Michael Bourn is one of the most fascinating free agents on the market. First, he's fun to watch, an old-school, 1980s-type leadoff hitter with blazing speed. He's a gifted center fielder with a pretty good throwing arm, which isn't often the case for speed guys. Essentially, he's a baseball player who is really fast, as opposed to a fast guy playing baseball.
But what really makes him interesting is this list of the most wins above replacement among outfielders over the past four seasons:
1. Ryan Braun, 25.9
2. Jose Bautista, 20.2
3. Michael Bourn, 19.0
4. Matt Holliday, 18.3
5. Andrew McCutchen, 18.1
Maybe that strikes you as a bit surprising, since Bourn had just 16 home runs over that span. But he's not an offensive zero. His OBP was .348, and he averaged 28 doubles and 10 triples per season, making him about a league-average offensive player, and that's before getting to his baserunning (216 stolen bases against 51 caught stealing and ability to get extra bases on hits). But much of his value derives from his ability to chase down balls in the outfield. His defensive runs saved the past four years:
His four-year total of plus-62 puts him tied for fifth with Evan Longoria among all defenders, behind Brendan Ryan, Ben Zobrist, Brett Gardner and Adrian Beltre. Even if you're not a big fan of defensive metrics, that passes the sniff test as a list of the game's best defensive players.
So you have an elite fielder who can lead off and get on base 34 to 36 percent of the time. That's a valuable package, especially when you consider six clubs received a sub-.300 OBP from their leadoff hitters and five others were below .320.
Or, more accurately, it has been a valuable package, leading Bourn's agent -- yes, Scott Boras -- to reportedly seek a deal in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million ($15 million per). Bourn will be entering his age-30 season; since much of his value comes from his legs, teams will have to project how he'll age.
One thing to do is estimate how elite defensive center fielders age. In the chart below, I list the top 15 defensive center fielders since 1990, first from ages 26 to 29 and then from 30 to 33.
Not surprisingly, the younger center fielders were far superior to the older center fielders; the 30-to-33 group saved about half as many runs as the younger guys. In this admittedly rough model, we would expect Bourn to see his defensive runs saved cut in half over the life of a four- or five-year contract. That seems reasonable, as even a fast guy such as Bourn is likely to lose a step or two in his 30s.
What about on offense? Bourn isn't really your prototypical speedster type of hitter -- he strikes out a lot and attempts to drive the ball instead of just slapping it around the infield. He's often compared to Juan Pierre, but they're not the same type of hitter. Pierre is a pure contact guy who rarely walks, while Bourn walks more and strikes out much more. In fact, you could argue that he doesn't take advantage of his speed enough on offense. He had just seven bunt hits in 2012 (Erick Aybar had the most with 18), although he does rank third over the past four seasons with 48 bunt hits. He had just 13 infield hits in 2012, which didn't even place him in the top 50. That appears to be an anomaly, as he averaged 26 infield hits over the previous three seasons.
The trouble with projecting Bourn's future is there really haven't been any players like him. I did search for all players since 1990 who, in their age 26 to 29 years, struck out at least 400 times, stole at least 100 bases and hit fewer than 35 home runs. There was only one: Bourn. We could compare Bourn to other fast, low-power guys such as Pierre, Ichiro Suzuki, Rafael Furcal, Chone Figgins and so on, but we get to the problem that none of them struck with near the frequency of Bourn.
Certainly, the Carl Crawford (a somewhat similar player) contract of two years ago will scare off many teams. Figgins was older (32) when he signed with Seattle, but that's another scary free-agent deal for a similar player. On the other hand, Ichiro compiled 23.5 WAR from age 30 to 33 and Kenny Lofton 19.2 WAR over that age.
My guess is some team will come close to Boras' asking price. It apparently won't be the Reds, who need a center fielder and a leadoff hitter (their leadoff hitters posted a .254 OBP). The other teams that posted a sub.-300 OBP from their leadoff hitters don't really need a center fielder (Dodgers, Mariners, Pirates, Blue Jays and Marlins). OK, the Marlins need one, but I'm pretty sure they're not in the free-agent market. As ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski wrote the other day, the fact that there is a glut of free-agent center fielders makes it difficult to project where they'll all land.
Dan mentioned the Phillies as a possibility for Bourn, and that makes a lot of sense. They don't have a center fielder, Jimmy Rollins is better suited for a spot lower in the order these days (Phillies leadoff hitters had a .318 OBP) and the Phillies obviously have the rotation of a playoff contender. On the other hand, the Phillies already are paying $20 million-plus in 2013 to Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard, $15 million to Chase Utley, and a combined $24 million to Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon, so maybe they've hit their limit. On the third hand, they've cut nearly $40 million from the 2012 payroll in kicking Joe Blanton, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Ty Wigginton to the curb.
Sleeper option: the Brewers -- who then could peddle Carlos Gomez for some pitching help. The Brewers led the National League in runs scored in 2012 but a Bourn-Norichika Aoki one-two punch at the top would set the table nicely for the big boys and help the pitching staff with a more reliable defender in center field.