What were once whispers that the Mets might be interested in free agent center fielder Michael Bourn have developed into a loud drum beat. There are two hang ups that seem to be keeping the Mets from locking up Bourn. The first is that they are unwilling to pay him $15 million a year and second, since Bourn is a Type A Free Agent who was offered a qualifying offer by the Braves, the Mets would lose their draft pick, 11th overall, for signing him.
Letting people think they are seriously going after Bourn is a good idea for the Mets. It helps them win the war of the sports covers in a winter where the Yankees were doling out one year contracts to guys who were All-Stars when I was in high school and were outbid by the Pirates for Russell Martin’s services. It’s also tells fans that ownership and the front office are interested in fielding a better team.
Actually inking Bourn to a three-year or, worse yet, a four-year deal, would be a disaster for the Mets. It sets back any effort to gauge what their outfield prospects can do, puts into stark relief the way the team handled the R.A. Dickey contract negotiation and subsequent trade to the Blue Jays and hampers the Mets ability to spend money if they become competitive in the next few years.
The problem is that the Mets weren’t very good last year and outside of David Wright, Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy and a possibly more consistent Lucas Duda, this doesn’t look like a very good team on offense for 2013. The Mets won 74 games last year, 77 in 2011, and 79 in 2010. Last year, their run differential was -59.
Without Bourn, the Mets would open the season with Ruben Tejada leading off and a platoon of Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill in centerfield. With Bourn, Tejada would slide to second in the lineup and the platoon would be relegated to the bench. There is no doubt that in the short term, this would be an improvement for the team’s offense.
But, by blocking Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill, two guys who have yet to play a full season in the majors and are 25 and 26 respectively, for a guy on the wrong side of 30 who gets most of his value from his speed, the Mets could be doing some long term damage. In three minor league seasons, Nieuwenhuis put up consistently solid numbers. In 282 at-bats with the Mets last year, he had a slash line of .252/.315/.376. Cowgill has put up less impressive numbers but has always shown pop and speed. When Bourn was 25 and with the Astros in 2008, his full season slash line .229/.288/.300. This isn’t to say Nieuwenhuis will become a Bourn type player, but if Houston had gone out and got a new center fielder, they would have missed out on his 2009 season where he went .285/.354/.384.
Bourn is 30 years old. Any multi-year deal will be paying him mostly for what he has already done. Not what he will do in a New York uniform. In 2011, Bourn led the league in steals with 60 and in caught stealing with 14. In 2012, his steals dropped to 42 but he still led the league in caught stealing with 13. On top of that, he strikes out in bunches with 140 in 2009 and 2011 and 155 in 2012. As his legs get older, his batting average will continue to drop as his loss in speed negatively impacts his batting average on balls in play.
At the last home game of the 2012 season, R.A. Dickey won his 20th game of the year. Just two months later, Dickey was traded away to the Blue Jays for a package of players headlined by catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud. The Mets traded away Dickey weeks after he won the Cy Young Award because they were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension that would have covered the 2014 and 2015 seasons, seasons where Dickey will be 39 and 40. It wasn’t that the Mets were unwilling to extend Dickey, it was just that the sides were $5 million dollars apart. Over two years.
While they may not go as high up as $15 million a year for Bourn, they will have to go north of $10 million a year to make him a Met. Bourn isn’t a necessity for a team that isn’t going to be competitive for a few years. But Dickey, even if he didn’t replicate his 2012 form and in a winter where a pitcher like Jeremy Guthrie was signed to a three-year, $25 million deal, is a necessity. A team like the San Francisco Giants won with great pitching in the starting rotation and bullpen and an offense that didn’t overpower you outside of a few guys.
Before the trade, the Mets would have entered 2013 with a starting rotation of Dickey, Jon Niese, Matt Harvey, Johan Santana and the possibility of uber-prospect Zach Wheeler at some point. Without Dickey, that rotation looks a lot less imposing as the Mets will need to lean even more so on Santana who faded post no-hitter and Dillon Gee who is working his way back from a serious season-ending injury last year.
The Mets let Jose Reyes walk, ostensibly because of their financial limitations, given their connection to the Madoff scandal and diminishing attendance. They haven’t been good in several years, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With young pitching prospects and d’Arnaud and others, the Mets could have a competitive team in an NL East that looks stacked with the Nationals and Braves leading the charge, thanks to the second wild card playoff spot. In two or three years, a Mets team that is in the hunt for the playoffs will have Bourn’s sizable contract on the books. They will be paying a high price for diminishing returns if Bourn’s contract hampers their ability to improve the team with an in-season deal or off-season acquisition.
Michael Bourn is a good player. The Mets aren’t a good team. But Bourn will age and get worse. And the Mets will mature and become a better team that could get into the playoffs. Signing Bourn won’t help in that effort.