It’s rare to see so much offseason activity related to a premium position like centerfield, especially this early in the offseason. The market was always considered deep, but it has been surprising to see an equal number of trades as free agent signings. With two upper echelon free agents remaining and a few intriguing trade targets conceivably on the block this centerfield carousel has been a terrifically fun offseason storyline.
Whether due to an outfield logjam, an unwillingness to dole out extremely lucrative deals or simply an opportunity to improve at a premium position, a number of teams have been very active with centerfielders. The swift nature of many of these transactions was somewhat unexpected as, with so many talented players available, it stood to reason that the surplus would allow teams to wait and effectively force down asking prices. Instead, seven centerfielders have already found new homes, and at least one of them was never really considered a legitimate trade target.
Through the various signings and trades, Michael Bourn is still on the market. Though he is the best overall player available at the position, his case is an interesting one, as his number of potential suitors has dwindled and legitimate alternatives remain. While a big contract hasn’t been ruled out, it’s starting to look like he won’t get near what he expected, even though he’ll likely provide more value at the position than anyone else.
The Athletics established that the centerfield market would prove interesting when one of the first moves of the offseason saw them acquire the very affordable Chris Young from the Diamondbacks. While pundits spent most of their time discussing B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton and Angel Pagan, it was the potentially undervalued and inexpensive Young that set the tone of the market.
When Melky Cabrera signed for two years and $16 million, after being sought out by several teams, it suggested that teams were willing to risk his true talent level for the opportunity to pay far less than other popular options stood to receive.
Upton then brought about a supposed bidding war between the Braves and Phillies, signing for five years and over $75 million with Atlanta, before it was reported that the Phillies best offer was over $20 million less. Upton’s contract, though signed early in the offseason, was still reasonable given his age, potential and current talent level.
Angel Pagan re-upped with the Giants for $40 million over four years, also getting significant attention from the Phillies before making his decision. Shane Victorino signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox, which may or may not have pushed Jacoby Ellsbury onto the trading block.
The Nationals traded former first-rounder Alex Meyer to the Twins for Denard Span. The Twins then, somewhat surprisingly given that they just dealt their starting centerfielder, traded new starting centerfielder Ben Revere to the Phillies. The Phillies actions suggested that they weren’t interested in spending a great deal at the position, and the solid moves made by the Nationals and Athletics indicated that surrendering prospects was a viable alternative to making a splash and limiting future financial flexibility.
That leaves Bourn and Hamilton as the top free agent centerfielders, Jacoby Ellsbury, Peter Bourjos and Dexter Fowler as the best conceivably available trade targets, and Rajai Davis as potential a lower-cost — and lower-productivity — alternative to everyone.
Bourjos is slated to start now that Torii Hunter signed with the Tigers, and it would likely take an awful lot to bring in someone who lacks certainty in his offensive game. Ellsbury might only be a one-year rental and the Red Sox will look to bring in a nice haul for the former MVP candidate. Fowler is young, but hasn’t rated well in the field, and hits like Davis when away from Coors Field. Davis barely played the position last year, doesn’t hit all that well, and hasn’t posted a positive fielding rating in four years.
Everybody has flaws, from those mentioned above to Bourn’s strikeouts, to the likelihood that Hamilton doesn’t even play the position in two years. But Bourn is the least offender in most of these areas, as someone still likely to provide 4.5 WAR production for a couple of seasons. And if he ages like Kenny Lofton did, potentially for a longer period of time that could actually justify a five-year, $90 million contract.
There aren’t many teams left in need of an everyday starting centerfielder, but those who have waited might actually be able to make the best deal of the offseason if Bourn decides against taking a pillow contract and signs for something like five years and $65 million.
It’s a far cry from his original stated asking price, but with more teams seemingly willing to trade for a riskier player like Fowler than dole out the big bucks, he is presented with an interesting dilemma. If one of his remaining suitors signs Hamilton or signs Nick Swisher as their big offseason move, there is even less money available for him.
Centerfielders with terrific defensive and baserunning skills, who get on base at an above average clip to fully utilize those baserunning abilities, don’t typically struggle to find a home. There is plenty of offseason left, but the teams that made the most sense for Bourn at the onset of the offseason — most notably the Phillies, Nationals and Braves — all went in different directions, while other potential landing spots solved their problem by other means. Bourn might truly be the least sought after 5 WAR player in recent memory.