The Indians shocked much of baseball by signing All-Star outfielder Michael Bourn in February to a deal worth up to $60 million over five years.
While the team then surprised en route to 92 wins and an AL Wild Card appearance, Bourn disappointed. After a four-year near-superstar average of 4.8 jWAR (definition here), he posted a measly 2.2 jWAR in 2013 – just barely above legitimate starter levels.
This week, Cleveland added veteran David Murphy to the fold. He’s expected to play the larger half of a platoon in right field with Ryan Raburn. This now presents an even more crowded logjam in the outfield along with Bourn, Michael Brantley, Nick Swisher and arbitration-eligible Drew Stubbs.
All of these players have a ton of versatility, just as Terry Francona likes it. But it’s doubtful all six are on the roster come April. Thus, one potential option that is gaining more traction in the Tribe blogosphere is the concept of trading Michael Bourn.
Before fans start jumping up with their pitchforks, there is a lot to entertain about this concept. As a comparison, let’s consult the following chart. Keep in mind that analysis has shown a free-market win above replacement level in baseball to be worth between $5-7 million.
The three players are likely easy to guess, if you are aware of recent Indians talk and rumors. But it’s fun to remove pre-conceived notions for a moment: Which player(s) presents the biggest long-term albatross to an organization, one that already might be struggling to make the salary numbers come together in 2014 and beyond?
In a sense, for as much as fans talk about Asdrubal Cabrera (Player #2), his salary situation is nothing compared to that of Michael Bourn (Player #1). And while Drew Stubbs (Player #3) might be hardly above replacement-level, he’s certainly not much of a salary risk right now.
As of now, many are up in arms about the idea of paying 28-year-old Cabrera $10 million for one final season in 2014. He was below average overall this past year, undoubtedly. But he’s still been one of the five best hitting shortstops in baseball for the last three seasons. He’s shown the ability to easily be worth over $10 million.
Bourn, on the other hand, is owed much more money and could be declining faster (more on this later). He turns 31 next month. His contract balloons from $7 million in 2013 to $13.5 million for each of the next two seasons. He’s then owed $14 million in 2016, followed by a $12 million vesting option1 for 2017. That makes it likely a $53 million deal for four more years.
That could bring Bourn into trade conversations, even though many assume the 29-year-old Stubbs is the odd man out. He’s offensively challenged as everyone has learned from his 79 OPS+ over the past three seasons. But he provides defense, some speed and moderate upside at a low cost. MLBTradeRumors projects him to earn about $3.8 million in his second-to-last arbitration season in 2014.
Would you rather pay $3.8 million for Stubbs’ expected limited production or $13.5 million for what you might be getting from Michael Bourn? That is a huge difference of $10 million for a team like the Indians.
The logical criticism in many fans’ minds: If the Indians are potentially having these thoughts, then why would any other team take on Bourn’s gigantic deal? Well, if you recall, the concept of trading Bourn actually was written about as soon as he signed with the Indians.
Grantland’s Jonah Keri, one of my favorite baseball writers, applauded the signing and its versatility long-term for the Indians. After suggesting that the Indians could the springboard the signing to additional revenue and a playoff run, he offered up this alternative.
“Or maybe the Indians will see where Bourn takes them, then make him available in trade if the rest of the team can’t pull their weight. By offering him up that way, Cleveland would eliminate the specter of losing a high draft pick (and the corresponding slot money) that other teams fretted over this winter, in the process dropping Bourn’s asking price.”
ESPN Insider’s Keith Law was much more pessimistic about the deal. He still saw the Indians are a imperfect team with no exact direction in signing Swisher and Bourn to such major deals. Thus, he saw a future trade as a possible rationale for investing such money on a mediocre roster.
“The only other explanation for their signings this winter is that they’re stockpiling assets that they believe will appear underpriced a year from now, and will thus be valuable in the trade market — and they may be right, as neither Swisher nor Bourn signed for as much money on a per-year basis as we might have expected in a high-inflation market.”
Of course, then the Indians performed well in 2013, perhaps earning back the bulk of the money on the deals for both Swisher and Bourn already. And, as Keri noted in one of his comments, even if Bourn is worth just 2 WAR, then $12 million is an appropriate annual salary per the free-market expectations.
So yes, based on his sub-par 2013 performance, Michael Bourn still probably is worth $13.5 million. That’s the benefit of a player who contributes at radical levels with his defense and baserunning. But the bigger topic: Are those skills that might decline faster than those of a bat-only 2 WAR player?
In FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan’s article about the Bourn signing, there were links to articles about “questions regarding how well he’ll age.” In the two respective articles about his offense and defense, their cast of writers share concerns about signing him to a deal longer than three years and his potential for pulling a Chone Figgins2, a limited offensive talent who dropped off significantly when his speed started deteriorating.
Which brings me back to The Diff that I wrote in February after the Bourn signing. At the time, I had theorized that because Bourn was such a diverse baseball talent, accumulating wins above replacement from so many different areas, that of course he would age well. Per the research from FanGraphs and elsewhere, that’s certainly the case. And if 2013 was a glimpse of anything, Bourn could be in for a rough 2014-2017.
Was the Bourn signing perhaps a mistake by the Indians? That’s something I’ve written about before, along with the Swisher deal. Teams like the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays don’t normally commit such money to players on the downswings of their careers. But yet, the Indians rebuilt fan trust in 2013 and brought in added revenue from the late-season run to the playoffs.
So it’s possible that a Bourn trade would never be on the table because of the expectations of the Indians in 2014 to compete and the possible implications of losing some of that trust with the fanbase. As Jon shared in our starting pitchers roundtable, a possible 2 WAR player is worth more to a likely fringe-playoff 86-win team that it is to most other squads around baseball.
This trade idea is just a fan-generated trade murmur so far. There’s been no rumors or reports of the team’s willingness to depart so quickly from the former All-Star. But if the team starts slow or Bourn continues his descent, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to such a deal and the salary flexibility it would open up for the Indians long term.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
- 550 plate appearances are the necessary qualification [↩]
- he averaged 2.7 jWAR for a five-season stretch from 2004-2008, then had a breakout 7.2 jWAR in 2009 before leaving Los Angeles via free agency. After that, he posted a combined -1.0 jWAR in his final three seasons for Seattle. He did not play in 2013. [↩]