What the Braves got in Sunday’s trade for Astros center fielder Michael Bourn was the high-octane leadoff hitter they’ve lacked since Rafael Furcal left six years ago.
A two-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star last season, Bourn has hit .303 with a .363 on-base percentage and National League-leading 39 stolen bases, with 26 doubles, seven triples and one homer. He led the NL in steals the past two seasons, with 61 in 2009 and 52 in 2010.
“He gets on base and creates havoc,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
“He’s a game-changer,” Braves veteran Eric Hinske said. “When he gets on first base, it’s fits for the pitchers.”
Bourn, a 28-year-old Houston native, has a .271 career average and 212 stolen bases in 662 games over parts of six seasons.
The Braves got him from the Astros in exchange for center fielder Jordan Schafer and minor-league pitchers Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. They finalized the deal Sunday morning before the 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline.
“We had a team last year that took the [eventual] world champions right to the brink, and that was with a crippled team,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said, referring to the division-series loss against San Francisco. “I think if we get healthy and with the way our guys have come along, and the additions, we think we’ve got a strong chance to go all the way.
“[Bourn] was the one thing that we were lacking. We really haven’t had a prototypical leadoff hitter in five or six years.”
Bourn, 28, couldn’t get to Atlanta early enough to play Sunday afternoon against Florida, but met up with the the Braves at the airport for the team’s late-afternoon charter flight to Washington. They start a three-game series and nine-game road trip on Monday.
“One thing I’ll say for them [Braves] is they’re going for it,” said Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras. “Good for them…. There were eight teams trying to trade for him. He’s excited. He’s obviously got an opportunity to win.”
Wren said Bourn, who’ll wear No. 24, would help the Braves become more of a speed- and defense-based team that he intends for them to be going forward. Bourn is eligible for free agency after the 2012 season, and a long-term contract extension could be discussed later.
He won’t come cheap, and Boras clients usually test free agency to see what they can get on the open market. Bourn is making $4.4 million this season and could command a raise to about $7 million next season through arbitration.
“This is the kind of club we aspire to be,” Wren said, “which is a speed and defense team that takes extra bases, that runs the bases aggressively, steals bases. But you have to have the right personnel. We’ve been drafting with that kind of focus, with speed as a priority, and I think Michael Bourn will give us a head start in getting our club in that position.”
The Braves are still looking to add a right-handed reliever and possibly a right-handed bench player, and Wren said they could fill those needs through waiver trades in August.
To get Bourn, they didn’t part with any of their top four pitching prospects — Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado or lefty Mike Minor. Wren said the Braves could have landed for Carlos Beltran or Hunter Pence, two outfielders they pursued, by parting with higher-rated prospects.
He said they wouldn’t do that for a three-month rental (Beltran is a pending free agent) and insisted they didn’t “go to the mat” to get Pence because Bourn was the player they really wanted. He said their focus shifted in the past couple of weeks from right-handed power hitter to center fielder.
Pence was traded to Philadelphia on Friday, and Wren said it was only in the past couple of days that the Astros made it clear Bourn was available. Negotiations progressed quickly.
Bourn is a left-handed hitter, but has improved steadily against lefty pitchers, hitting .281 with a .341 OBP this season, compared to .311 with a .372 OBP against right-handers. In his first full season in 2008, he hit .229 overall and .190 against lefties.
Wren said his upward-trending career numbers were important in the decision to pursue Bourn.
Braves players felt bad for Schafer but were pleased with the trade.
“We are so banged up right now, a move for a guy that has some Gold Gloves out there, a true leadoff hitter, is something we’ve been lacking,” catcher David Ross. “They like to put [Martin] Prado in the two-hole and I think that makes our lineup a lot deeper.”
Bourn has a modest .338 career OBP, but has been over .350 in two of the past three seasons.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about him as a person, too,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. “We’re excited to have him. We’re sad to lose Schaf. He worked his butt off to get up here.
“Michael is going to help us out a lot. He’s one of the fastest guys in the league. He plays an unbelievable center field. He’s going to put together good[at-bats] and get on base.”
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones developed a fondness for Schafer, 24, after the younger player sought him out for career advice and hitting tips during spring training.
“I feel bad for the kid,” Jones said. “He worked hard to get here, and unfortunately got hurt. Bourn’s a dynamic player, steals a lot of bases, gives us some speed at the type of the lineup, the ability to manufacture some runs. Kind of like what Schafer gave us. It’s going to help our ballclub.”
“The last time I looked he was leading the league in steals. We haven’t had that type of threat at the top of our lineup in a long time, consistently anyway. We’ll see how it all turns out.”
Schafer’s career was stalled by a broken hand in 2009, which caused him to miss most of two seasons. He missed only one game after a sinus fracture in June, but went on the DL again this week with a broken left middle finger.
“I thank the Braves for sticking by me the entire time,” Schafer said while packing his belongings at his locker Sunday. “With everything I’ve been through, they’ve been great to me. It’s a business. They have to do what’s best for the team. They have to what’s best to try to win a World Series.”
“It sucks, truthfully. I was comfortable here. At the same time I’m excited to go there. Any time you get traded the team obviously wants you.”
Schafer has hit .240 with a .307 on-base percentage, one homer and 15 stolen bases in 52 games this season. Center fielder Nate McLouth joined him on the DL Friday with an abdominal strain.
The Braves are getting Bourn while he’s hot, hitting .355 with a .395 OBP in his past 28 games.
“Michael is what we hope Jordan will be in three or four years,” Wren said. “That’s really what it came down to. And a team that’s poised to win, we need the finished product. That’s what Michael is.”