Analyzing Michael Bourn's Potential Impact on the Washington Nationals

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Analyzing Michael Bourn's Potential Impact on the Washington Nationals
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Washington Nationals had quite the successful season in 2012, making the postseason for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos back in 1981.

They didn't get past the first round, but they'll be back—probably again and again and again.

For the time being, the Nats are in the same boat as every team in that they're still well south of being perfect. There are areas they need to address in order to get better.

Like, for example, center field. The Nationals are in the market for a free-agent center fielder, and the latest word from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports is that they may have their eyes on the best of the bunch:

Michael Bourn.

Heyman notes that officials from around the league see the Nats as the favorite to sign Bourn, who they have "long had an interest" in.

It won't be cheap for the Nats to sign Bourn, and that's a not-insignificant concern seeing as how their payroll is already at an all-time high. If the Nats are going to escalate their payroll even higher to squeeze Bourn into the equation, he had better be worth it.

But fret not, Nats fans. Here's why Bourn would be worth it.

 

First of All, Here's Why This Makes Sense

This is going to sound a little weird, but the Nats need a new center fielder because the really good center fielder they have really shouldn't be a center fielder.

The Nats didn't have a reliable center fielder early on in the 2012 season, and that gave Bryce Harper a chance to assume the job pretty much by default when he came up in late April.

He eventually did take over in center a few weeks down the line, and to his credit, he played the position very well. Harper ended the season with a 17.6 UZR/150 and a Defensive Runs Saved of plus-13, according to FanGraphs.

However, Harper profiles better as a corner outfielder moving forward. His strong arm would play better in left or right field, and having to cover less ground would mean less wear and tear on his legs.

But the Nats obviously can't move Harper until they have a viable option in center. That's where Bourn enters the equation.

Harper was very good in center field in 2012, but he's not in Bourn's class defensively. Bourn is arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball, combining both great speed and underrated instincts to turn a lot of would-be hits into outs.

Bourn also happens to be a great leadoff man, and the Nats could use one of those these days (more on this in a moment).

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Bourn could be making almost as much as Jayson Werth pretty soon.

As for what it would take to sign Bourn, Heyman says that it could take something in the neighborhood of a five-year contract worth $80 million. That's an annual average of $16 million, which would make Bourn the second-most expensive player on the Nationals behind Jayson Werth.

However, even $80 million might not be enough to sign Bourn. Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com has reported that Bourn is looking for a contract worth as much as $100 million. That makes sense seeing as how his agent is none other than Scott Boras.

The Nationals aren't exactly poor, and they certainly have an excited fanbase that will keep the revenue flowing for now, but that's a lot of money for them to take on. It doesn't help that they already have two players in Werth and Ryan Zimmerman who have $100 million contracts. Adding a third would be a bit much.

But if the Nats can get Bourn for five years and $80 million, they could make it work. Their steadily increasing attendance will help them afford a deal like that, as will the new national TV money that the Nats will soon be receiving from MLB's new deals with ESPN and with FOX and Turner Sports.

As for what the Nats would be getting for their millions...

 

What Bourn Would Bring to the Table

Bourn does two things a lot better than most: He plays defense, and he creates runs with his legs.

Defense is the better of Bourn's two main talents. He's a two-time Gold Glove winner, and he would have won his third this season if the voters had any idea what the heck they were doing.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
There are few balls Bourn can't get to.

Statistically, Bourn was the best defensive center fielder in baseball in 2012. Per FanGraphs, he ended up leading all everyday center fielders in both UZR at 22.4 and in Defensive Runs Saved at plus-24. The only two players to come close to Bourn in either category were Mike Trout and Denard Span.

Andrew McCutchen, meanwhile, posted a minus-6.9 UZR and a minus-five Defensive Runs Saved. How he won the Gold Glove over Bourn is something you'll have to ask the voters.

In addition to being an excellent defensive center fielder, Bourn is one of the top stolen base artists in the game. He's stolen at least 40 bases every year since 2008, and he leads all other major league players by a mile with 257 stolen bases since the start of the '08 season.

Bourn's ability to get on base could be better, but it's good enough compared to most leadoff men. He's posted OBPs of better than .340 in each of the last four seasons, and this past year, he managed a career-high OPS of .737. That's due to the extra power he showed at the plate, as he set a new career high with nine home runs.

All of this should appeal to the Nationals. They got some decent power out of the leadoff spot in their lineup in 2012, but getting on base and stealing bases was something their leadoff men didn't do so well. Combined, Nats leadoff hitters managed just a .325 OBP and 20 stolen bases. 

If the Nats sign Bourn, they'll thus be adding an extra wrinkle to their offense in the form of a traditional leadoff man with speed, solid on-base abilities and a little bit of power. They'll also be adding an excellent defensive player who would give their overall outfield defense a huge boost.

Where things get tricky is how the rest of Davey Johnson's lineup would form up behind Bourn.


How He Would Impact the Lineup

By the end of the 2012 season, the first six spots in Washington's batting order were set in stone. Jayson Werth hit leadoff, Bryce Harper hit second, Ryan Zimmerman hit third, Adam LaRoche hit fourth, Michael Morse hit fifth and Ian Desmond hit sixth.

It was this arrangement that helped the Nats finish second in the NL in runs scored in September and October behind the Milwaukee Brewers. Presumably, they wouldn't mind it if they didn't have to change a thing in 2013.

If Bourn is inserted into the equation, however, much would have to change.

The only place Bourn is going to hit is in the leadoff spot. Batting him second is a possibility, but Bourn is a leadoff man by trade, and the simple fact of the matter is that he's better suited for the role than anybody the Nats currently have on their roster.

This includes Werth. He did pretty well when he hit leadoff in 2012, posting an .838 OPS and scoring 25 runs in 38 games, but he'll be better off either in the No. 2 hole or more towards the back end of the lineup. 

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Jayson Werth started his Nats career as a No. 2 hitter. He could return to the No. 2 hole in 2013.

Batting him second behind Bourn would seem to be the smartest play, as hitting him there would allow Johnson to follow up a lefty with a righty who happened to post a career-low strikeout rate in 2012.  

Werth somehow morphed into more of a contact hitter in 2012, and the Nats will be able to take advantage of that transformation in a variety of different ways if he's hitting behind the speedy Bourn in the lineup.

If Werth were to move down to the No. 2 spot, Harper could find himself in the No. 3 hole if Johnson wants to keep a left-right pattern intact. It's either that, or Zimmerman could stay in the No. 3 hole with Harper batting cleanup.

Keeping Zimmerman in the No. 3 hole would make sense seeing as how he's spent far more time there in his career than any other spot in the lineup. He's handled it well, posting an .829 OPS over 3,658 plate appearances. He managed an .824 OPS hitting out of the No. 3 hole in 2012.

If Harper were to bat cleanup, Morse could stick in the No. 5 hole if the Nats decide not to re-sign LaRoche. If LaRoche is re-signed, then Morse is likely to be traded so as to avoid having a logjam in the outfield. If so, the No. 5 spot would likely be all Harper's. He didn't do so well in limited action in the No. 5 hole in 2012, but it's still a good fit for him given his immense raw power.

Regardless of who's in play, I'd expect Desmond to stay locked into the No. 6 hole. It's a spot Desmond took to very well once he was demoted as the club's primary leadoff man, posting an .894 OPS with 12 home runs in the 66 games he appeared in the No. 6 spot.

As you can tell, filling out a lineup card on a daily basis would be pretty tough for Johnson if the Nats go out and sign Bourn. Johnson's dilemma, however, wouldn't be a lack of good hitters. It would be an overabundance of good hitters.

Many other managers would kill to have that "problem."

 

How He Would Impact the Nationals' Standing in the NL East

If the Nationals sign Bourn, they'll be killing two birds with one stone.

One: They'll be signing a player who can help both their lineup and their outfield defense.

Two: They'll be signing a star player away from a key division rival.

Without Bourn, the Atlanta Braves will have to add center field to an offseason shopping list that already has plenty of items on it. Filling Chipper Jones' spot in the lineup will be hard enough. Filling both Jones' spot and Bourn's spot would be even harder.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Bourn could be tormenting his former team pretty soon.

The Braves will be competitive in 2013 regardless of what happens. They always are, Nonetheless, it's hard to see them having as much talent next season as they did in 2012 if Bourn leaves. It would be fair to expect them to win 90 games rather than 95, and 90 wins won't be good enough to overcome the Nats, so long as they stay healthy in 2013.

It's just as hard to see the Philadelphia Phillies winning as many as 95 games in 2013. They'll have a very strong starting pitching staff if Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all stay healthy, but their offense is only going to be capable of doing so much damage as long as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are smack in the middle of it.

Both of them are past their primes, and it's going to be hard for the Phillies to add some quality depth around them and Jimmy Rollins with their payroll already weighed down with heavy salaries.

As for the other two teams in the division, the Miami Marlins and New York Mets are both wild cards for 2013. The Marlins are in a rebuilding phase, and the Mets may have shown their true colors when they followed up a 46-40 showing in the first half of 2012 with a 28-48 showing in the second half.

Given the state of the division, the Nats don't necessarily have to sign Bourn in order to ensure that they'll be the favorite to win the NL East again in 2013. They already have the talent to do what they did in 2012 all over again.

But if they do sign Bourn, they'll go from being a strong team to being an even stronger team. They're set to return many key members of a pitching staff that tied for the NL lead in ERA, and they'll be adding Bourn to a lineup that was already strong.

If this is what the Nats are dealing with come Opening Day, it wouldn't be hard to imagine them going wire to wire in the NL East just like the Phillies did in 2011. 

 

How His Contract Would Impact Payroll and Future Spending

The Nationals are already on a path toward becoming one of MLB's most expensive teams. Their payroll rose by over $20 million between 2011 and 2012, and it's likely to rise once again this offseason to over $100 million.

If the Nats sign Bourn, their payroll will almost certainly cross the $100 million plateau, and they'll suddenly have three players making at least $14 million per season.

As such, we could see Mike Rizzo ease off the gas a little bit and cut down on the spending for the rest of the offseason. That could mean that a contract for Bourn would mean no new contract for LaRoche, who declined a $10 million option to become a free agent.

Because the Nats can move Michael Morse to first base on a full-time basis with Bourn in center field and Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper flanking him, they can afford to lose LaRoche. They'll miss having his powerful left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup, but they'll have more than enough offense to make up for his absence if he isn't retained.

However, the LaRoche situation won't be the only thing impacted if the Nats choose to sign Bourn to a contract. Things could get a little dicey in regards to their payroll in the future.

Should the Nats go after Michael Bourn?

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The Nats have Werth, Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez locked up in long-term contracts, and at some point, they're going to have to consider contract extensions for Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Strasburg is set to become a free agent following the 2016 season. Desmond and Zimmermann are set to become free agents after the 2015 season.

If the Nats sign Bourn to a five- or maybe a six-year deal, he'll still be under contract when it comes time for the Nats to start thinking seriously about giving Strasburg and Desmond new deals. This is to say nothing of players like Morse, John Lannan and others who are going to need attention a lot sooner.

The Nats play in a media market big enough to support a high payroll, so they won't necessarily be overstepping their boundaries if their payroll keeps creeping further and further past the $100 million mark. It's a direction they're already headed in, and the fact that they covet Bourn says a lot about how far they may be willing to push their payroll.

And hey, if you ask me, there's no time like the present for the Nationals to go all-out, both in terms of acquiring talented players and in terms of expanding their payroll. They have a core in place that's plenty strong enough to compete for championships not just in 2013 but in the years immediately after as well.

If they sign Bourn, you'd have to like their chances even more.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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