My fellow District on Deck blogger Andrew Flax posted an article several days ago expounding upon the reasons that the Nats should sign center fielder Michael Bourn. I felt compelled to weigh in on all the reasons the Nats and Michael Bourn are not a good fit.
Two years ago, Michael Bourn would have been the answer to the Nats prayers for a center fielder and lead off hitter. That ship has sailed. The current Nats team is not the same team as it was, player wise or prospect wise.
Signing Michael Bourn to play center field jams up the Nats outfield in negative ways. If the Nats don’t resign Adam LaRoche, then they can move Michael Morse to first and platoon Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina in left field. The Nats also can move Tyler Moore to first base, his natural position, and let him hit everyday and keep Morse in left field. The Nats have good outfield prospects in Corey Brown, Eury Perez and Brian Goodwin who are available to come up in the event of injury and at least one of them will be major league ready next year. Bernadina needs playing time too.
Bryce Harper took the center field job last year and by the end of the season, owned it. Long term, the Nats will want to move Harper to one of the corner outfield spots to preserve the longevity of his career. That move does not need to be made for several years. Harper will only be 20 years old this year. By the end of the season, teams were afraid to send average runners from third base to score on fly balls to center field. Know why? Harper proved he has an accurate cannon for an arm and can throw out runners trying to score from third. He was making highlight reel throws that previously only Rick Ankiel had managed to produce for the Nats. One of the reasons the Nats could let Ankiel go mid-season was because Harper proved he could play center field. The Nats didn’t need Ankiel as a substitute center fielder with Harper and Bernadina on the team.
When Harper is ready to move to one of the corner outfield spots, Brown, Perez or Goodwin should be ready to take over the job. If not, the Nats can sign a center fielder when they need one.
Baseball managers and teams make way too much to do over the position of “lead off hitter”. You know how many times a lead off hitter hits lead off in a game? Usually once. That is the guaranteed number of times the first hitter in the order leads off an inning. As soon as another player on the team gets on base, your lead off hitter is going to be hitting second or third in an inning the next time he comes to the plate. Then he is just another batter. A player who strikes out a lot, as Michael Bourn does, hurts the team by not moving runners over who got on base in front of him and increasing the chances of making the second or third out in an inning when they come up right behind the pitcher.
The Nats need to construct a line up that works. Toward the end of the season, Davey Johnson had done just that, having Werth hit lead off and Harper hitting behind him in the number two spot. When both of them got on they were a threat to execute a double steal. Jayson Werth is the smartest baserunner on the team. Equally interesting combinations are Harper hitting lead off and Werth hitting behind him, using Steve Lombardozzi to lead off when he gets a start, and using Danny Espinosa as a lead off hitter if, again, he can stop striking out so much. One of the reasons Espinosa isn’t hitting lead off is because of his high strikeout numbers. Why is having Bourn, another high strikeout guy, a better option at lead off? Davey Johnson has proven time and again that he can construct a line up that works with the players he has. The Nats don’t need to spend in excess of $75 million dollars to solve a lead off hitter problem that doesn’t really exist.
That talk of $75 million dollars is another reason the Nats shouldn’t sign Bourn. The Braves just signed B.J. Upton to a five year deal worth $75.25 million. Upton is a career .255 hitter who steals less bases than Bourn. The only advantages that Upton has over Bourn are that he is two years younger and hits more home runs. Now that the Braves gave Upton that kind of deal, the price for Bourn just went up. There is no way Scott Boras will accept anything less than a $80 million deal for Bourn now.
As much fun as it is to spend other people’s money, I can’t advocate that the Lerners spend in excess of $75 million dollars to get a player who will want a five or seven year deal who will be in his mid to late thirties by the time the deal is completed. Bourne most likely won’t be able to play center field to the end of the contract, which means the Nats will be back in the same box in a couple of years–in need of a center fielder. If the Bourn advocates think that getting him to play center for a couple of years and then letting one of the young prospects take over, moving Bourn to a corner will work (which it won’t, because what do you do with Werth and Harper if Bourn takes one of the corner positions?), then the Nats might as well let Harper play center for a couple more years and then move him to a corner position and let one of the young guns take over in center and save the cash.
The Nats will need that cash. The MASN television contact is still nowhere near finalized. The Nats don’t know how much money eventually will be available from the MASN deal. The Nats are going to need to have the cash and the flexibility to try to lock down Strasburg to a long term deal–and that may turn out to be the most expensive contract for a pitcher ever when all is said and done. The Nats should be thinking about getting Jordan Zimmerman in the fold on a long term deal, which will not be cheap either. If Ross Detwiler has another good year, wanting the cash available to sign him long term may be a good idea. In a couple of years, they may want to try to sign Harper long term. Juggling payroll is not just a matter of figuring out what you have available to spend this year, but what are you going to need to spend down the road to keep your good players on the team. Wasting $75 million dollars is never a good idea, and using that money to sign Bourn may mean missing out on locking down Jordan Zimmerman, Detwiler or Strasburg.
The Nats for this season need a fifth starter (unless they kiss and make up with John Lannan, which is unlikely) and they are either going to need to spend $15-$20 million to keep Sean Burnett or they are going to have to go out and sign another left handed reliever. The Nats have a few holes to fill for this coming year, but center field is not one of them. The Nats should pass on the Michael Bourn sweepstakes.