In the last few days a lot of words have been written about what an eventful off-season the Indians have had. Well, it just got a whole lot more eventful. Jon Heyman is reporting that the Indians have agreed to a 4-year, $48 million deal with All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn, with some sort of vesting option that could kick it up to 5 years, $60 million.
Just days after the front office reported the team was pretty close to its spending ceiling for 2013, they found enough change in the cushions to go for this (along with their minor league deal shopping trip over the weekend). Nick Swisher signed the largest contract in team history, and now, depending on the specifics, Bourn may have just landed the second-largest deal.
This move probably sends Drew Stubbs to the bench (perhaps he plays his way into a platoon with Michael Brantley) and gives the team a top-flight leadoff hitter, something it's been missing. Maybe one of those two (Brantley or Stubbs) is traded instead. Maybe Bourn, Brantley, and Stubbs ALL play, with Swisher moving to first base and Reynolds at DH most days. At this point, who knows?!
Let's take a look at Bourn's numbers:
Those numbers show that he's basically a league average hitter, though because OPS+ slightly over-values slugging percentage and slightly under-values on-base percentage, and Bourn's OPS is OBP heavy, he's actually a bit better than that (a 104 RC+ each of the last two years, which more accurately reflects the value of each component). He's also clearly a premier base runner, his 155 stolen bases over the last three years are the most in baseball, and he's stolen them at a very strong 80% success rate. He also has the highest score over those years in the base running component of both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs' WAR calculations.
What those numbers DON'T show is that Bourn is also an elite fielder. Looking at the fielding component of each version of WAR, Bourn has been the second best defensive outfielder in baseball over the last three years (behind only Brett Gardner). He finished second to only Mike Trout in the 2012 Fielding Bible Awards voting for center field (no single award is definitive, but if we're gonna quote an award for defense, the Fielding Bible's is far superior to the Gold Glove).
Where did the money for this move come from? The Indians have an extra ~$10M a year coming in from their local TV contract, which is something. They will also have an additional ~$25M a year coming in from MLB's national TV contracts, beginning in 2014. Over the next five years, that will be a total of $140M in new revenue from television (5 x $10M on the local side + 4 x $25M on the national side). If Swisher and Bourn both get their 2017 option to vest, they'll make a total of $130M. So, I think that tells us where the money is coming from. I applaud ownership for committing to putting that money back into the team, even before some of it has begun streaming in.
Bourn had been give a qualifying offer by the Braves, meaning any team that signed him would have to give up their first round pick, unless that pick came in the top ten overall spots of the draft, in which case the team had to give up its second round pick. This seems to have been something of a sticking point for many teams. The Mets were rumored to have interest. They were sitting on the #11 pick, the very highest pick that could be lost in exchange for signing Bourn. They tried to argue that pick should be protected (because they were one of the ten worst teams, and were only drafting at #11 because the Pirates were awarded the #9 pick as compensation for being unable to sign their 2012 1st round pick, Mark Appel to a contract), but MLB wasn't hearing it (rightfully not), and the Mets moved on.
The Indians had the unique advantage of not only having their first pick protected (#5 in the first round), but having already forfeited their second round pick on Swisher. The Indians do still have to give up their next available pick, which is the "competitive balance lottery round B" choice they were given last summer, which will fall somewhere around #70 overall. A player picked at that level certainly has a chance to reach the majors and contribute, but not a very good one. Thus, the opportunity cost of signing Bourn was far lower for the Indians than for other interested teams.
Bourn was worth 6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference and 6.4 according to Fangraphs, both of those put him among the top twenty in baseball. Baseball Prospectus wasn't quite as high on his production, credit him with 3.7 WARP (their version of WAR, the P is for "player"), still among the top forty marks in MLB. If the draft pick issue weren't there, I'm confident there's a team that would have topped the Indians' offer. $48/4 or $60/5, it's below market value.
There are some concerns that Bourn's skill set won't age well, because how many 30-something speed merchants or glovesmiths do you see out there? But I don't know that the evidence really supports the claim that a player of his sort is worse off than the average player that age. This contract will cover Bourn's age 30 to 33 or 34 seasons, so, no matter his player-type, it's fair to think he'll be overpaid by its end. He could very well be under-paid over the next couple years though, with a very reasonable shot at providing $60M worth of value over the life of the contract. Once committed to Swisher (also likely to be better in the first couple years of his deal), it made sense to "go for it," and I certainly think it's fair to say the Tribe is doing just that, and without giving up talented prospects. I see a lot to like here.