The Rays are one position player away from being ready from having their team just about set for a promising 2013. The obvious hole on the Rays’ team right now is the designated hitter spot, but in reality the Rays could likely acquire a player who plays just about any position- their major need is really a hitter. The Rays have a solid situation in the outfield right now, with Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings starting in two of the three spots and Ben Zobrist likely to occupy the third- if the Rays don’t acquire an outfielder, in which case he could shift to second base and move Ryan Roberts to the bench. OK, it’s possible that the Rays could work with another outfielder, but who could they acquire? The best outfielder left on the market is Michael Bourn. The Rays have no chance to acquire him, right? In all probability yes, but maybe there’s a scenario where they could.
We know the Rays live on speed and defense. Michael Bourn is about as good as anyone in the big leagues in those two categories. The last five seasons, he stole 257 bases, 51 per season, at an 81% success rate. Three times he led the National League in stolen bases. Defensively, it hard to find a detractor for Bourn- he won two Gold Gloves and UZR thinks he’s excellent, giving his a 10.7 UZR/150 in 6280.1 defensive innings, while Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA gives him a 5.7 mark for his career but you can up that to 12.7 if you take out 2011, when Bourn bizarrely managed just a -6.4 UZR and -7.0 FRAA. He’s been excellent every other season of his career. If the Rays somehow acquired Bourn, he would give them a player with significantly better speed and defense than B.J. Upton ever had. Bourn doesn’t have B.J.’s power, but he can still swing the bat a little bit. The last four years, he has a .280/.348/.378 line (98 OPS+), slamming just 16 home runs but delivering 25 or more doubles each season and double-digit triples three times so he does have some gap power that’s brought out even more by his speed. It’s clear that Bourn is a well above-average player, and he’s waiting to get a big multi-year deal by the end of this offseason. How in the world could he end up in Tampa Bay?
Who are Bourn’s free agent suitors at this point? Luckily MLB Trade Rumors has the answers. There’s the Rangers, who could use an outfielder after Josh Hamilton signed with their rival Angels. However, the Rangers already have a similar player to Bourn in Elvis Andrus at shortstop, and here’s a fun stat: of the eight players not named Elvis Andrus who posted a slugging percentage below .400 in more than 250 plate appearances with the Rangers since Andrus’ career began in 2009, six of them were off the team the next year, with the most recent departure being Michael Young. The two exceptions: Julio Borbon, who made just 98 plate appearances in 2011 after starting in 2010 and then spent all of 2012 in the minor leagues so he might as well be gone, and Craig Gentry, who might be the Rangers’ centerfield starter next season. If the Rangers aren’t going to give their centerfield job to someone other than their in-house options like Genry and Leonys Martin, wouldn’t they shift gears and acquire a power-hitting player and get back to their usual team philosophy?
Who’s left after Texas? You have the Indians, who are focusing more on signing Nick Swisher, the Mariners, who are another team that really needs a bat more than anything else if they want to contend, and… is there any other realistic candidate? The Phillies have their outfield needs covered, the Braves aren’t about to sign another high-priced outfielder to go with B.J. Upton, the big spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers have full outfields, and then there’s the Cubs- but why would possibly sign Bourn when they’re not near contending. Ben Nicholson-Smith at MLBTR also mentions the White Sox, but they’re going to trade a cheap young outfielder in Alejandro De Aza so they can sign an older and more expensive one in Bourn?
Bourn has teams that could pursue him (the Mariners might be the best option), but there’s no clear-cut fit. Of course we left out one of Nicholson-Smith’s suitors: the “Mystery Team” (cue the scary music). Usually that team is a team with a high payroll that decides that they’re willing to spend more than they thought they would to sign a player they really like (e.g. Phillies with Cliff Lee and Angels with Josh Hamilton). The Rays are extremely far from that. However, they may have some money to play with after trading James Shields and Wade Davis, and if Bourn’s price comes down to the point where he’s looking at a one-year deal, maybe the Rays could offer him 8 or 9 million dollars. Why would Bourn want to come to the Rays? A great clubhouse, an opportunity to be a leader on a young team, and if there’s anything that stands out about the two teams that may be most likely to sign Bourn, the Mariners and Indians, the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and the Indians haven’t made it since 2007. Bourn would know if he came to the Rays that he would be part of a contender.
The chances are that someone will be giving Michael Bourn a multi-year deal this offseason and if not, then he’ll get a lucrative one-year deal far out of the Rays’ price range. But if Bourn is still on the market in a month and negotiations with other teams aren’t progressing, maybe the Rays could come in and pull off one of the most surprising free agent signings baseball has ever seen. Don’t think it’s going to happen for a second as the chances of Bourn playing in a Rays uniform next season are extremely small, but the probability of them signing him is also nonzero and if just the right sequence of events happens, maybe it could fall into place.