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Lusting after Michael Bourn

In an alternate universe, the Royals sign free agent outfielder Michael Bourn this offseason and greatly improve their chances of making the playoffs next season.

Scott Cunningham

There were many reasons why members of the Vigilante Sabermetric Brigade who also happen to cheer for the Kansas City Royals flipped out over the James Shields/Wil Myers trade. If you read this blog regularly, you almost certainly have read the arguments ad nauseum, but two of the main arguments against the trade were:

  • After the trade, the team still does not have a high enough probability of making the playoffs this season to justify selling off valuable long-term assets
  • The team still employs Jeff Francoeur as their starting right fielder, who had one of the worst seasons in MLB last season.

Dayton Moore and company could fix at least the latter problem, and potentially the former one with a move that the team could still make this offseason, but barring something completely out of character, will not. Free agent outfielder Michael Bourn would be a great fit for the current team in Kansas City, and would push the team closer to playoff contention.

Bourn is still available in free agency, and most teams who went into the offseason needing a centerfielder have already filled that need. Although the Texas Rangers are still rumored to have interest in the outfielder, the negotiations between the two parties don't appear particularly serious. Bourn does not appear to have a lot of leverage, and looks like a candidate for a potential bargain.

As Eno Sarris explained on Fangraphs, Bourn might come cheaply because of how the market has played out, not because he is over-the-hill as a baseball player. Over the past four seasons, Bourn has been worth 20 wins for the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, while Shields complied 15 wins for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Most of Bourn's value is tied up in his speed, which helps him to post elite defensive and baserunning numbers. Tom Tango compiled some evidence that speed players age better than your average major league player, so Moore should not worry that Bourn's production is likely to fall off a cliff. He's easily less of a risk than the "proven starter," Kansas City just required, since he doesn't pitch for a living.

Signing Bourn would cost the Royals a draft pick, but since the team has a supplemental pick at the end of the first round, the loss is not too great. The loss of a draft pick is also acceptable in the case because Bourn helps push this team closer to wild card contention the next two seasons, and the team needs to reach the post-season to make the Shields trade somewhat close to justifiable.

You can even make arguments to sign Bourn that the current front office might appreciate. He's an ex-Brave, so that's a plus. He could slide nicely into the leadoff position, allowing them to move Alex Gordon and still get production at the top of the lineup (think about all of the fastballs Gordon would see hitting behind Bourn!).

Bourn fits this current roster construction. The Royals could shift Lorenzo Cain to right field, which would give them one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. Bourn gives the offense another league-average hitter, which would be an improvement over Francoeur and the 23 percent below league-average hitting season he managed last year. Bourn just turned 30 years old, so he should remain productive for at least the next few seasons, which is the window for competing the Royals unnecessarily placed upon themselves.

Of course, there is little chance that the team actually signs the speedy centerfielder. Spending more money would cause David Glass and his family to go on food stamps, so the team would need to unload salary to sign Bourn. Trading Billy Butler or Alex Gordon could not work, since the team is not in a position to trade players who will provide value for the team next season.

That leaves Ervin Santana, Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and/or Francoeur as players that would need to be traded, and the other team would have to pick up their entire salary in the process. These players were roughly as effective in 2012 as the Maginot Line was in 1940, so it seems highly unlikely that any (other) team would want to acquire them.

The current situation the Royals find themselves should help explain why the nerds around here get so upset over spending money on replaceable players. The team operates on a tight budget, and every sub-optimal decision with money adds up and then limits the team when they have an opportunity to sign players who actually improve the team.

So Michael Bourn wearing a Kansas City Royals uniform in 2013 will only exist as a fantasy, even though a different set of circumstances could have made it a reality. It's a damn shame too, because signing Bourn would greatly improve the team's current roster and push them closer to playoff contention.