Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Michael Bourn
As you are no doubt aware by now, the Cleveland Indians signed free agent outfielder Michael Bourn to a seven hundred eighty bajillion dollar contract.
Well, actually it was $48,000,000 over four years, with options/vesting that could take it to $60,000,000 over five years, but it was still a pretty penny.
What was Bourn like as a prospect and what are the Indians getting for their money? Let's find out.
Michael Bourn was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2003, from the University of Houston. He was possibly the fastest player in college baseball but there were questions about his bat: he hit .330/.411/.407 as a junior, stealing 23 bases but collecting just seven extra-base hits in 182 at-bats, an incredibly low total given the metal bat and the college offensive context of the early 2000s.
He hit .280/.404/.296 in 35 games for Batavia in the New York-Penn League, stealing 23 bases and showing good plate discipline with 23 walks in 125 at-bats, but he had just one extra-base hit. I wrote "he draws easy comparisons to Kenny Lofton" but I was skeptical that Bourn would develop as much power as Lofton did, writing that he "makes Tom Goodwin look like Babe Ruth" and that he had to get stronger. I did note his good plate discipline and positive makeup reports, but gave him a Grade C.
The Phillies moved Bourn up to Low-A Lakewood in the South Atlantic League for 2004. He hit .317/.433/.470 in 109 games, stealing 57 bases and drawing 85 walks, also showing excellent improvement in the power department with 20 doubles, 14 triples, and five homers. His OPS was 22 percent better than league average, and I was greatly impressed with the speed/walks combination with the improved ability to drive the ball. His defense also drew good reviews. I rated him as a Grade B entering 2005, but he fell just short of my Top 50 hitters list.
Jumped to Double-A Reading for 2005, Bourn saw an understandable drop in production, hitting .268/.348/.364 with 38 steals and 63 walks. He fanned 123 times and saw a drop in his power output. I wrote "Bourn passed his Double-A test in the same way that I passed my oral PhD examination: he knew the basics, enough to get a passing grade, but he didn't live up to expectations created by his previous performances at lower levels." On the other hand, reviews of his defense went from positive to stellar, but I was still concerned enough about the bat to knock him down to a Grade C+ entering 2006.
Bourn returned to Reading to open 2006, hitting .274/.350/.365 in 80 games. Promoted to Triple-A Scranton, he boosted his hitting a bit up to .283/.368/.428. He stole 45 bases overall, then got into 17 games for the Phillies, mostly as a defensive sub and pinch-runner, going 1-for-8 in September. My take at that point was that he "can hit .260/.340/.370 at the major league level, with 30-40 steals in full playing time" and that with proper development he could "be a .280/.360/.400 hitter at maturity." I gave him a Grade B- entering '07.
The Phillies used Bourn off the bench in 2007, giving him 105 games of play but just 119 at-bats. He hit .277/.348/.378 with 18 steals in 19 attempts; his production was exactly in line with expectations. Bourn was traded to the Houston Astros in the Brad Lidge deal that November. He was no longer a prospect on a service time basis, but he was still under the at-bat limit so I put him in my 2009 book, again with a Grade B-, expecting him to hit .270-.280 with little power but stealing 50+ bases in regular action.
Bourn was a weak regular at first, hitting just .229/.288/.300 in 467 at-bats in 2008, though he stole 41 bases. He got his hitting going again in '09 with a .285/.354/.384 mark, leading the NL with 61 steals.
In 871 career games between the Phillies, Astros, and Atlanta Braves, Bourn has hit .272/.339/.365 with 276 steals in 340 attempts for an 81% success rate. His OPS+ is 90 on his career, exceeding 100 just once (103 in 2011). He shows up slightly better with wRC+ at 104 last year and 92 in his career.
On the other hand, Bourn's outstanding defense boosts his WAR, which has been 4.1 or higher each of the last four seasons and was excellent at 6.4 last year. He now has a career WAR of 21.4.
Is this contract a good idea for the Indians?
Looking for historical parallels, through age 29 here Bourn's Bill James Sim Score comps:
Brian Hunter the Speedster
Flack was speed guy from the 10s and 20s who remained effective through age 33. Butler lasted into his late 30s. Collins fizzled out at age 34. Cedeno's career was over at 31. Hunter was finished as a regular at age 29 but lasted a couple more years as a bench guy. Pearson was finished at 31.
Hofman was a guy from the 10s who went to the Federal League at age 31 but didn't find his way back to the majors for anything but a brief look after that circuit folded. Bates is another solid player from the teens who went to the Federal League, played well at age 31, then never got another shot in the majors. Bescher is another guy from the 10s, led the National League in steals four times but was finished as an effective player at age 33. Rudy Law was finished at 30.
This isn't exactly a list to inspire great confidence in Bourn's long-term future, with only one of his comps lasting effectively into his late 30s. However, Sim Score has limitations, and Bourn already has more career WAR than six of the players on the list. The exceptions are Butler (46.2), Bob Bescher (29), Johnny Bates (28.7) and Solly Hofman (28.0). It seems unlikely that Bourn will jump to the Federal League like Hofman and Bates, so my guess is that he'll remain an above-average player for the balance of the contract.
That doesn't mean the contract was a great value, but I don't expect he'll fall on his face.
Bourn as a hitter has pretty much lived up to the expectations of his minor league career, Much of Bourn's value comes on defense. For me, one of the Lessons Learned from studying Bourn is the need to make sure that defense is properly accounted for in prospect evaluation.