The prevailing belief was that the Atlanta Braves had closed the door on the Michael Bourn era.
Hitting the free-agent market for the first time, Bourn and agent Scott Boras were reportedly seeking a huge payday. CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury reported in November that rumors said Bourn was looking for a $100 million deal.
That obviously isn't going to happen now. The market for Bourn swiftly collapsed as teams presumably interested in him acquired center fielders elsewhere.
The Washington Nationals traded for Denard Span, while the Philadelphia Phillies made a deal for Ben Revere. And other clubs that could still pursue Bourn apparently don't want to give up the first-round draft pick required for any player that received a $13.3 million qualifying offer from his previous team.
Could those circumstances lead to Bourn returning to the Braves after it looked as if both the team and player had decided to move in opposite directions? Atlanta even signed a replacement for Bourn in B.J. Upton, inking him to a five-year, $75.25 million deal.
Yet, according to Braves general manager Frank Wren, the door has always remained open for Bourn to return to Atlanta. He said as much to former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden on his Sirius XM radio show:
Frank Wren Braves GM told us that they've never closed the door on Michael Bourn Sirius 209 XM 89 #FrontOffice— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) January 6, 2013
Though signing Upton gives the Braves the right-handed power bat they were seeking, Atlanta could use one more player to man left field.
Up until this point, Wren hasn't been able to land a left fielder that would enable Martin Prado to play third base full-time for the coming season. Even a left-handed hitter that could platoon with Reed Johnson at the position has proven elusive.
The remaining free-agent left fielders, as listed by MLBTradeRumors.com, aren't a promising bunch. Kosuke Fukudome, Johnny Damon or Bobby Abreu surely aren't what Wren has in mind. The best outfielder still available on the market, regardless of position, is Bourn.
Bringing Bourn back could lead to some awkwardness in the Atlanta outfield.
Upton is now the center fielder. The Braves committed $75 million to him to play that position for the next five years. Perhaps the team could ask Upton if he was willing to move over to left field, but since he's only played the position for one game in his major league career, it's doubtful he would accept.
Still, Bourn is the better defensive center fielder.
In 2012, he was spectacular. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Bourn was the best player at his position, saving 22 runs more than the average center fielder. The only major leaguer who was better in the field was the Braves' Jason Heyward.
Compare that to Upton, who was actually a below-average defender last season in UZR's view. He cost his team two runs more than a replacement-level center fielder.
Of course, that doesn't mean Upton won't be a fine defender in his debut season with the Braves. UZR can vary wildly from season to season depending on the data that comes in. It actually creates a better picture used over multiple seasons.
By that measure, Upton is an excellent center fielder. But he's still not Bourn.
However, Bourn does have some experience playing left field, almost all of it coming in 2007 when he was with the Phillies. He played 79 games that season, but started only six of them.
Signing Bourn as a left fielder would surely reduce his price, as it's not considered a premium defensive position. That would work in the Braves' favor, since it's not clear just how much money they have to offer another outfielder after signing Upton to his contract.
Yet at one point during the offseason, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien, the Braves had ambitions of signing Torii Hunter in addition to Upton for their outfield. But Hunter ended up signing a two-year, $26 million deal with the Detroit Tigers.
Did Atlanta have a chance there, or was the team unwilling to pay $13 million per season? As O'Brien explained, Hunter may also have decided to stay in the American League because he's played his entire career there.
But Bourn really isn't in a position to demand a big contract at this point, unless he and Boras are so adamant about cashing in that it forces him to play for a non-contender. Perhaps he wouldn't play at all until well into spring training or after the regular season begins.
The appeal for the Braves is plainly apparent, though. Bourn could still fill a crucial role for Atlanta as its leadoff hitter.
As it stands right now, Prado would probably take over at the top of the Atlanta batting order. He actually had a better on-base percentage than Bourn last season and would provide more extra-base power from the leadoff spot. But Prado isn't the stolen-base threat that Bourn is.
Bourn returning to the Braves would also make the lineup deeper. Instead of hitting in the second spot, Upton could hit cleanup or even sixth in the batting order.
Depending on when Brian McCann is able to play following offseason shoulder surgery, Atlanta could feature quality hitters in the first seven spots on the lineup card. Among National League playoff contenders, only the St. Louis Cardinals might feature a lineup with better depth.
With such a formidable combination of hitting, starting pitching and lights-out relief, re-signing Bourn could give Atlanta the edge over the Nationals in the NL East. Such a move might also make them the front-runners to represent the National League in the World Series.
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