Should Michael Bourn be Traded? [Yo Bro/No Bro]

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Sep 24, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) scores a run as Kansas City Royals catcher

Salvador Perez

(13) attempts the tag in the fifth inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Klein:  Yo, bro!  The Indians should try to trade Michael Bourn this offseason and clear payroll space.

Kyle Downing:  No, bro.  The Indians need to keep Michael Bourn for 2015, he’s an important part of the team!

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Jeremy:  Michael Bourn is not good at baseball.  I mean yes, in the grand scheme of the universe he’s pretty good. Compared to me, a guy who topped out on the high school freshman baseball team, he’s a whole helluva lot better. But compared to other Major League baseball players? Yo, bro, he’s just not that good anymore.  He used to be good. But he’s simply not the player he was, even as recently as in 2012.

For one thing, his health, specifically the health of his hamstrings, is going to be a question mark for the rest of his career. Bourn played in 130 and 106 games in 2013 and 2014, respectively, so right off the bat we’re dealing with a player who is a strong bet for at least one extended DL stint. That in and of itself isn’t a deal breaker. The other problem is what the paper mache hamstrings do to Bourn’s game when he is on the field. As a player with a career .097 ISO, Bourn is reliant on his speed to get on base and advance quickly around the bases once he is aboard. The decline and speed hasn’t totally killed Bourn’s BABIP; his .337 figure is relatively in line with his career norms.

Aug 20, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) reacts after striking out in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

But it is a drop from his .349 and .369 BABIP figures in 2012 and 2011. That may not seem like much, but when a player ranks 140th in contact rate and 114th in walk rate among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, every last ounce of BABIP makes a big difference. It would help if Bourn were an elite base runner, but  in 2014 , for the first time in his career, he posted a negative base running value (-1.1) according to Fangraphs.  The decline in speed hampers him defensively too, where Bourn posted a -15.9 UZR/150 in 2014. Now, defensive metrics are best taken with a large sample size, and it’s possible Bourn could bounce back to the neutral level he rated at in 2013 (-0.9 UZR/150).

But let’s put some context behind it. This is a 32-year old center fielder with consecutive years of hamstring issues. I’m no doctor (I only play one on the Internet), but I doubt Bourn suddenly moves past the hamstring issues at this point. Even if he doesn’t miss a lot of time, it’s likely going to restrict him from going full-bore on the bases or in the field.

So what we have is an aging player who hits like a fourth outfielder and defends like one too. That’s fine, except he’s making $27.5 million across the next two seasons. Bourn was worth approximately a win above replacement in 2014. If the Indians can find a way to move the contract without taking an onerous one in return, a distinct possibility given the value attached to a “center fielder,” even if the player in question is a very mediocre center fielder, they’d be better served to it and look for a cheaper way to replace that meager production.

Kyle:  Michael Bourn has struggled the past two seasons, particularly in 2014.  However, it is far more likely that his injuries, not his age, were responsible for his decline in performance.  In 2012, Bourn posted a 23.4 UZR and stole 42 bases.  While I agree that he’s unlikely to have his legs working at that level in 2015, the stark decline in speed that appears to be responsible for his fielding and baserunning value is almost certainly tied to his hamstring injuries.  Bourn has been healthy and back on the field since mid-August, and there’s a good reason to think he won’t be holding back when he hits the field in Arizona.

There’s definitely a level of risk in relying on a 32 year-old player to bounce back from injury and return to form, but a player of Bourn’s body type isn’t exactly a model for decline.  We’ve seen players such Coco Crisp and Ichiro Suzuki post solid defensive numbers (plus 20 stolen bases) in their age 33 and 34 seasons.  While that’s not the norm, it’s certainly encouraging considering Bourn has a similar build and a history of ridiculous speed.

But beyond all that, the biggest reason for keeping Michael Bourn is that the Indians simply don’t have another center fielder available in-house.  Prospects Clint Frazier, Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey and Bradley Zimmer aren’t major-league ready as of yet, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will stick in center field in the big leagues anyway.  Tyler Holt is the only true center fielder the Indians have on hand, and after hitting .268/.307/.296 with a .413 BABIP in an extremely limited sample size of 76 plate appearances last year, it’s safe to say his bat could use a bit more development.  Nick Swisher, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn and Brandon Moss are all laughable candidates for center field, and while All-Star Michael Brantley has some experience at the position, he posted a -10.1 UZR in LEFT field in 2014.

Jun 22, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) makes a diving attempt on a ball hit by Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila during the sixth inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On top of all that, consider the fact that if the Indians were to trade Bourn, their best option (and in my opinion, the only halfway reasonable one) would be to put Brantley in center field and roll with some combination of David Murphy, Brandon Moss and Nick Swisher every day.  All three players not named Brantley missed time with injuries last year, and none are a guarantee to post even average defensive numbers from a corner outfield spot.

Even more terrifying is any scenario in which Brantley gets injured.  The Indians would be forced to either grab a Quintin Berry-type off waivers in a panic move, or promote Tyler Holt and hope for some kind of offensive breakout.  Neither thought is comfortable for a contending team.

Sure, Bourn isn’t the best center fielder in the league.  But he’s the only one we’ve got, and trading him away when his value is at an all-time low would be a poor decision for a franchise that’s ready to content in 2015.

Jeremy:  My response to that is two-fold.

The first speaks towards the availability of Michael Bourn alternatives. You’re right in your assertion that the Indians don’t really have a great in-house alternative to Bourn. Frazier or Naquin might get there soon, but it’d be irresponsible to throw them out there on 2015 Opening Day.

However, you neglected to mention some of the outside options the Tribe could pursue. I think both you and I would agree Kyle that Bourn, with a slash line that hovers around .255/.315/.360, is ill-suited to be a leadoff hitter. That also probably means we agree that Michael Bourn should probably bat ninth in the Indians’ lineup.

Let’s consider how the Indians’ outfield is constructed for 2015. In left field there’s Michael Brantley, who rated as poor defensively in left field in each of the last two seasons (-4.9 and -10.1 UZR/150 in left according to Fangraphs in 2013 and 2014) and at best can be considered average out there. In right field is Brandon Moss, who rated as below average from 2011-2013 before pulling a 5.7 UZR/150 in 2014 just 622.1 innings in the outfield. But considering his advancing age and his recent hip surgery, that’s likely a one-year blip and he’s likely to be below average out there in 2015.

In this context, I would argue that the Indians would be better off pursuing a defensive specialist to play centerfield. Luckily for us, there’s a good chance that this exact player is available at little cost to the Indians, and his name is Jackie Bradley Jr of the Boston Red Sox.

There’s no doubting Bradley in the field. The metrics and scouts both agree that Bradley is a wizard with the glove in center, gliding to balls that nearly any other center fielder would find unreachable and gunning down base runners with extreme prejudice.

The issue with Bradley is he was one of the worst non-pitcher hitters in baseball last year, slashing .198/.265/.266 in 423 plate appearances. But it’s not as if Bradley has never hit before; he posted wRC+’s of 127 at all levels of the minors. Fangraphs’ Steamer projections him for a .235/.304/.348 line in 2015, and if he can come close to that he’d be a much better fit for an Indians club that only needs a defensive specialist who will bat ninth in the order.

If not Bradley, guys like Cameron Maybin, Gerardo Parra, Ender Enciarte and old friend Drew Stubbs are guys that are likely available, are likely better defensively than Bourn, and are much cheaper salary-wise than Bourn.

Sep 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) makes a catch against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The second response speaks towards your point of the team trading their starting center fielder before a season in which they plan on contending. The best way to consider a possible Bourn trade is in the vein of last year’s Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera trade.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to understand how a team could trade its starting shortstop and one of its starting pitchers and still claim to be contending. But the designation of “starting” is a nominal one in that yes, Cabrera and Masterson had starting roles, but that doesn’t mean they were being productive in those roles. Trading those two guys didn’t make the Indians any worse in 2014.

By that same token, trading Michael Bourn likely doesn’t hurt the team because he’s not all that good anymore despite being the nominal starter in center. The Indians can likely find a replacement that better fits their team context, and the payroll flexibility can help the Indians be better in 2015 and 2016, be it via a contract with free agent James Shields, or the ability to add payroll at the 2015 trade deadline or 2016 offseason.

Kyle:  The two main issues with trading for another outfielder are that we’re not sure if any of those names are truly available or what they might cost in return.  While I agree that Jackie Bradley Jr. has offensive potential, his pedigree means he’s going to come at a high price, regardless of his rookie year numbers.  That price will likely be Danny Salazar or T.J. House, or a pair of highly rated minor league players.

With players such as Naquin and Ramsey only about a year away from the major leagues, it seems silly to pay a high price for a player who will not only block those players, but projects to have lower offensive production than Bourn in his worst season.  Furthermore, we’re all aware that some players who tear it up in the minor leagues just don’t succeed in the majors.  Sure, it’d be nice to have a defensive wizard in center field, but is it really worth paying the price Bradley Jr. will command while almost certainly downgrading our offense?  And that statement doesn’t even include the possibility that Bourn has an offensive rebound.

Like Bradley Jr., it’s possible but not certain that Maybin, Parra, Enciarte and Stubbs are available.  But let’s operate on the idea that they are.  First, the Indians would have to find a trade partner for Bourn … not an easy task, considering the negatives we’ve already mentioned.  In addition,  few teams are actively looking for a center fielder, particularly at this point in the offseason, and only small percentage of them would actually consider Bourn an upgrade.  Of the ones that come to mind, the Braves have their own bad contract in center field (the even-more-expensive and even-worse B.J. Upton), and the Cubs are arguably better off seeing what they have in Arismendy Alcantara.

Sep 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton (2) reacts to a called strike in the fifth inning of their game against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

No team in their right mind would employ Michael Bourn, at a corner outfield spot, likely due to his contract, so there’s no obvious market for Bourn.  That would put his trade value pretty low.  This likely means that moving him would require eating a portion of his salary.  So, even if a deal gets done, we’d likely get nothing more than a lottery-ticket prospect in return.  Then we’d have to give something up to acquire one of the players you mentioned, then pay that player’s salary in addition to what we pay of Bourn’s salary.  All told, adding Maybin or Stubbs could easily cost the team even more money, plus a minor-league player or two, in exchange for the possibility of somewhat of an upgrade at defense.  Inciarte and Parra would probably be less expensive in terms of dollars but more expensive in terms of prospects.  Simply put, the team would have to go through a lot of trouble to trade Bourn and acquire another player, without any guarantee that they’d be much better.

Trading Masterson and Cabrera made sense because they both had immediate replacements on hand.  If Naquin or Ramsey were major-league ready, or if Holt had shown more offensive promise last year, it would be a different story.  But for now, I feel like moving Bourn and acquiring another player would be a hassle while not really saving the team much money or guaranteeing much better production.  The Indians are better off waiting for one of their center field prospects to emerge before considering shippingBourn out of Cleveland.

Jeremy:  Ah yes, the transaction cost of acquiring a replacement for Bourn. While the Indians would certainly have to give up something to acquire a replacement, you’ve greatly overstated what that something would be.

The reason I suggest the names I did for potential Tribe trade targets is that they are all to some extent blocked from having a starting spot on their respective teams, in turn making them easier to acquire than a guy with a starting gig. Another way of thinking about it is that in a league where an established major leaguer like Brandon Moss can be acquired for Joey Wendle, it’s unlikely the Indians would have to part with T.J. House, let alone Danny Salazar, to acquire Jackie Bradley Jr.  The other aspect of your argument seems to be that you don’t want the Indians to make a bad trade, or that any Michael Bourn trade will inherently be a bad one due to the lack of a market for the player.

Sep 12, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (25) makes a diving catch for the final out of the game against the Kansas City Royals during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Boston won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Of course I agree the team shouldn’t make a bad trade just to make a trade. But I disagree a Michael Bourn trade will inherently be a poor one because there’s always a market for center fielders, even if that market isn’t readily apparent.  For example, the Toronto Blue Jays are preparing to mount their big playoff challenge with rookie Dalton Pompey penciled in as their starting center fielder. The Detroit Tigers’ center fielder is going to be the guy the Blue Jays got rid of in order to start said rookie (Rajai Davis).

Point being is that maybe at this exact moment there’s not a good trade to be made for Michael Bourn. But as spring training draws near, injuries and ineffective strike, and teams can better assess what they have, a market for a center fielder will be there, and the Indians can be ready to pounce.​

Kyle:  My first reaction is that teams don’t often trade top prospects just because they’re blocked.  Baseball is a business, and a player’s value doesn’t drop simply because he gets pushed back in the depth chart.  It simply means that a team is less opposed to trading him.  We’ve seen this in the case of players like Jurickson Profar.  He was blocked in the middle infield and there was no way the Rangers were going to get fair value in return for him, so they waited until an opportunity came up to trade a different player (Ian Kinsler) in order to clear up their logjam.

It’s tough to compare a trade for Bradley Jr. to the trade for Moss.  First off, Wendle was no small piece; he has a fantastic minor-league track record and Oakland will have him through his prime via his arbitration process.  Furthermore, Moss only had two remaining years of team control and was coming off injury.

Sep 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) at bat against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

My point is that the price for Bradley Jr. might not be worth it.  We’d be paying the price of a player who has five years of team control left, when it’s somewhat likely that we’d only need him for one.

To your second point, I should mention that I don’t believe any player is untradeable.  If an offer for Bourn overwhelms the Indians, it would make sense for them to make the trade.  However, your argument that there is always a market for center fielders is one of the main reasons we need to keep Bourn; we’re in the market for a center fielder, too.  There are ways to replace him, sure.  But for reasons I’ve stated thus far, I think keeping him as a stopgap this year (and hoping for a very possible rebound) is not only the most financially responsible decision the team can make, but also the one that is best for the team in the long run.

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