Players switching their representation to Scott Boras in order to maximize earnings isn’t uncommon. Jayson Werth felt it prudent to do so last season in anticipation of his big upcoming contract. Robinson Cano acted accordingly in February. Around the same time as that Yankees slugger, Astros center fielder Michael Bourn followed suit and dropped SFX Baseball for the biggest agent in the game.
Bourn doesn’t necessarily profile similarly to Werth or Cano, but a player does not seek the help of Boras to offer hometown discounts or sign at a below-market rate. Just like the aforementioned triumvirate of new Boras representees, Bourn’s change in agencies likely signifies that he feels his money is coming. He avoided arbitration and signed for $4.4 million this season. Next year will mark the end of his arbitration eligibility, as he reaches free agency for the first time in 2013.
Is Bourn, 28, really a big contract type of player? Upon revisiting this story and reviewing his numbers it seems that, while he may be vastly underrated as a player, three issues loom with respect to his pending contractual status: the perception of players whose value is heavily derived on defense, his offensive numbers relative to the new league averages and not those from 2006-08, and the current status of the Astros franchise.
Simply put, defensive metrics receive far more skepticism than offensive stats. It’s much easier to trust an on-base percentage, wOBA, Isolated Power, stolen base efficiency mark, etc, than it is to see Bourn’s 19+ runs saved via UZR last season, or 10 runs saved the year before, and put the figures in perspective. Comparisons prove especially troublesome when various defensive metrics disagree with one another.
Treating defensive stats similarly to batting numbers, from a cost standpoint, may not be an optimal use of resources because of the inherent uncertainties in the data. Obviously it would be a different story if scouts backed up the data, or offered an estimate that fielding skills and positional value alone are worth the price of two wins.
But it’s tougher to consider his WAR totals as equivalent to those of, say, Werth, whose offense was the driving force behind consecutive 5-win seasons. Suffice to say, I was a bit shocked to see that Bourn added 4.9 WAR in 2009 and 4.8 WAR last season, his second and third full seasons in the majors.
It’s unlikely that I am alone here in considering Bourn to be worth X, when in reality he has produced X+3. It quickly becomes apparent when watching him patrol his outfield post that he takes tremendous routes and can track down virtually any ball. Some centerfielders mask a poor sense of direction with fantastic speed. Not Bourn, who is fast in addition to being a solid all-around outfielder.
Regardless, a gap exists between his value per all-encompassing statistics like WAR and his perceived value on the open market. Much of his value is tied to an area that many treat with large doses of skepticism.
Offense Relative to League
Pop Quiz: what is the league average slash line in the NL right now? Answer: .249/.318/.383, down from the .255/.324/.399 in 2010, and the .259/.331/.409 on display two seasons ago. The measuring stick has substantially changed, meaning that Bourn’s offense isn’t as unimpressive as it might have once seemed. Two years ago, a .265/.341/.346 was unimpressive. Now it represents an above average slash line.
He has hit .275/.347/.365 without much seasonal fluctuation since 2009 and his baserunning prowess elevates his value as well. Since 2009, his 131 steals leads all of baseball, with Carl Crawford‘s 114 ranking a somewhat distant second. Further, his 11.2 BsR since 2009 ranks second in the senior circuit to Colby Rasmus, and fourth overall among qualifying players.
Bourn might be known as a defense-first player, but let’s not act like he swings feebly. He can run, and reaches base at an above average clip to properly utilize his speed. Put everything together and Bourn has truly maximized his value based on his skills. Is that worth 5-WAR money? I have a hard time seeing some team giving him a 5/$75, or a 6/$87.5, which would calculate out to a break-even at 3.5 WAR/season.
The data might suggest he is an elite fielder while scouts consider him solid but not overwhelming, and it is tough to evaluate offensive skills without incorporating the league averages into the mix. Even tougher is being cognizant of the league averages enough to make those evaluations.
League average hitters who play great defense are often cost-effective for a team with a tight budget because, frankly, defense costs less. Players fitting this description don’t sign enormous contracts. Bourn might extract as much as he can with Boras steering the ship, but a 4/$40 might be a more realistic expectation. Teams may shy away from a longer-term deal under the assumption that his defense and speed will erode over time. Without those two components, his value obviously takes a massive hit.
The Astros Status
As the team undergoes its ownership change it will have to decide whether or not a complete reboot is necessary. There are few pieces on the major league roster that would merit a big enough return to make a deal, and Bourn is one of them.
It would seem strange for a team without any real help on the farm to dole out lucrative contract extensions to the likes of Bourn or Hunter Pence, especially when those two players could actually help the team more based on what other teams would pay to acquire their services.
The Astros aren’t going anywhere this year, or next year, and though Bourn is from Houston, and went to school at the University of Houston, the Astros don’t need to, and shouldn’t, pay him handsomely given the current state of the franchise. A switch to Boras indicates that handsome payments are desired.
The best course of action would be for the Astros to test the trade market for Bourn, as many teams could benefit from what he provides much more than they will. The move would make plenty of sense this year, as well, given his $4.4 million salary — taking on half of that over the rest of the season would not hinder payroll flexibility or the ability to make additional in-season moves. Bourn is an average hitter with tremendous defensive ability. He will get paid, but it shouldn’t be by the Astros, and it will almost certainly be for an average annual value less than his recent production merits.