CBS Sports’ Danny Knobbler dropped an interesting tidbit in his column Wednesday, reporting that the Los Angeles Angels are actively seeking help for their weakened pitching staff—and not just the rotation. So desperate are the Halos for bullpen help, Knobbler writes, that they are “willing to offer outfielder Peter Bourjos for the right reliever.”
If this report is true (you never know about rumors like this, especially this time of year), then the Cleveland Indians need to take advantage of the situation. After all, they have the perfect man to send to Anaheim in return: Chris Perez.
Players like Bourjos don’t grow on trees. Since making his debut in 2010, the 25-year-old center fielder has established himself as one of the best defensive players in all of baseball. According to UZR he’s added more than two full wins to the Halos’ standings per 150 games throughout his career with his glove alone. Plus he has great speed (22 stolen bases last year), wields a decent bat (even after a subpar first half he owns a .715 career OPS), and is under team control at an affordable price through his prime. Did I mention he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense?
Slide Bourjos into the Indians’ lineup and the biggest hole on the roster suddenly looks like a strength. Johnny Damon heads to the bench for good as Bourjos takes over in center field and Michael Brantley shifts over to left. Imagine the good it would do to have the best defensive center fielder in baseball behind the Tribe’s generally pitch-to-contact staff—he’s like the outfield version of Jack Hannahan. Brantley’s performance would improve too, as he has shown himself to be far more capable in left field than he is in center.
On the other side, the Angels’ search for the “right reliever” would end with Perez. The fiery right-hander has a 3.15 ERA and 26 saves to his name in 2012 and is striking out almost 10 batters per nine innings. And he’s actually been better than he’s looked, at least according to his 2.22 FIP and 2.58 SIERA. Given that the Angels are willing to part with Bourjos to bolster their bullpen—I’m not saying that’s the right attitude for them to have, but supposedly that’s the club’s current thinking—there probably aren’t too many names on their wish list above Perez’.
Again assuming that Knobbler’s sources were good, the Angels should be willing to pull the trigger on a Perez-for-Bourjos deal. However, I expect there are many Tribe fans who would balk at the idea; Bourjos certainly doesn’t fit the mold of players whom the Indians have been connected to this summer. There are three real reasons I can think of for why Cleveland fans might not be enthusiastic about the idea, but none of them is very convincing.
First and foremost is that Bourjos isn’t a big impact player. He’s not the kind of acquisition who could single-handedly change the fate of the division, as Kevin Youkilis was for the White Sox and Ubaldo Jimenez was supposed to be last year. He might seem a disappointing fit for our biggest import of the summer, especially if it costs our All-Star closer to get him.
But that thinking is misguided. First and foremost, Bourjos is a very good player. Even in a down season that’s seen him lose playing time in the crowded Angels outfield he’s on pace to be worth more than 3.0 wins above replacement per 162 games, and ZiPS projects him to be worth a full 1.5 fWAR in the last 70 games of the season. That’s no small addition, especially considering that Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan have both been close to replacement level thus far. Even if he doesn’t see a serious rebound from his (relatively) disappointing first half, putting him in center field would give the Tribe at least an extra win or two by the end of the year.
In addition, to look at Bourjos just in terms of what he brings to the table now is like what the great MGL calls “talking about houses as if they had no mortgages.” Bourjos is under team control through 2016. He’ll make the league minimum through 2013, and even when he hits arbitration he won’t get too expensive (great fielders are generally undervalued in the arbitration process). Even if he doesn’t improve as he enters his prime—and at age 25, it’s a good bet that he will—he’d give the Indians a great return on their investment for almost five years.
Bourjos’ other major flaw is that he’s not a very good hitter. The players most commonly connected to the Indians this summer have been Josh Willingham, B.J. Upton, and Carlos Quentin, all of whom are known for their prowess at the plate. A team in desperate need of a bat would seem to have higher priorities than a glove-first youngster with a sub-.300 OBP.
But again, that mindset does not do Bourjos justice. Yes, he’s struggled this year (.243/.298/.360), but that’s at least partly due to his too-low-seeming .291 BABIP, and he turned in a robust .271/.327/.438 triple-slash last year. More importantly, though, he makes up for his shortcomings at the plate with his phenomenal glove. And per wRC+ (79), he’s actually been very slightly better at the plate this year than the Tribe’s incumbent left fielder, Johnny Damon (77). Plus he’s right-handed, which isn’t a small consideration when looking at the makeup of this roster.
Still, there’s a bigger reason why Tribe fans would probably be reluctant to see this deal go down: losing Perez. Even if Vinnie Pestano can step into the closer’s role without issue, there’s no question that losing Perez would be a blow to the team. Someone would undoubtedly step up to fill the void, but with apologies to Joe Smith that would leave only Pestano as the only guy we can feel truly secure about giving a lead to late in the game.
The problem is, relief pitchers simply don’t have the same kind of impact that everyday players do. Consider this: Bourjos is having a down year, and thanks to the Halos’ crowded outfield he doesn’t get everyday playing time. Yet FanGraphs’ WAR (the most optimistic valuation system for Perez) still has Bourjos (1.3) as very slightly more valuable than Perez (1.2) this year. Even if Perez keeps this up, Bourjos doesn’t improve, and the Indians can’t find anyone better than replacement-level to replace Perez in the bullpen—an extremely unlikely combination of events—this trade wouldn’t hurt Cleveland this year.
Then there’s the issue of Perez’ contract. Perez is under team control only through 2014 (two years less than Bourjos). He’s already into his arbitration years, and he’s not going to be cheap to retain. Arbitrators love stats like saves and ERA, so Perez is in line for a major raise on his $4.5 million 2012 salary. Perez will probably earn about $17 million between now and the end of 2014, a chunk of change that’s probably too large for a small-market team to spend on a reliever. Especially since that’s probably about what Bourjos would cost the Tribe for this year and four seasons after that.
If the Angels truly are willing to part with the game’s best defensive center fielder in order to shore up their bullpen then the Indians need to get in on the bidding, and it’s hard to imagine Chris Perez not fitting the bill. Peter Bourjos might not be the kind of player we would have expected the Tribe to get this month, but he makes this team better for the 2012 pennant race and for years beyond. Here’s hoping this deal works out.