Before the 2012-2013 MLB offseason even kicked off, the one free agent I wanted the New York Mets to make a play for was Michael Bourn. Given that the Mets haven’t pursued any big name free agent since the ill-fated and historically awful contract handed out to Jason Bay, the chances of that seemed astronomically small. Surpringly, Bourn’s name has increasingly been linked to the Mets over the past several weeks to the point where they appear to have emerged as the favorites to land the prized free agent center fielder.
In order for Bourn to sign on the dotted line, though, there are two hurdles that need to be cleared: his contract demands, and the draft pick compensation the Mets would have to give up. Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras, has been consistently asking for a minimum contract of 4 years at $15 million per season. Given how the Mets have been pinching pennies since 2011, that may be out of Fred Wilpon’s price range. Matthew Cerrone of MetsBlog.com says the Mets would prefer a 3 year contract worth $40 million.
To me, the contract should be an easy issue to resolve. The Mets currently have only two players under contract past the 2013 season: franchise cornerstone, David Wright, and number two starter, Jonathon Niese. The two will cost the team just over $25 million in combined salary in 2014. Johan Santana’s $25 million club option for 2014 will almost assuredly be declined so the Mets will only be on the hook for his $5.5 million buyout. Jason Bay is being paid over $18 million to play for the Seattle Mariners this year, but that goes down to just $3 million in 2014. With such a young team, the only arbitration-eligible player on the Mets who even has a chance to make $5 million or more in 2014 is Ike Davis.
That’s not even $40 million of committed 2014 salary for a team playing in the biggest market in the country. If money isn’t an issue, and the Wilpons continually say it isn’t, then 4 years for $60 million should be an easy check to write for a solid lead-off hitter with speed who plays a good defensive center field – which will be needed considering the defensive shortcomings of the rest of the outfield. Bourn is also only 30 years old and won’t turn 31 until after the 2013 season; if he were given a four year deal, it would be up before he turns 34.
The other stumbling block to a deal being completed is the draft pick the Mets would have to give up to get Bourn. The Atlanta Braves offered Bourn a qualifying offer, which he turned down. As a result, any team that signs Bourn would have to forfeit their 1st round pick to Atlanta, unless they have a pick in the top 10 of the draft, in which case, the forfeited draft pick would become a 2nd round pick. The Mets, despite finishing with the 10th worst record in baseball, have the 11th overall pick. The reason being that the Pittsburgh Pirates were awarded a compensatory pick for not being able to sign their 2012 first round selection, Mark Appel. That compensatory pick is 9th overall, pushing the Mets out of the top 10.
Mets General Manager, Sandy Alderson, has repeatedly stated that the Mets will not give up their 1st round pick in order to sign Bourn. The MLB Player’s Union could step in and file a grievance saying the Mets should still have a protected 1st round pick since they finished with one of the 10 worst records in 2012. If that happens, the decision will go in front of an arbiter to rule on.
Even if it does get that far, and the arbiter rules against the Mets, they should still sign Bourn. MLB prospects, even ones drafted in the first round, are a crapshoot, at best. Since 2005, only 2 of the Mets 10 first round picks have logged meaningful innings in the majors: Ike Davis, and Matt Harvey. The Mets also have a long-term project center fielder in their system in Brandon Nimmo. Nimmo is not projected to reach the majors until 2015 at the earliest. Sign Bourn to man center for the next 3+ seasons and there’s no need to rush the 19 year old Nimmo who was drafted to be the center fielder of the future.
Some will say that the Mets should wait to sign a big name free agent outfielder until 2014 when guys like Michael Morse, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shin-Soo Choo are scheduled to hit the open market. All three of those players would be welcome additions to the Mets outfield, however, they all come with question marks and “signability” issues of their own.
Morse will be the premier power bat and 2nd most coveted bat on the market behind Robinson Cano. He will, in all likelihood, cost more to sign than Bourn for a team that still seems hesitant to spend big money. Ellsbury is coming off an injury-riddled 2012 after almost winning the MVP in 2011. He needs to stay healthy to warrant a big pay day. If he does, he will almost certainly command a contract that exceeds the 5 year, $75.25 million deal that B.J. Upton got from the Braves. If he doesn’t stay healthy, he’ll be hitting the market with only one healthy/productive season in his last four. As for Choo, he will be playing center field for the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day for just the 11th time in his career. He is an unproven commodity in center who will, more than likely, be signed to play right field when his current deal runs out. Not to mention, Morse and Choo are older than Bourn, and Ellsbury will be the same age when he signs his contract in 2014 as Bourn is now.
The Mets are in desperate need of an upgrade in center field. Bourn would bring a much needed defensive improvement and speed to the top of the lineup. Signing Bourn would be a big step in the right direction to fielding a winning team in Queens for the first time since 2008. Even if it takes 4 years, $60 million, and the 11th overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft.