With the offseason in full swing, Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn is now a free agent. Bourn will be among the top free-agent center fielders this offseason and should get paid quite a bit more than he ever did in his career.
The Braves are interested in bringing back Bourn, but Bourn turned down a one-year, $13 million qualifying offer the Braves made. He was predicted to do so because he would be more interested in signing a long-term contract.
Bourn is likely to seek a new contract at around five or six years and $70-80 million, but he could very well get over $100 million as well. As arguably the best leadoff hitter among free-agent outfielders this year, he will almost certainly get the years and money he wants.
Teams besides the Braves that could make a serious push include the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox. Other teams like the New York Mets for one would not be able to go after someone like Bourn due to a lack of available money, despite a clear need for a new center fielder.
Bourn had two solid seasons with the Braves in 2011 and 2012 after getting traded from the Houston Astros. This past season, he batted .274 with a career highs in home runs (nine) and RBI (57). He also had 96 runs scored, 171 hits, 42 stolen bases and a .348 OBP. Despite not winning a Gold Glove Award this year, he also played very well in the field with just two errors all season.
The Braves will do everything they can to retain Bourn, but if they fall short of doing so, it will not be the end of the world by any means. Bourn is not the only elite free-agent center fielder. In the event Bourn signs elsewhere, the Braves could make a big push toward signing BJ Upton.
Upton's speed on the bases and in the field is just as good as Bourn's. Furthermore, Upton is younger by a few years, which could be better for the Braves in the long run. Even though Upton is a right-handed hitter, he and Bourn share a lot of similarities. Both have been very prone to strike out a lot, both are elite base stealers and both play center field exceptionally, even though Upton does not have the Gold Glove awards that Bourn has won.
One advantage Upton has over Bourn is that he has a lot more power and is much more of a run producer. This past season, Upton hit a career-high 28 home runs and drove in 78 RBI. Bourn has never come close to either number throughout his career.
On the other hand, Bourn's recent track record with batting average and OBP is clearly better. Upton's .246 average this year was the highest it has been since his .273 average in 2008.
Bourn has batted no lower than .265 since 2009. Since 2009, Bourn's lowest OBP in a season was .341 in 2010. This past season, Upton's OBP was only at .298. His career-low 45 walks did not help his cause at all.
All in all, Upton would provide similar numbers compared to Bourn, assuming that he bounces back from an average and OBP perspective. There is also the possibility that the Braves could target superstar outfielder Josh Hamilton.
Hamilton's year and money demands would be much larger and he comes with a lot of baggage as well. Not only has Hamilton had trouble staying healthy at times, but he is also a recovering alcoholic who has had periodic relapses.
As a result, Hamilton could become a liability for the Braves or whichever team ends up signing him this winter. But when healthy and focused, Hamilton is as good of a hitter as anyone in baseball right now. Thus, signing Hamilton would be quite the high risk-high reward decision.
Another free-agent center field option could be Shane Victorino. Victorino is older and only likely to get a two- or three-year contract at most. The Braves would be better off with a younger center fielder with a long-term commitment so that they can move on to other areas of concern.
Furthermore, the Braves already have some good outfielders on their team. Jason Heyward bounced back quite well this past season after a disappointing 2011 season. He will likely be their right fielder for many years to come. Martin Prado is also a fixture himself in left field, despite being a natural infielder.
The Braves also claimed outfielder Jordan Schafer off waivers from the Astros. In addition, they have another speedster and solid defensive outfielder in Jose Constanza. With that being said, the Braves already have a good outfield overall. However, if they bring back Bourn or sign someone like Upton, their outfield will look that much better and certainly be one of the best units baseball.
Center field is not the only issue the Braves need to address this offseason.
They could use another third baseman on the roster in case new third baseman Juan Francisco struggles next season. They also need another catcher with Brian McCann currently injured and not a guarantee for Opening Day, plus former backup catcher David Ross recently signing a two-year contract with the Red Sox.
The Braves' pitching is in noticeably better shape both in the rotation and the bullpen, but the Braves will still have to determine certain roles for certain pitchers.
While Bourn is a very good center fielder and certainly one of the top free-agent outfielders right now, losing him to another team would not be the biggest loss for the Braves. They will very likely make a big effort to sign BJ Upton or Shane Victorino to fill the void in center field.
Furthermore, the Braves' depth at catcher and third base both need to be addressed just as much—if not more—than center field.
It will be fascinating to see which direction the Braves end up going for center field, but regardless, they still have a very good team that will without question contend once again for the postseason in 2013.
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