If you go to the Free Agent Leaderboards, you’ll see Michael Bourn‘s name at the top, as the sort for the list is set to descending 2012 WAR, and Bourn has the highest WAR this season (+6.1) of any upcoming free agent. We can pretty much guarantee that Bourn isn’t going to sign the largest contract this winter, though, as free agent value isn’t simply based on a player’s most recent season, nor are all skills as likely to be sustained going forward, and various skills have different valuations in the marketplace. Bourn’s combination of average offense and terrific defense is a valuable package, but how will it translate into market value?
Well, before we figure out how much he’ll get paid, we first have to figure out how much of his 2012 value he’ll retain in future years, or at least, how much teams will expect him to retain. There’s no question that the average offense/great defense package can be highly valuable, but it’s also a young man’s skillset. Here is a list of every player in the UZR era (2002-2012) that has posted a +5 WAR season while running a wRC+ below 110.
FldPos is a player’s fielding rating by UZR and the positional adjustment added together to aid with comparisons across positions.
Bourn is already the oldest player on the list, as every other player who put up this combination of decent hitting, great fielding, and value on the basepaths was 28-years-old or younger. The average age for the players who pulled off this kind of season was 25. It’s not any kind of secret that speed and defense peak earlier than offense, but I was surprised that no player in his thirties had put together that kind of performance during the last 11 years.
Because many of these similar seasons came early in careers of active players, we don’t actually have that much data for this group of players in their thirties. There are a couple of examples of guys who have continued to flourish — Brandon Phillips and Jimmy Rollins — and a couple of scary examples — Andruw Jones and Luis Castillo — where their value just disappeared after they turned 30. Jones’ collapse was historically unique and Bourn has more power than Castillo ever did, so you can probably make a case for Phillips and Rollins being more likely outcomes, but then again, both make contact at much better rates than Bourn does.
And that might be the real key to Bourn’s payday. No one’s going to pay a rate that expects another +20 UZR season, but even if you just give Bourn a league average defensive rating this year, he still grades out as a +4 win player. Durable center fielders who can hit and add value on the bases are valuable even without plus defense, so Bourn doesn’t necessarily need a suitor to buy into his UZR in order to get a pretty nice contract. But he does need teams to be convinced that he’s going to keep hitting, and historically, the low power/high strikeout combination has not been one that has had much success over the long term.
Over that same 11 year stretch, there have been 57 players who have posted a K% between 17%-23% and an ISO under .125 in one year, meaning that they struck out at a rate around the league average without hitting for a lot of power in that same season. Of those 57, only 14 (24.5%) have posted a wRC+ over 100, and three of those 14 belong to Bourn himself. Among the guys who were legitimately good hitters with this skillset, two of them added power — Andre Ethier and B.J. Upton — while the three who didn’t — Brett Gardner, Emilio Bonifacio, and Cameron Maybin — took significant steps backwards in the next season.
Bourn is much more in the Gardner/Bonifacio/Maybin mold than he is Ethier or Upton, as he’s simply too small to add much power going forward. The fact that he’s put up four seasons of roughly average offense without power or contact shows that his speed allows him to make this skillset work, but it’s a slippery slope down if he begins to lose a step or two. There are a lot of parallels between Bourn and Carl Crawford, though Bourn has even less power and is hitting free agency at a later age, and Crawford’s recent performance is likely going to be in everyone’s memory when analyzing what kind of deal they should offer Bourn this winter.
Crawford’s not even the scariest comparison for this type of player, though. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the age 26-29 seasons of Michael Bourn and Chone Figgins:
Figgins made a little better contact and had a little more power, but they were basically the same type of hitter. Then, at 30/31, he got huge boosts from his defensive rating and was worth +10.1 WAR over two seasons, but then everything just fell apart without notice. The power went away, the BABIP collapsed, and Figgins has turned into one of the worst players in baseball. His 2009 season is probably the closest comparison to Bourn’s 2012 season that we’ve seen in recent years, and it was the last time Figgins was even a remotely decent baseball player.
The fact that Figgins didn’t collapse until 32 might be seen as a positive, but the fact that he collapsed without warning should be a bigger red flag. We already know that it’s pretty rare for guys to maintain these kinds of performances into their thirties, and it’s likely that at some point in the next couple of years, Bourn’s value is going to crater. Maybe that’s three or four years down the line, in which case the value from the first few years could make signing him to a big contract worth it. But, if that crash is coming next year, or even the year after, then he’s a free agent landmine, and the kind of guy who could tie up a large part of a team’s payroll while producing little in return.
Going forward, I’d probably project Bourn as a +3 to +4 win player, which is generally worth $15 to $20 million per year. But, even though he’s younger than Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher, I’d be very uncomfortable going more than three years for Bourn. It isn’t just about what he’ll be in a few years – it’s about the potential risk if it all goes south real quick.
My guess is that someone will go five years for Bourn, and he’ll end up with a contract for between $75 and $100 million. Given his contact issues and the amount of his value that’s tied to his defense and baserunning, though, I don’t think I’d go beyond three years, and probably top out at $50-$60 million total. He’s going to get more than that, but I don’t know that I’d bet on him being worth more than that going forward.