jose Reyes Marlins 86 40 8.80% 0.347 4.5

So, given the information we know about Bourn, was this deal a success from his position? Going into the offseason Bourn and agent Scott Boras wanted a contract that totaled higher than $100 million with at least 5 guaranteed years. Instead of that mega-deal he signed for less than half that amount of money, but was able to find 4 guaranteed years with the possibility of a 5th. From this we can garner that getting more years was more important to Bourn than getting the highest AAV possible. Prior to Bourn's new contract agreement, many speculated that he might look for a one-year deal, in the hope that he might find better luck next offseason. I think teams in need of outfielders looked at Bourn as an upgrade, a great defender, a threat on the base paths, but not a player built to sustain such qualities by even age 33. Fortunately, free agents willing to take less money have a better chance of finding a deal because it allows teams with less money to become involved in negotiations. The Indians fit that mold perfectly. Jose Reyes received more money and more years, but he signed his contract at a younger age, he switch hits, and has shown more power than Bourn has. So, the answer to the original question is that this contract wasn't a success by Bourn's original standards, but by any realistic set of criterion $12 million AAV is the perfect fit for a player like Michael Bourn. 

From the players perspective this is the best available option, and he took it, but what about from the Indians' perspective. In 2012 Cleveland lost 94 games, and the last time the team went to the playoffs was 2007, remember the bugs

The Indians haven't been trending well of recent, which resulted in the firing of manager Manny Acta, the hiring of Terry Francona, and the release of former big-time players like Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. The Indians of 2013 won't look anything like the team that stormed to the ALCS in 2007, but given the weaknesses in the American League and particularly the AL Central, and the addition of the 2nd wild card spot, the Indians 2013 season outlook continues to improve. 

Since one player cannot turn a 94 loss team into a playoff primed squad, what else have the Indians been up to improve? Chris Antonetti, the GM of the Indians, started his offseason by getting rid of dead weight like Hafner and Sizemore, which allowed him to move on from those well known, but injury hampered, names. Next, Antonetti inserted the Indians into a three-way trade involving the Diamondbacks and the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange for parting with soon-to-be free agent Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians received outfielder Drew Stubbs from the Reds and high-level pitching prospect Trevor Bauer from Arizona. While Bauer is far from a proven commodity, he is young, under team control at a cheap price, and most importantly, loaded with talent and upside. Given the Indians mediocre farm system, Keith Law ranked them 19/30 MLB teams, adding an MLB ready top of the rotation starter like Bauer made the Indians the clear winners of the three-team trade.

Nick Swisher
Next, the Indians made a few minor moves like signing Brett Myers to a 1-year deal as a starter, not a reliever. In addition, Mark Reynolds joined the club to mix in at 1st base and DH. Next the Indians made their biggest splash of the offseason by signing Nick Swisher a 4-year $56 million contract. Swisher has Ohio connections, will make $14 million AAV, and provides a great upgrade in the Indians lineup. With the addition of Bourn, about 32% of the Indians 2013 payroll will go to Swisher and Bourn, but even for a mid-market team, the proportions could be worse. Swisher does every thing the Indians needed, he gets on base, switch hits, has power, and can play both outfield and 1st base. With the addition of Bourn, the Indians have a top of the lineup that could do some serious damage to opposing pitchers, causing them to work harder, throw more pitches, and possibly give up more runs in the process. Given Cleveland's project lineup, 5 starters are projected by PECOTA to have higher .328 OBPs in 2013. Cleveland's new lineup will strikeout more than the average team, but it will also produce more homeruns, a higher on-base percentage, and more stolen bases than it has in the previous 4 seasons.

From a hitting standpoint, Bourn adds run production. With Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher, Carlos Santana, and Mark Reynolds/Jason Giambi hitting behind Bourn, the Indians and their fans can expect the club to score a lot more runs than they have been accustomed to in recent years. Defensively, the Indians have more options now than before. If Terry Francona, Chris Antonetti, and others want, the team now has the ability to move Drew Stubbs or Michael Brantley for an upgrade elsewhere. On the other hand, a defensive outfield of Brantley, Stubbs, and Bourn would be a vacuum for fly balls.
Name Inn DRS UZR UZR/150
Michael Bourn 3888.2 51 35.3 11.9
Nick Swisher 3201 -5 11.5 4.7
Drew Stubbs 3666 -3 4.8 2
Michael Brantley 2833.2 -10 -12.4 -6.4

Don't be dissuaded by Brantley's poor numbers, he plays a much better left field (8 DRS & 3.4 UZR in 2012) than he does center field. An outfield with Stubbs and Brantley in the corners and Bourn in the middle would have a lot of range, which cuts down on hitters turning doubles in to triples and singles into doubles. Over the course of 162 games, such range could benefit the Indians in a subtle yet vital manner. From the numbers above, Swisher doesn't seem like a bad outfielder, so why relegate him to first base? First, playing a less demanding defensive position might cut down on the possibility of injury. Second, Swisher has average range at 1st base, and has posted a positive DRS (3) since 2010. So, moving Swisher to 1st doesn't hurt in the infield, and it improves the team's overall defense in the outfield. While moving Brantley or Stubbs could help, keeping both might give the Indians the best chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2013.

In Baseball, like all other aspects of life, timing often dictates success or failure. In this case, the timing of the Indians interest in Bourn makes me see this signing as a big win for Cleveland. With spring training approaching and few teams catering to the type of contract Bourn originally wanted, the Indians swept in offered Bourn the security he wanted and snatched him up for a reasonable AAV. While Bourn got the best available deal, the Indians made a smart, savvy, and productive move to improve their club now. Cleveland may not be a hot destination for free agents, but it's considered more highly valued than Kansas City, another AL Central team that improved this winter, albeit through controversial means. This puts Cleveland into the conversation for a playoff spot, a turnaround that 94 loss teams rarely expect. While the two wildcards seem the most likely possibility for Cleveland, I think that the AL West and East are too powerful, and that the best chance the Tribe has of reaching the postseason will be by unexpectedly winning the AL Central. Knocking off the Tigers, who are vastly better than their divisional opponents won't be easy, but given the uncertainty of injuries and other unaccountable factors, the Indians now have a chance. Despite the fact that Bourn rejected a qualifying offer from the Braves, Cleveland won't have to relinquish their first-round pick in the draft as it is protected due to the Indians' abysmal record in 2012. The Indians lost their second-round pick when they signed Swisher, and the acquisition of Bourn causes the team to lose their competitive balance pick, which would have been the 71st overall pick.

The Indians made a great deal here. Most sabermetricians will tell you that Bourn's production will decline in the next few years, and I stand with them, but the Indians are only on the hook for a guaranteed 4 years, and given their lack of other stars, paying Bourn $12 million AAV should be worth it. At the very least, even if the Indians don't make the playoffs in 2013, they should be more exciting to watch, win more games, and thus bring more fans to Progressive Field. On the bright side, Bourn could burn out just around age 34-35, meaning the Indians got the most out of him while they could, another sign that Antonetti made a sly deal. Cleveland got their man, Bourn finally found a team, the rest remains unknown, but that's the fun. 

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