Until the trade for Michael Bourn, center field had been something of a revolving door for the Braves in the post-Andruw Jones era. Opening day rosters have featured such luminaries as Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer, and Mark Kotsay. Rick Ankiel spent time in center. Needless to say, it’s been really nice having Bourn. The question facing Atlanta now is how nice would it be to have him for the next 3-5 years. $15M per year nice? I’m not sure.
My first thoughts about Michael Bourn were linked to bitterness at the Phillies being able to get an elite player from the Astros for what amounted to peanuts. This was a result of the trade after the 2007 WS that sent Bourn to Houston as the centerpiece in the Brad Lidge deal. (This was back in the days when Houston was rebuilding.) I was irate because Bourn seemed like a low on-base guy who couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. Sure, he was fast, but speed does not a ballplayer make. His horrible 2008 season reinforced this notion, and it took me another two years before I actually believed he was a good ball player.
Despite a subpar showing immediately after his acquisition by Atlanta, Bourn started out the 2012 season at an All-Star level, convincing us Braves Journal denizens that he was destined to receive All of the Money™. Post-ASB… not so much. Taking the season as a whole, it’s pretty similar to his past production with the exception of the HRs. But if you take 6 of his first-half HRs and turn them into doubles, you’ve basically got the same guy from 2011. Bourn is a good CF who will steal you bases, get on base at a decent-but-not-close-to-elite clip and slap enough balls down the line to have a respectable SLG for a leadoff hitter. He’s not an All-Star every year but he’ll look like one from time to time.
All this is to say “No thanks” to a big, long-term deal for Bourn. He’ll be 30 next year, and you don’t do well constructing a salary-constrained roster by giving out big money over big years to non-elite veterans over 30. In a vacuum, I’d go $52M/4 for Bourn, but the only “vacuum” the Braves have is Dan Uggla’s contract. Someone will probably offer him $75/5, and we should hope that “someone” is not Frank Wren.
If you work under the assumption that the Braves won’t be signing Bourn, you’re left with the only internal options being the recently reacquired Jordan Schafer (I guess we won the Michael Bourn deal) and Jose Constanza. Perhaps all the PT for him late last season when the race was essentially over was Fredi and Frank Wren squinting really hard and seeing if they could envision 2013 as the summer of George. Another potential option (but not really), Reed Johnson, is a FA and based on his usage last year is no one’s idea of a full-time guy in center.
In Free Agency, there are players available but equally many teams looking to fill holes. Angel Pagan, Burn In Hell, and B.J. Upton are all on the market, as well as Josh Hamilton. (But come on. No way the Braves go after Hamilton.) My personal preference would be Upton. He’d be more frustrating to watch than Andruw at his nadir, but I think he’s more likely than Bourn to replicate his past performance going forward. But my guess is the Braves will be priced out of his market (4+ years, at least $15M per year) as well, plus Upton’s got a reputation as something of a problem child which leads me to believe the Braves will avoid him.
Pagan and Shane Victorino are closer to Atlanta’s price range, though many watchers don’t think Pagan will come cheap. He’s coming off a great season, and just last year, Coco Crisp (coming off a worse season) got $14M guaranteed over two years from the A’s (plus a similarly-priced team option year). Similarly, David DeJesus (who can still fake it in center) got $10M over 2 years plus a team option coming off a horrible year. Pagan is basically the better parts of these two guys, and he’s coming off a good year in a bad park for hitters. He’s looking for a big deal (4 or 5 years), but I’m skeptical that he’ll get it unless, say, the Nats manage to not sign either Bourn or Upton. I guess it’s possible that the Giants go nuts, though Sabean doesn’t seem as bad about that as he was in the past.
(Sidebar: Do you guys realize just how long Brian Sabean has been GM in SF? I remember visiting the area back in the mid-90s and hearing them complaining about Sabean on KNBR 680. The man’s done pretty solid work. [Ed. note: Sabean was hired as the GM in September 1996.])
Victorino is closer to Crisp than DeJesus but he was awful in LA. Although Pagan will definitely get a multi-year deal, (3 or 4 years in the range of $12M per annum), Victorino might be had for just 1 year if he thinks he can rebound and get a better deal in 2013. It woulnd’t be a long-term solution, but when the music stops in CF musical chairs, he might be the guy the Braves end up with on a 1 or 2 year deal in the Crisp range of $7M per year.
This all assumes, of course, that the Braves are looking for a guy on the free agent market, and given Wren’s history, a trade for a cost-controlled player might be more likely. A move for someone like Dexter Fowler (unlikely for a variety of reasons) or Lorenzo Cain (potentially Bourn 2.0) is certainly a possibility. The chief impediment there is the lack of substantial talent down on the farm to move. There’s no way the Braves are going to trade Teheran now, and with McCann’s close to last season, I don’t think top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt is likely to move, either. That leaves Randall Delgado (or possibly Paul Maholm) as trade chips, but with Tommy Hanson’s struggles last season and Brandon Beachy still out for a while, I doubt we see either of them move.
That leaves the Braves with… not much. The LF market is considerably worse than center, and at 3B (in a scenario where you leave Prado in LF) there’s a bunch of dreck behind Aramis Ramirez who will probably be more expensive than anyone I’ve mentioned previously save possibly Hamilton. Since the options are so limited elsewhere, the Braves might just have to poney up the dough for a FA in center. But if Bourn and Pagan end out up out of their price range, Upton’s personality doesn’t seem like a fit, and there’s no faith that Victorino rebounds, we may see a return to the type flotsam that polluted the Braves outfield prior to Bourn’s arrival.
But who knows. Maybe a Jose Constanza/Reed Johnson platoon is really what we’ve always wanted.