Michael Bourn faces a shrinking market for his services.
After Nick Swisher signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Cleveland Indians on Sunday (Dec. 23), as first reported by the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand, Bourn is the last marquee free agent left on the market.
But the number of teams interested in pursuing the center fielder is dwindling by the day.
Following the end of the regular season, the rumblings (via CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury) were that Bourn was seeking a $100 million contract. Given the need for center fielders around MLB, that seemed entirely possible—even if Bourn isn't a power-hitting run producer like Josh Hamilton or B.J. Upton.
However, a nine-figure contract isn't going to be available for Bourn any longer. He could still get more than Swisher's $56 million or even the $75 million Upton received from the Atlanta Braves. As a leadoff hitter with speed who also plays excellent defense, Bourn provides skills that are in short supply around baseball.
Yet who is willing to pay for those skills at this point of the offseason?
The Braves would have loved to bring Bourn back, but agent Scott Boras was determined to test the open market. Again, considering the number of teams looking for a center fielder and leadoff hitter, that seemed like a good bet.
But Atlanta opted for Upton, looking at a right-handed power bat that suited its lineup better. Upton's speed and defense are comparable to Bourn's as well.
The Washington Nationals, needing a leadoff hitter and true center fielder, looked like the best fit for Bourn. But rather than pay a high free-agent price, the Nats acquired Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins. That allowed Washington to use its available payroll to ink starting pitcher Dan Haren and save money for first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has yet to re-sign.
The Philadelphia Phillies followed a similar path, trading for another Twins center fielder in Ben Revere.
However, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. still hasn't gotten the corner outfielder that his team needs. Swisher signed with the Indians and Cody Ross surprisingly agreed to a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, taking away two possibilities.
The Phillies could still make a play for Bourn, then slide Revere over to right field, where he played 84 games this season. But Amaro isn't going to pay Bourn $15 million a season. He didn't offer Upton more than $11 million per year, according to MLB.com's Mark Bowman. This looks like more of a last resort for both the Phillies and Bourn.
Even the Cincinnati Reds, who needed a leadoff hitter and center fielder, traded for Shin-Soo Choo and are willing to risk him playing in center rather than pay top dollar for a free agent.
Bourn would fit well with the Seattle Mariners, who have lost out on Hamilton and Swisher. The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker explains that Bourn would give the M's a much-needed leadoff hitter and a center fielder who can play more games than Franklin Gutierrez or Michael Saunders.
But no free agent seems interested in signing with the Mariners, whether it's because of Seattle's distance from other MLB cities or the team's status as a non-playoff contender in the tough AL West.
In past years, Safeco Field's large outfield dimensions turned off power hitters, but the fences will be moved in next year. Besides, that wouldn't affect a player like Bourn, who doesn't hit many home runs. A bigger outfield would actually add value to his defensive skills, giving him more ground to cover.
According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, the Texas Rangers are showing interest in Bourn. That would make sense, as the Rangers need a center fielder to replace Josh Hamilton. Obviously, Bourn does nothing to replace Hamilton's home run power, but he would provide better outfield defense and a true leadoff hitter with speed.
The Rangers already have enough firepower with Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler in their lineup. The newly signed A.J. Pierzynski replaces some of Hamilton's left-handed power. David Murphy and Mitch Moreland can each contribute 15 home runs as well.
By signing Bourn, Texas would sort of remake itself as a team relying more on speed and defense. Bourn can steal 40 to 50 bases, joining Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar and Kinsler as threats to run every time they reach base.
Which team will sign Michael Bourn?
The Rangers' pitching staff, with only Yu Darvish as a true strikeout threat, would benefit from the improved defense.
Another possibility is the Chicago Cubs, who could use a veteran leadoff hitter in their lineup. But after signing pitcher Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract, team president Theo Epstein might not want to spend big money on another player. Would Bourn really be the right addition for a team that will be rebuilding for another couple of seasons?
Regardless of where Bourn finally ends up, he'll almost certainly have to accept a lesser contract than the one he and Boras were eyeing once the season ended.
This isn't a situation like Prince Fielder's last year, either, in which the Detroit Tigers made something of a panic move to replace the injured Victor Martinez. But Fielder is a hitter capable of changing a game with one swing. Bourn is not that kind of player.
While Bourn could still get more than the $14 million per season the Indians will pay Swisher or the $15 million per year the Braves are giving Upton, will he be offered anything more than a three-year deal at this point?
The best move for Bourn—one Boras is surely considering—is to take a one-year contract, have the best season possible and then try free agency next winter in the hopes for a better market.
Under those circumstances, Bourn would presumably be willing to play for a team that he otherwise might not have considered, such as the Mariners or Cubs. That could open up what looks like a rapidly shrinking market for a player viewed as one of the top position players available when the offseason began.
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