At this point, the Rays are known to be searching for a designated hitter and for another piece for their bullpen. In addition, it has recently come to light that the Rays may also be in search of a center fielder. While the Rays had originally been expected to either shift Desmond Jennings to center, or play Sam Fuld on a more consistent basis, that appears to no longer be the case.
Naturally, given the list of free agent possibilities at center, one name stands out above any other: Michael Bourn. Bourn, who was a player that we originally looked at a month ago, is one of four players listed primarily as a center fielder that happen to be available, along with Scott Podsednik, Grady Sizemore, and Nyjer Morgan. Obviously, given the difference in talent, Bourn would seem the player most likely to sign someplace.
Yet, there are a couple of major differences. First, Bourn is represented by Scott Boras, who is, given his track record, looking to squeeze every last cent out of any interested teams. Second, as a player that declined the qualifying offer that the Atlanta Braves offered him, any team that signs Bourn would be giving up a compensatory draft pick. Normally, both situations would appear to automatically preclude the Rays from signing Bourn, but that may not be the case.
As B.J. Upton departed for, interestingly enough, the Braves, the Rays are entitled to a compensatory pick of their own. Given that the Rays would still have a first round pick should they sign Bourn, they may have a bit more interest. Next, there really are not a lot of teams that would appear to need his services at this point. With the departure of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could use a center fielder, but Bourn is very similar to Elvis Andrus. The Mariners could be a possibility, yet they appear to be more concerned with stockpiling first base/DH/corner outfield types than in filling the holes in their roster. As it stands, the Rays may be the only team that specifically could use a center fielder at this point.
Even though the Rays could theoretically use a center fielder should they decide to keep Jennings in left, would Bourn make much sense in their lineup? While the Rays could use another bat in the middle of their lineup, they also love speed and defense – two traits that Bourn has. In his career, he has led the National League in stolen bases three times, and has not had under 40 steals in any year that he has been a regular starter. He has also won two Gold Glove awards and, excluding a 2011 season that appears to be an aberration, has consistently been an excellent defensive center fielder.
Bourn could also add an interesting wrinkle to the Rays lineup with he and Jennings hitting first and second, as constant threats upon the basepaths. Bourn has stolen bases at an 81% success rate over his career, while Jennings has been successful 84% of the time. The continual threat of either player, or both, taking off may cause distractions to whoever is on the mound at the time, and may give the Rays the opportunity for the big inning that was lacking so often last year.
Although the idea of Michael Bourn signing with the Rays may have seemed far-fetched at the start of free agency, with each passing day it appears to become a bit more feasible. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the Rays emerge as that ‘mystery team’ so prevalent in free agency rumors, and wind up with a duo atop their lineup that can burn up the basepaths.