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2013 Indians Player Preview: Michael Bourn

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our trip around the outfield with the Indians’ starting center fielder: Michael Bourn.

Background: The Philadelphia Phillies grabbed Bourn out of the University of Houston in the fourth round of the 2003 amateur draft. Never considered an elite prospect, he made his way up through the Phillies organization (debuting in the majors in 2006) before being traded to the Astros in the 2007 Brad Lidge trade. He stayed with Houston until the Braves acquired him at the 2011 trade deadline and spent the last season-and-a-half with Atlanta before signing a four-year, $48 million deal with the Tribe last month.

Last year: Bourn enjoyed arguably the best year of his career in 2012, hitting .274/.348/.391 with a career-best 9 home runs and 57 RBI to go along with his characteristic 96 runs scored and 42 steals. Already known for his speed and contact ability, Bourn also set personal bests with a 10% walk rate and a .117 ISO, though that came with a career-worst 22% strikeout rate. Then there’s his defense—Bourn’s +24 DRS ranked him as the best outfielder in baseball, while his 22.5 UZR/150 was the highest in the game among qualified players.

Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs estimated Bourn’s worth at a career-best 6.0 and 6.4 wins above replacement, respectively; Baseball Prospectus (whose FRAA defensive metric rated him as merely average in the field) had him at a more conservative 3.7 WARP.

Key factor: Defense. You pretty much know what you’re going to get from Bourn offensively—a roughly league-average batting line and a ton of stolen bases—but though popular perception of his glove is quite positive, the consensus isn’t so clear. Defensive metrics are notoriously noisy and often internally inconsistent. Though every other major system raved about Bourn’s defense in 2012, FRAA put his glove at within a run of a league-average center fielder. And as recently as 2011 the metrics unanimously rated him as a below-average fielder.

In all likelihood 2011 was the aberration and Bourn’s true talent level is closer to that of a Gold Glover than it is to, say, Shin-Soo Choo, but it’s worth noting that Bourn’s most valuable skill might not really be that valuable.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

This lack of diversity is pretty boring. It’s worth noting, though, that all four systems expect Bourn to have his worst offensive season since 2010.

Best-case scenario: We know pretty well what Bourn’s ceiling is by now, and he basically hit it in 2012: stellar defense, great speed, a solid average, and enough walks and extra-base hits to breathe some life into the rest of his triple-slash. That’s enough to make him one of the best outfielders in the game.

Worst-case scenario: Combine Bourn’s increased strikeouts from 2012 with his diminished walk rate in 2011 and his anemic power and relatively low average from 2010. He’ll still be a respectable hitter who provides value with his glove, but the Indians immediately regret guaranteeing him nearly $50 million.

Most likely scenario: Some regression is probably in order, but Bourn won’t fall too far. The projection systems’ numbers look like pretty good bets.

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