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Tribe Happenings: Bourn is not living up to expectations

Tribe Happenings: Bourn is not living up to expectations
Has Michael Bourn been a bust? The performance as an Indian to date suggest so, but there is still time for him to make good on his deal. (Photo: AP)
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Regretting Bourn

We are just about a quarter of the way into year two of the Michael Bourn era in Cleveland. When he signed a four year $48 million deal with the Indians in February of 2013 fans were very excited about the signing and felt that the Indians had filled center field and the leadoff spot in the order with a very capable player for a long time.

The hope was that Bourn would bring Gold Glove caliber defense to Cleveland and help forge their outfield into one of the best defensive units in baseball. There was also hope that he would be a top of the order catalyst getting on base and more importantly being a nuisance and impact player once on the bases by stealing lots of bases and forcing pitchers to focus more on him which would lead to more fastballs to the hitters behind him in order to help them have more success as well.

But so far things have not worked out as hoped.

This season Bourn is hitting .244 with 0 HR, 7 RBI and .614 OPS in 18 games. He has just two stolen bases, a .268 on-base percentage and has a rather poor 3-22 walk to strikeout ratio. When combined with his totals from last season, he is hitting .260 with 6 HR, 57 RBI and .668 OPS in 148 games with the Indians, 43-154 walk to strikeout ratio, 25 stolen bases and .310 on-base percentage. For you sabermetric fans out there he has a 91 OPS+ and 1.8 WAR over those 148 games.

I don’t think when the Indians doled out $48 million in guaranteed money that they envisioned paying a player a lot of money to be a league average or even slightly below average player – but that is pretty much what Bourn has been. A .310 on-base percentage is poor for any player - let alone a leadoff hitter, and when you add in a 23.4% strikeout rate and a lack of impact on the basepaths, you come away with a player who has underwhelmed immensely to date.

Yes, Nick Swisher also signed a big four year $56 million deal and has disappointed as well, but he was brought in for different reasons. He wasn’t brought in to play defense, steal bases and be a firestarter, he was brought in to be a leader and provide a professional approach and some pop to the lineup – something he did for the most part last season though has not done this season.

Both have been disappointments in their own right, but Bourn has been the bigger disappointment because his impact was to be made less intangibly like Swisher but more tangibly with being a shutdown defensive outfielder, impact runner and good leadoff hitter. He has struggled in all three of those areas so far with the Indians and there is no sign of his struggles coming to an end.

Some of the struggles are injury-related as Bourn this season is dealing with a chronic left hamstring injury which cropped up at the end of last season. The injury required offseason surgery and has since forced him to miss time on two separate occasions this season. When you are a guy who relies on your legs an ongoing hamstring issue such as this no doubt will affect your play, though his defense and running ability were clearly an issue last season even before the injury.

Bottom line, the Indians paid Bourn $48 million not to be a .300 hitter or big power hitter, but to be an above average to elite player with his defense and running ability at the top of a lineup and to date he has failed to live up to those expectations. Now with lingering hamstring issues you have to wonder if at 31 years of age if he may have already peaked as a player and is already in decline.

If Bourn is what he is right now and maintains this kind of inconsistent performance this season, the Indians are in a tough spot. They are still on the hook for $27.5 million in salary for the next two seasons beyond this one, and with good health in 2016 his $12 million option for 2017 could easily vest and put them on the hook for about $40 million total from 2015-2017. That’s a lot of money to dole out to an average player while a team is trying to contend with a limited payroll. I mean, $12 million in one season is equal to about one-sixth or one-fifth of the team payroll, so it is a significant monetary issue going forward if his subpar play continues.

Having a player like Bourn struggling and eating up payroll could prevent the Indians from resigning someone like Justin Masterson or going out and finding a bat or two in free agency or on the trade market to help add some thump to the lineup. That’s $12-15 million they simply are unable to allocate to another area of the team.

Bourn’s legs have betrayed him this season and might be a problem going forward. Once he gets healthy it might be wise of the Indians to consider moving him if the right deal comes about, although obviously other teams may have the same concerns at this point as well. Either way, his salary is misspent money and the Indians need to get out from under it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, they could be on the verge of another Travis Hafner-like albatross eating up a large chunk of the payroll and having little if any impact on the quality of play on the field and in the standings.

Bourn vs. Morgan

Consider for a moment that Nyjer Morgan is earning $875,000 from the Indians this season. They also control him after this season as he will not have enough service time to earn free agency, so he is in the 2015 mix as long as the Indians offer him arbitration at the end of the season and don’t trade/release him before that. Granted the sample size is still small, he is doing everything the Indians hoped Bourn would do for them when they signed him.

Morgan has played in four less games than Bourn and has 30 less plate appearances, but is hitting .341 with 1 HR, 6 RBI and .868 OPS this season. He also has three stolen bases, a .429 on-base percentage and a nice 7-6 walk to strikeout ratio. Morgan probably will not maintain that kind of good fortune over the course of the season, but over his career he has proven to be a better hitter than Bourn:

Michael Bourn 4023 .270 .334 .364 .698 8.4% 20.7% 301 90 92 21.4
Njyer Morgan
2206 .282 .343 .366 .708 6.6% 16.6% 120 91 93 11.4

Morgan tops Bourn in just about every offensive category, and that is with a rather large sample size for both players. Yet, Bourn is making over $12 million a season while Morgan struggled to find a job with a Major League team the last two years. He had to go play in Japan last season and come back to the states this season as a non-roster spring invite for the Indians to have a shot.

This disparity in value between Bourn and Morgan and the monetary compensation they each have received may be an unfortunate byproduct of the use of advanced stats. From a scouting perspective, there is little difference between both as hitters - in fact, Morgan grades out slightly better. Defensively, Bourn is viewed the better defender, but the gap between the two is not so large that it makes one over 12 times more valuable in terms of money. Even so, while Morgan is no Gold Glover, he at worst is a solid if not slightly plus defender.

But a lot of Bourne's “WAR” value has been inflated substantially because of the advanced defensive metrics used in baseball which have really favored him greatly. As a result, he had a career year in his free agent year in 2012 as a six-win player and was paid handsomely as a result.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the defensive metrics, but after the 2012 season Bourn had a 25.6 defensive runs saved rating which was best in all of baseball and 16 points higher than Denard Span who was second in baseball with a 9.5 defensive runs saved rating. That defensive rating along with a solid season at the plate inflated his value tremendously and is why he earned so much as a free agent. I've watched Bourn play a lot of games the last year-plus and I just fail to see how he was almost three times the defensive player - according to the metrics - than the next best center fielder in baseball that season.

While the qualifying offer he had placed on him no doubt affected his free agent possibilities, there were obviously some skeptics and for very good reason. The year before in 2011 he had a -4.0 defensive runs saved rating – though in fairness he had a 21.8 defensive runs saved rating in 2010 and 12.4 defensive runs saved rating in 2009. Last season with the Indians he had 1.2 defensive runs saved rating.

This is yet more proof to the argument that defensive stats are still very tough to quantity and have to be taken with a large grain of salt. Teams still need to rely mostly on scouting intel and what their eyes are telling them about a player's defense since the stats still are hard to trust. They no doubt help, but they obviously are much more volatile than pitching and hitting stats. While we want to paint a holistic view of a player when evaluating them and WAR at the moment is considered to be such a stat which does it best, I am just not sure, at least to me, how much I can value truly value WAR when it includes those defensive metrics in its calculation. Perhaps this is just a case of Bourn proving to be an outlier, something that happens in most any set of data.

From a scouting perspective it is clear as day that Bourn is not an elite center fielder – which is essentially what the numbers said after the 2012 season and ultimately what the Indians paid him to be. He’s an above average at best defensive center fielder – one I would argue is much closer to being merely an average defender than he is an elite defender.

Meanwhile you have a guy in Morgan who continues to be a spark for this team and doing everything the Indians hoped Bourn would provide – and at 1/15th or so the cost. I think at this point Morgan has earned his keep with the Indians and should remain on the roster. How they mix him into things remains to be seen, but for a team in search of someone or something to ignite an offense which has been in a full season slumber, he has a lot of value to them in the short term.

And who knows, if Morgan keeps this up and Bourn continues to struggle with injuries and he remains inconsistent with his play, perhaps Morgan is a longer term option than originally hoped.  If a team comes calling or there is any interest in Bourn, the Indians should strike while they can to get out from under his deal.  Hopefully Bourn can find a way to get on track and begin playing the way he is expected to and paid to do so that they can consider all possibilities if that time comes.

Tomlin the Great

Right-handed starting pitcher Josh Tomlin is off to one heck of a start this season. Called upon to replace the inconsistent Carlos Carrasco as the fifth starter in the Indians rotation, Tomlin has since come up and thrown two dandy outings putting up a quality start in each one. In his two starts he is 2-0 with a 2.13 ERA, and in 12.2 innings has allowed 10 hits, 2 homers, 1 walk and has 6 strikeouts.

Tomlin, 29, has done exactly what the Indians wanted from their fifth starter, which is go out and throw strikes, compete and give the team a chance to win every time out. As usual, his home run tendencies are high, but he does such a good job of limiting traffic on the bases that often times they are of the solo variety and don’t hurt him much.

More importantly, since Tomlin has stepped into the rotation the Indians rotation as a whole has been pitching lights out and found their stride. Corey KluberZach McAllister and Justin Masterson continue to lead the staff and are good to outstanding seemingly every time out, and the addition of Tomlin has brought consistency to the other two spots in the rotation as he has replaced the struggling Carrasco and inadvertently may have pressured Danny Salazar into getting his act in gear since he knows he is next in line to be replaced.

Now, the Indians have a starter going out there every day and competing and giving them a chance to win, which even with a struggling offense and defense is a great asset to have and will eventually pay off for them with more wins than losses in the standings. The name of the game is starting pitching, and when you have it you always have a chance to win even if the rest of the roster has its problems.

Closer change

The Indians moved John Axford out of the closers role this weekend. The change came about after a near disastrous outing on Friday which almost ruined another Indians victory. Considering that up to that point the only games the Indians had lost in eight games were the two Axford blew, his part in almost a third blown win in a week was enough to make the Indians rethink things about his role in the short term. I applaud their proactive approach to this issue.

Axford will now pitch in middle relief in order to help him work on some mechanical adjustments to help him more consistently throw strikes so he can work ahead and stay ahead of hitters. For as powerful as his fastball is and as impressive a curveball as he throws, his inability to consistently throw them for strikes is taking away from his overall effectiveness. He has an 8.0 BB/9 which is absolutely unacceptable for a closer or any relief role for that matter and is a disaster waiting to happen. We saw the tremors last week with the two blown wins and one almost blown win, so they made the change before disaster truly struck.

This is not a kneejerk reaction to one bad week either as Axford was rather shaky in April as well. Yes, he had a 2.79 ERA and eight saves for the month, but the walks were high and you could see the problems brewing and he was very fortunate to escape some of those outings without a blown save.

The Indians will now go with a bullpen by committee approach and use Marc RzepczynskiCody AllenBryan Shaw and Scott Atchison as needed to close out games. Righty C.C. Lee could also enter into that mix as well. Manager Terry Francona is not going to pigeon-hole anyone to a specific ninth inning only role, something closers are often limited to. He is right to keep his best relievers available to use at any time from the seventh inning on.

Most would assume Allen just be the closer, but he is too valuable to just lock into a ninth inning role, especially since games are more often won or lost in the seventh and eighth innings. It is why your best reliever should not be your closer because you have the option to match them up and bring them into any situation in the seventh and eighth inning rather than hope lesser relievers can hold down the fort so you have a lead going into the ninth inning to finally use your best reliever.

The Indians say this is a temporary change, but I find it hard to believe that they can trust Axford in the role again unless he has an extended showing of success and much improved command pitching in middle relief. It also could be the beginning of the end of him as an Indian because if his struggles with throwing consistent strikes continue in a more limited role, it would not be a surprise to see him released later in the season. So it looks like it is closer by committee for a good bit.

Apologies to Chisenhall

Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has done a lot so far this season to shut a lot of his naysayers up – including yours truly. While I never gave up on his potential, I was one who believed he might be best served to open the season at Triple-A Columbus so he can continue to work on improving his defense and getting more consistent with his bat – particularly against left-handed pitching.

So far I couldn’t be more happy to be wrong.

Chisenhall, 25, is having a good season hitting .338 with 0 HR, 2 RBI and 841 OPS in 26 games. Yes, he has shown little power with no homers (.108 ISO) and his 4.8% walk rate is atrocious. And yes, his .439 BABIP suggest he’s been extremely lucky and the numbers are probably going to dip significantly at some point. But he’s been one of the few bright spots offensively in the early going for a team starved for offense and the hope is that this has been the confidence builder he has lacked which puts him over the hump.

Chisenhall’s defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but he looks to have found a niche for himself as at least a good platoon player who exclusively faces right-handed pitching. He lacks much versatility, so the Indians have been working on him at first base and he got his first opportunity there over the weekend in Tampa. Because of his underrated athleticism I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians also try him out in the outfield at some point to really add to his versatility and usefulness as a specialist against right-handed pitching.

Parting shots

Catcher George Kottaras has cleared waivers but has not yet decided on whether to decline or accept an outright assignment to Triple-A Columbus. He has 72 hours to decide. It should be noted if he accepts that he has no opt out and could remain in Columbus all year. … Infielder Elliot Johnson cleared waivers last week and accepted his outright assignment to Triple-A Columbus and made his debut with them on Sunday. … Second baseman Jason Kipnis is progressing well in his rehab and on schedule for a return late this month or in early June. He is symptom free and no longer feels discomfort from the oblique injury and this weekend started doing dry swings with a bat and should incorporate contact-oriented swinging drills into the mix later this week.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Jim Piascik
May 16, 2014 - 8:39 AM EDT
A little behind in my reading for the week, but I'll put this out:

Defensive metrics have their flaws, but I think the real problem with Bourn is on Bourn himself, not entirely with the metrics.

They're flawed as well (coming from fans), but look at the Fan Scouting Reports on Bourn from 2012 to 2013:

I think it's possible everyone is right: Bourn was an elite defender in 2012 in his age-29 season. He wasn't in 2013 in his age-30. Maybe Bourn was hurt for longer than we knew. Maybe Bourn just lost a step, and with speed curing a lot of his ills, losing that step destroyed his game.

Could be that Bourn's fielding metrics cratering is the same type of thing that happened to Roy Halladay last year. He just lost it and the stats show it. Maybe that's the real answer with Bourn too.
May 13, 2014 - 11:58 AM EDT
Good stuff Tony- nobody that works for MLB like Bastian and Castrovince will publish bad grades on players, managers, executives- if they can't say something nice about somebody, they tend not to say anything- it's more marketing propaganda than journalism. Bourn is tentative- he doesn't accelerate as fast as he used to and hasn't since he's been w the Indians, and it's gotten worse not better. Whether it's trying to steal a base, or going from first to third or tracking a gapper in the outfield, he's lost something and with his age and injury history one has to assume it's not coming back. I remember watching him 5- 6 years ago from behind the Giants dugout when they played the Astros. He bunted for a hit, and beat out a Baltimore chop for a hit in the same game. He was far and away the quickest, fastest man on the field. No more. I don't blame him, I think Antonetti et al just didn't do their due diligence, but that's another story. Morgan is not the fastest man on the field most days, but he plays on his toes, keeps his head down and explodes when he accelerates. He makes opposing pitchers and fielders uncomfortable. The Indians are 5 games over .500 with him in the starting lineup in 2014. Bourn's gonna have to go all out and see if the hammy holds up or sit out, it's unfortunate but you have to be real.
May 13, 2014 - 10:33 AM EDT
I agree that Tomlin should have broken camp with the Tribe instead of Carrasco. Carrasco to me has a million dollar arm with a 2 cent brain. Tomlin pitches while Carrasco throws, that is the big difference.
May 13, 2014 - 9:15 AM EDT
I have watched both players, Morgan and Bourn this year. It seems that Morgan shows more energy then Bourn for some reason. Maybe the pressure that everyone is putting on him and his inability to produce has him never relaxing. I feel that the best thing for the Tribe is to move Bourn and let him have a new start. We have the players to cover his loss. How long will we keep Jesse A from the major leagues is my question? I think that it is time for him to become our DH with him a Swish changing back and forward on the two positions. Swish is energy and is going through things but he is good for the team.
Now Lonnie, I am so glad to see Lonnie having a good year and Josh Tomlin pitching so well. I have always been a fan of each.
I think Terry is correct taking Axford from closer and really we never need to trade for him with what we have is Cody and Brian. I feel that management needs to know about the young players before wasting big contracts on players that don't work out like Brett, and Axford. We already had pitchers and now look we are using our pitchers to make up for management errors. Go Tribe and let's get on a roll.
May 13, 2014 - 9:09 AM EDT
Axford actually has two options remaining. If his struggles continue, I would not be surprised if he is indeed optioned out.
May 13, 2014 - 3:49 AM EDT
Fine write-up Tony, just excellent coverage of a number of important topics, including an interesting discussion of how questionable (at best, erratic) defensive metrics have worked in favor of players like Bourn, probably in an unjustified way. Teams like Cleveland simply cannot continue to allocate scarce resources to guys like Bourn and Swisher who are paid far in excess of what others can do as well or better (and by the way, Swisher is equal in the disappointment department. If you subtract Swisher's September from last year--a month most considered "great" but was not much better than his career stats plus an extra couple of homers--he's put up numbers in a Tribe uniform that are comparable to Casey Kotchman's lifetime stats, which is enough to turn your stomach.)

For those who continue to grouse about Carrasco winning the 5th starter's job out of spring training, just remember that even Josh Tomlin has stated on more than one occasion that it was for the best, allowing him to lengthen out and get a regular turn in the Clipper rotation, regular work he would not have gotten had he made the big club as the 5th guy. This has all worked out for the best.
Finally, here's hoping Terry sticks with the flexible approach to finishing games, mixing and matching up his relievers as needed and using whoever's left over to close. I do not want our best guys held out waiting for an opportunity to close out a do that and your best reliever can sit around for a week without any chance to impact a game that's already lost (or already won). Tony, do you know if Axford has any options left? Why can't he go down to Columbus to work on his mechanics while closing down there rather than sit around our pen for a chance to be useful? That way we can add someone to our 25-man we trust.
May 13, 2014 - 2:19 AM EDT
Mike Bourn has looked out-of-shape and underwhelming since he was signed. The club knows it, and is all but transitioning Morgan as CF.

Francona is going to have to go with the better player.
May 12, 2014 - 9:37 PM EDT
Great points regarding Bourn. His alleged plus base running is actually really hurting the tribe. He's Stolen 25 bases but has been caught 15 times!!!

I wonder how much of his contract we'd have to eat to get rid of him. I'd say over half if no major prospects are involved.
matt underwood
May 12, 2014 - 9:37 PM EDT
what if a bourn for bj upton trade was brought to the table? bad contract for bad contract with both players possibly needing a change? at least in the case of upton
May 12, 2014 - 9:25 PM EDT
If contracts like Vernon Wells and Alex Rios can be dealt, I am confident the Indians can find a taker for Bourn if they really want to deal him and are not afraid to eat a little cash or not get much in return (or upset the balance in the clubhouse).
May 12, 2014 - 9:16 PM EDT
Nobody is going to take Bourn's contract off our hands. Well, maybe the Yankees or Red Sox if they have a significant injury during the pennant chase and Bourn is on a hot streak. Isn't that how we got out from under David Justice's contract?

Morgan has been a better hitter over his career and Bourn no longer has the advantage in defense and baserunning, since he's crappy at both. Morgan is the better player right now. I don't know what we're going to do with Bourn because he's too bad to play and for that reason he's also untradable.

Signing Bourn seemed like a coup at the time but it's turning out to be a very bad move.
May 12, 2014 - 7:43 PM EDT
If you don't have a great closer, I don't see the need to continually put someone out there in the 9th if they can't handle it. No reason not to continue the committee approach. When you are called on do the job. If you can't handle not knowing what inning you'll pitch any given night then I don't want you.

And I agree trading bourn and eating 5 million a year would be great. Eating none would be better!!!
May 12, 2014 - 7:36 PM EDT
Ha, Shy, never one to let reality get in the way of a point. Tomlin has thrown 356 innings with a 4.82 ERA. Archer's 4 years younger and has thrown 203 with a 3.85 ERA to date. Not sure in what way you could claim that Tomlin has pitched better than Archer.

May 12, 2014 - 7:02 PM EDT
I would hope that if the mediocre play of bourn and Swisher continues for the next two years that neither sniff the requisite plate appearances in '16 for their options to vest in '17. Not if the front office has half a brain.

Even if both play well the next two years I can't imagine they will be worth anything by the time '17 rolls around. Not a chance.

May 12, 2014 - 5:45 PM EDT
Tomlin should have been the 5th starter right at the start of the season, he clearly earned it in spring training.

I mentioned this in the Rays game summary, but Tomlin and Archer were both drafted by the Tribe in 2006, with Archer drafted much higher and always considered the much better prospect. Now we are nearly 8 years later and like Carrasco, Archer hasn't really pitched as well as Tomlin despite the "great" stuff.

Pitching is a skill, stuff certainly helps but it still is a skill. Tomlin is a great pitcher with marginal stuff. If he had Archer or Carrasco's arm, we'd be looking at an annual All Star pitcher.
C L Who
May 12, 2014 - 5:04 PM EDT
Bourn in 2013 had a normal year for him, except for the limited SBs due to his hamstring issues. Only in 2014 have his possible shortcomings become apparent and the specter of dead weight appeared. He could be traded if the Tribe would eat 1/3 to 1/2 of his salary going forward. Not a great option, but better than the alternative of paying it all and have him sitting or grossly underpeforming.
May 12, 2014 - 4:19 PM EDT
I feel better with Nyjer Morgan in the lineup.

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