The Braves made a one-year qualifying offer to Michael Bourn before Friday’s deadline, as expected. Now the real intrigue begins.
Bourn is represented by high-powered agent Scott Boras, and the speedy leadoff man is expected to be pursued by multiple teams including Philadelphia and Washington. It’s assumed he’ll reject the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer and field multi-year offers from various teams including possibly the Braves.
Under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, teams had until Friday to make one-year qualifying offers to their free agents in order to draw a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds if that player signs with another team.
The qualifying offer amount is the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball from the previous season. Free agents have seven days to accept or decline the offers, and if a player accepts he becomes signed for 2013.
It was seen as a foregone conclusion the Braves would make a qualifying offer to Bourn, since he’s likely to command on the open market a higher salary than $13.3 million annually in a long-term deal of at least five years. In the unlikely event he accepted the qualifying offer, the Braves would welcome him back atop the lineup and have plenty of money left to fill their other primary need – a left fielder or third baseman.
The Braves have said they are interest is re-signing Bourn, but haven’t indicated how big an offer they might make. It’s believed other teams are prepared to offer more.
Bourn, who’ll be 30 on Dec. 27, came to Atlanta from Houston in a trade on July 31, 2011. The Braves got him in exchange for center fielder Jordan Schafer and three minor leaguers.
In 208 games with the Braves, Bourn has hit .275 with 57 extra-base hits (10 homers), 126 runs, 75 RBIs and 64 stolen base in 84 attempts, with a .341 on-base percentage that’s modest by leadoff standards, and more than twice as many strikeouts (205) as walks (85) in 851 at-bats.
He had the best half-season of his career in 2012, hitting .311 with 30 extra-base hits and a .366 on-base percentage in 85 games before the All-Star break. At that point, many Braves fans and media members expressed an opinion that the team should re-sign him at almost any cost.
But that was before Bourn’s production slipped dramatically after the break, when he hit .225 with 15 extra-base hits and a .325 OBP in 70 games, including a .195 average with 36 strikeouts in his last 34 games. After leading the NL in steals for three seasons, including 61 steals in 2009 and again in 2011, Bourn had 42 steals in 2012 and was caught 13 times, second-most in his career.
Bourn’s defense never faltered, and many believed he should have won his third Gold Glove in four seasons. According to some advanced defensive statistics, he prevented more runs than any other National League outfielder in 2012.
Most teams have been reluctant in the past to give lucrative long-term contracts to players approaching 30 if their primary asset is speed, as that can diminish quickly with age. Bourn is far from a one-dimensional player, but speed is what sets him apart.
If he leaves, the Braves will search for a replacement center fielder/leadoff hitter via trade – someone such as Minnesota’s Denard Span or Colorado’s Dexter Fowler – or free agency, where San Francisco’s Angel Pagan stands out as someone who might produce comparable numbers to Bourn and come at a cheaper price.
Pagan, a switch-hitting former Met traded to San Francisco last winter, hit .288 with a league-leading 15 triples, a career-best 38 doubles and eight homers to go with 29 steals in 37 attempts. He made $4.85 million in 2012 and should at least double that salary as a free agent.
If a free agent receiving a qualifying offer signs with another team, the signing team surrenders its first-round draft choice (or its next-highest pick if the first is one of the draft’s top 10 picks, which are protected). Free agents can sign with any team beginning Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
The Braves plan to move Martin Prado to third base to replace retired Chipper Jones if they decides the market is better suited for them to acquire a power-hitting left fielder than a third baseman.
Under the sport’s previous collective bargaining agreement, teams could wait until early December to offer arbitration to their free agents in order to assure draft-pick compensation, which caused things to move slowly in the free-agent market in recent years as teams increasingly wouldn’t commit to free agents until it was known which of them would be offered arbitration and cost the signing team to lose a top draft pick.
The new system should serve to speed up offseason free-agent movement. Free agents who receive qualifying offers have up to seven days to accept or decline. If they accept, they’re under contract for $13.3 million in 2013. Most are expected to decline the offers, because most of the players offered them would draw far more guaranteed dollars and multi-year offers on the free-agent market.