Michael Bourn is easily the biggest name remaining in the free agent pool, and he hasn’t found a new home as the month of February begins to enter its middle portion. There are plenty of teams who could use a catalyst and defensive wizard like Bourn, so what’s going on here? Perhaps Bourn has priced himself right out of the range many teams had in mind, but at least now the rebuilding and retooling Mets have emerged as a front-runner for his services. While Bourn is certainly a good guy to have manning center field, does that mean he’s right for the Mets?
On the surface, Bourn absolutely makes sense for the Mets as he does for a lot of teams. Bourn plays a premium defensive position, and he plays it just about as well as anyone. A quick trip to FanGraphs reveals that Bourn has been rated positively in center in every season of his career but one (2011), and in two out of the last three seasons he’s been considered phenomenal. Sure, UZR data can be misleading, but when a sample size this large exists and points to continued excellence, there’s reason to be a believer.
Bourn would also give the Mets a boost at the top of the lineup thanks to his consistently above-average plate patience. There are plenty of debates to be had on what makes a lead-off hitter effective, but the simplest evaluation is to judge whether or not a player can get on base in front of everyone else in the lineup. Bourn isn’t ever going to lead the league in OBP or anything, but he’s posted on-base marks between .341 and .354 in each of the last four seasons. That’s better than a lot of other teams are getting from the lead-off spot, and it isn’t a batting average fluke despite Bourn’s speed. His walk rates have exceeded 9% in all but two seasons, and he put up a career best 10% rate last year.
Maybe Bourn has been a bit undervalued by his potential employers. For some reason it seems that players who actually possess old-timey skills like defensive prowess, lead-off ability, and speed get overlooked when it comes to big contracts. Bourn isn’t a run producer of any sort, but he has still tallied over 4 fWAR in each of the last four seasons, and his 6.4 WAR mark last season was a career best at age 29. Bourn has proven himself thoroughly after a rocky beginning to his career, but it seems he’s still low on suitors during a period that could easily result in his first enormous payday.
There’s a distinct chance teams are worried about a swift decline, and they wouldn’t be remiss in doing so. Players like Bourn who have so much value tied up in their speed can experience quite the fall-off as their physical attributes fail them increasingly with age; if Bourn’s legs become less potent soon, his defensive range and basepath mastery would begin to suffer immensely. Unlike many other players his age, Bourn can’t fall back on his value at the plate; what he does offensively is largely a bonus beyond drawing a few walks.
The Mets have reason to be cautious when approaching a deal with Bourn, but he could still be a good fit. Bourn is a very good player still in his peak years, and given that 2012 was his best season yet, he isn’t likely to decline any time soon. With the market cool on Bourn for the time being, perhaps the Mets can grab him for a shorter contract length than they would have previously feared necessary. Even though the Mets know they won’t compete this season, they need good players to build around, and Bourn could be extremely pivotal in making the Mets a better team when their recent prospect haul from Toronto is ready to make the step up. There are reasons to worry about Michael Bourn, but there are also reasons to think the Mets are wise to be the leading candidate for his considerable services.