It happens every offseason. A talented free agent or two who expects to land a huge multi-year contract is forced to settle for a lesser deal because of the concepts of supply and demand.
Michael Bourn is the victim this time.
Bourn and agent Scott Boras were looking for a deal in the five-year, $75 million vicinity. It’s Bourn’s first foray into free agency and it comes after one of his best seasons, during which he made his second All-Star team and set career highs in home runs, RBIs and walks. The speed and elite centerfield defense are still there at age 30, evidenced by his 42 steals and 10 triples.
Unfortunately for Bourn, this free agent market was littered with centerfielders the way last winter’s class was filled with closers. B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino and Josh Hamilton all signed by the middle of December. Denard Span (traded from the Twins to the Nats), Shin-Soo Choo (Indians to Reds), Chris Young (Diamondbacks to Athletics) and Ben Revere (Twins to Phillies) filled four more centerfield holes.
Now it’s the end of January and Bourn is still a free agent. Reports have cropped up in recent days that the Mets are interested in his services, but New York is reluctant to give up the first-round pick they’d forfeit by signing Bourn. A rebuilding team like the Mets needs veteran talent, but it also needs the type of young, cheaper talent it could find with the 11th pick in June’s draft.
Same goes for many of the other teams that have centerfield holes. The Twins and Royals could use a legitimate, everyday CF, but those are two teams willing to try out their young guys. They also need their first-round picks in order to continue developing internally.
The Mariners? That’s a potential fit for the former Phillie, but GM Jack Zduriencik has a more pressing concern in re-signing ace Felix Hernandez. If Seattle gives in to Bourn’s demands, it would be spending approximately $5 million more in 2013 than it did in 2012, and that’s before the estimated $10 million per year raise King Felix is due.
The Yankees? While they still need outfield help this late in the offseason, Bourn isn’t a fit, because New York’s three starting outfielders – Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Ichiro – are all left-handed like Bourn.
The Rangers? While they’ve been linked to Bourn plenty this offseason and have some serious questions in the outfield with Hamilton gone, T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com reported Friday that Texas has been “lukewarm” on Bourn all along and isn’t likely to pursue him, instead looking to save money to potentially go after a better player during the season.
A team to watch is the Cubs. GM Theo Epstein is a master at gauging the market for undervalued assets, and that’s what Bourn is at this point. Chicago is set to start the season with David DeJesus – pretty much a league-average player on offense and defense -- in center.
This leads us back to the Phillies, who still have an unsettled outfield. Bourn won’t be coming back to the Phils. But had Ruben Amaro known at the Winter Meetings that Bourn’s free agency would last this long, he may not have traded two of his best young pitchers for Revere, instead saving them for a power-hitting corner outfielder.
Bourn has next to no leverage at this point. Despite Boras being his agent, it is unlikely he finds the B.J. Upton years or money he was looking for. He may end up having to accept a one-year deal like Ryan Madson did last offseason, when he too was a Boras client looking to cash in after a career year. That market was flush with closers and Madson took a one-year deal with a high-dollar amount so he could re-test the market after 2012.
For Bourn, that probably makes the most sense. Sign a one-year deal to earn about $15 million and then look for a long-term pact next offseason. It’s better than a two- or three-year contract because it would allow Bourn to make good money in 2013 and become a free agent again before he reaches his mid-30s.
Nobody guessed Bourn would be the sacrifice of this free agent class. Nor did many guess both Uptons would end up in Atlanta, the Angels would pay Hamilton, and the Phillies and Yankees would be deafeningly quiet. The last few years have shown us that the offseason can be as unpredictable as the postseason.