What do the San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies all have in common? Other than all winning a World Series in my lifetime, each location was at one time thought to be a prime destination for free agent Michael Bourn. While the center-fielder is still available; the Giants, Braves, and Phillies each appear to be set with the pieces that they have acquired this off-season.
So, who's left? According to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY, the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets are out in front of the market for the speedy leadoff hitter.
The Seattle Mariners, determined not to live in the offensive cellar for the upcoming season, have added two middle of the order bats in recent weeks -- acquiring Kendrys Morales from the Angels and Mike Morse from the Nationals. While Seattle will almost undoubtedly field a more competitive, offensive ball club in 2013, I would argue that the Mariners biggest need has not yet been addressed this off-season. I'm not talking about adding an additional left handed starter, and I am certainly not talking about a full-time first baseman. I'm talking about a catalyst. The kind of player you put onto the field and with any swing of the bat, he could be standing on any base.
Michael Bourn is a catalyst.
When he's on base, as an opposing team, you have to account for him. Pitchers look him off and catchers stay on their toes, both knowing he could do at any time what he has done better than any other player since 2008; steal a base. Bourn is one of only three players dating back to the beginning of the 2008 season that have stolen 200 or more bases. Rajai Davis (200) and Juan Pierre (202) are the others. Bourn has stolen 257, and he's the only Major League player to steal more than 60 bases (2009, 2011) in two seasons over this time.
The Mariners offense -- although it appears to be improved -- still needs a catalyst at the top of the order. As a club, hitting leadoff, Seattle recorded a slash line of .229/.281/.341 with a .622 OPS during the 2012 season. While dealing with re-occurring injury issues (ankle), Dustin Ackley was underwhelming while hitting leadoff last season. Where consensus weighs in favor of Ackley turning his game around, Seattle has their fair share of question marks entering the 2013 season. Can they afford another?
There has seemingly been hesitancy to offer Michael Bourn four to five years in guaranteed money, their may be a light at the end of the tunnel for non-believers. It's been rumored that Bourn could accept a shorter term deal if it includes an opt out clause that would provide him with the option of hitting free agency again a year from now. Length of contract aside, the belief that he is declining in skill at the plate is unfounded.
Since 2011 Bourn has become more aggressive from the plate, making him a more complete and more dangerous hitter. Let me explain.
**If you are unfamiliar with any of the statistics above, we will cover them all in the coming paragraphs.
In increasing the amount of swings taken (Swing%), Bourn has significantly transformed his game. While his O-Swing% (at pitches outside the strike-zone) has stayed equal over his past four seasons, his Z-Swing% (at pitches inside the strike-zone) has increased from 56.3% to 60.4% since 2009. By improving his pitch selection over the course of recent full-seasons, as displayed in his Z-Swing% numbers above, Bourn gives himself more opportunities to square up the ball off the bat; which has positively benefited his distribution of the ball over the past two seasons.
While his FB% (Fly-Ball%) numbers varied little throughout the four seasons in the table above, it's his increasing ability to drive the ball that catches SeattleClubhouse's attention. In 2010, Bourn wrapped his season with the Houston Astros, posting the fifth highest GB/FB (2.56) ratio in the Major Leagues. Numbers that would place him third in baseball for GB% (Groundball %) at 59.4%, leaving little room for LD% (Line-Drive%), in which he would finish 95th at 17.5%.
One season later (2011), after increasing his Swing% (as seen above), Bourn found himself on the opposite side of the leaderboard. His GB% fell a total of 8.8% while his LD% increased 9.1%. to 26.6%; finishing second in the Major Leagues, just 0.9% behind Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds.
While there are players who have been productive over their careers mixing in 3.0 GB/FB seasons, it's rare that the most productive 'non-power' hitters stay at such a high ratio. Bourn's 2012 season cemented his progress in moving away from being clarified as a slap-hitter. Which has been a concern around the Mariners blogosphere in light of Chone Figgins.
His numbers in 2012 (see above) were less dramatic from the previous season, but each continued in line with an increased ability in driving the ball; which is a key ingredient in moving runners past first base at Safeco Field. The alleys in Safeco's outfield are harder to shoot a ball into than your average Major League stadium. Much harder, as a matter of fact. Whereas the average park factor in 2012 for doubles was 0.989, slightly favoring pitchers, Seattle finished 30th at 0.709. The New York Mets home -- Citi Field -- was the only other stadium to finish within 0.100 points (0.785) in terms of likelihood.
It behooves Seattle Mariners fans to see the above statistics from Michael Bourn and put them in line with the extra-base hits he accrued throughout the seasons in question.
After posting 75 combined extra-base hits in 2009-2010, Bourn has posted back-to-back career highs for a total of 91 extra-base hits over the past two seasons. His offense has always been seen as his third tool, behind his speed and his defense. But with recent positive trending in his ability to drive the ball, Bourn finds himself in elite company over the past four seasons.
Since 2009, only five players have recorded four consecutive seasons of 4.0 WAR or higher. Those five are; Ryan Braun, Robinson Cano, Matt Holliday, Miguel Cabrera, and Michael Bourn.
With health, offense, speed, and defense contributing to the numbers, it's not his offense that holds him back, it's all his tools that make him one of baseball's elite contributors.
What about Franklin Gutierrez, you ask?
Gutierrez opened eyes in the Venezuelan Winter League regarding the current state of his health, batting .349 and looking healthy in the outfield. In doing so, he surely not only caught the eye of the Seattle Mariners, but other Major League clubs as well. It's been a tough break for Gutierrez the past two seasons. He's played a total of 132 games, suffering from a number of ailments following an extension with Seattle which he signed prior to the 2010 season. That extension, guaranteeing $20.25 million over four seasons (2010-2013) runs its course following this upcoming season. The Seattle Mariners will then have two choices. Pickup the oft-injured center-fielders option at $7.5 million for the 2014 season or buy-out his contract at $500,000.
With all things considered, Seattle could likely find themselves back in the market for a centerfielder just one full-season from now, a free-agent market that will unlikely include Bourn or any similar player. So what choice does Seattle have prior to this season? Trade Gutierrez.
SeattleClubhouse recently spoke with a Major League source who is confident that following his healthy winter league stint and late season showing, Gutierrez is worthy in trade of a Top-20 club talent. Even if he's a platoon bat, the source said, the defense makes him valuable.
That price tag might not seem fitting for a player nicknamed 'Death to Flying Things' but with the interest generated in shopping the talented Venezuelan outfielder, Seattle could acquire a young piece on a similar time-table to the Major Leagues of those already within the system. And one that is potentially on par in terms of ceiling with a talent that they could otherwise get with the 12th pick in the upcoming draft. If Seattle can shirk his 2013 salary ($7.5 million) in the deal, Bourn comes at an increase in the vicinity of $5-$9 million in total payroll for the 2013 season. Taking into account the money owed to Seattle's newest acquisitions; Morse and Morales, this would place Seattle around $75 million. Conceivably leaving the club ample room to pursue a rotation replacement for Jason Vargas.
Acquiring a young piece in return for Gutierrez would also dampen the blow of losing the 12th overall draft selection for Bourn, who is a compensation eligible free agent.
Currently a hot topic regarding compensation free agents is the draft allocation money that accompanies each selection in the draft. Let me explain.
Each selection in the First-Year Player Draft is accompanied by a previously determined 'recommendation' of the compensation that pick should receive. This is referred to as 'slot amount'. Each club receives an amount, based off their selections, that they cannot exceed in signing the players they have selected. When a team forfeits their selection, they also forfeit that 'slot amount' of draft money, potentially hampering that clubs ability to go forward signing a number of their selections.
The 'slot amount' for the 12th pick overall in the 2012 draft was $2.5 million. While that is a sizable amount, the Mariners went with high school athletes five times in the first ten rounds of that 2012 draft, netting Rookie League All-Star Tyler Pike and Joe DeCarlo among others. This is a 'work-around' process Seattle could repeat for the 2013 draft, lowering the overall amount needed to sign their selections.
It is partly because of the above draft pick compensation that the New York Mets are currently reportedly attempting to convince the league to spare their 11th overall selection if they were to sign Bourn. The Mets argument revolves around failed negotiations with Pittsburgh Pirates first-round selection, Mark Appel, last season. With the Mets in considerable negotiations to alter Major League policy, Seattle has the chance to strike while the oven is hot and be the only cook in the kitchen.
Seattle has already made a commitment to improving the offense of the club. From moving in the fences to adding middle of the order hitters, Jack Zduriencik and the rest of the Mariners front-office have made an effort that is getting noticed. Also grabbing notice however is that all of the off-season acquisitions Seattle has made are of the one-year variety. While Seattle reportedly offered multi-year deals to other big name free agents, they haven't fired on that commitment. Committing to Bourn at four or five years would be a statement that the club is serious about competing moving forward, not just improving in 2013. The numbers on Bourn, seen above, show that he is a player worthy of a multi-year commitment.
The Mariners need a catalyst. Michael Bourn needs a team. Michael Bourn wants a substantial financial commitment. Seattle seemingly has substantial financial room available, this year and beyond. The two sides seem like a great, logical match.
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