If the Tampa Bay Rays want to make a power play in what is a very deep AL East, they should consider signing the top free agent left on the open market: Speedy center fielder Michael Bourn.

Yeah, it’s not often we get to say these things. The Rays aren’t exactly the New York Yankees Los Angeles Dodgers, after all.

However, ESPN’s Jayson Stark hears the Rays are looking for a center fielder, and he wonders if they might make a play for Bourn:

Just so we’re all on the same page here, this is just speculation, and it surely comes off a bit as crazy speculation. Like, hurry-up-and-put-him-in-a-straight-jacket crazy speculation.

But it’s not. Stark’s thought process is actually defensible.

Scott Boras is out there looking for a deal for Bourn, and his track record suggests he’s going to find a multi-year offer before long. That Boras finally managed to find one for Rafael Soriano this week was a reminder that he’s getting things done even when it seems like he isn’t.

But Boras is in a tough spot with Bourn. The demand for center fielders dried up weeks ago, thanks in part to the willingness of the Minnesota Twins to part with two center fielders in trades. Bourn‘s market is being further slowed by his ties to draft pick compensation after he rejected a qualifying offer from the Atlanta Braves.

There’s an outside chance that Bourn could settle for a one-year deal, which would allow him to re-enter the market next year with maybe a better shot at a multi-year deal.

And yes, a one-year deal is likely as far as the Rays would be willing to go. They probably could make a multi-year deal work, but Andrew Friedman isn’t the type to fall into that trap, precisely because he’s the type who would know that speed doesn’t age very well.

The Rays would have to give up a draft pick in order to sign Bourn to a one-year deal, but that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. They could earn that pick right back next winter by making Bourn a qualifying offer and then watching him sign elsewhere.

The Rays do have a bit of wiggle room on their payroll for the 2013 season. They have a little over $40 million in salaries committed for this season, and Baseball-Reference.com projects their final payroll to be about $55 million.

The Rays opened 2012 at about $63 million. If they were willing to go up to, say, $67-70 million in 2013, they could fit Bourn in.

As for why the Rays would be willing to take on such a significant investment, they could decide it’s necessary for them to go for glory before they’re forced to trade David Price next winter. Bourn could help them go for glory because he’d be an upgrade for them in more ways than one.

The Rays could use an impact bat in the leadoff spot of their lineup. Joe Maddon went mainly with Desmond Jennings at leadoff in 2012, and the results weren’t great. Rays leadoff men finished the season with a .315 on-base percentage, which was one of the lowest marks in the majors.

Bourn has finished with an OBP over .340 each of the last four seasons. He’s also stolen at least 40 bases each of the last five seasons, which should be equally appealing to a Rays team that only got 32 steals out of its leadoff spot in 2012.

Bourn would be just as useful for the Rays in the outfield. He was the best defensive center fielder in the majors in 2012 in the eyes of both the Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved metrics, as he finished with a 22.4 UZR and a DRS of plus-24 (see FanGraphs).

If the Rays had Bourn in center field and Jennings in left field, they would have one of the best defensive outfields in the majors. Jennings had the highest UZR/150 of any left fielder in 2012, and he also had a DRS of plus-nine.

Shoring up their outfield defense could help the Rays make up for some of the pitching value they lost when James Shields was traded to the Kansas City Royals for Wil Myers (who should be along to play right field early in 2013). Their pitching itself likely wouldn’t be any better, but Jennings and Bourn could combine to keep a not-insignificant amount of runs off the scoreboard.

If adding Bourn to their outfield translated to a small amount of fluctuation between the Rays’ pitching in 2012 and their pitching in 2013, they would end up with a major advantage. The Rays had the lowest team ERA in MLB in 2012, whereas none of the other AL East clubs were ranked in the top 10.

Now add an upgraded offense with Bourn in the leadoff spot to the equation. He alone would help the Rays’ run output climb from 697. Factor in a healthy Evan Longoria and a potential Rookie of the Year in Myers, and the Rays would surely have a top-15 offense. Maybe even top-10.

This would make other teams in the AL East even more wary of the Rays than they probably already are. They already have one of the best bullpens in baseball and a rotation that can go toe-to-toe with those of the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. Give them an upgraded offense, and the Rays are at least as good as any team in the division.

The Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox would be particularly afraid of Bourn because they have catchers who don’t specialize in throwing out runners. Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia has thrown out fewer than 30 percent of base-stealers each of the last two seasons, and Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw out fewer than 20 percent of base-stealers in 2012.

The Yankees may not be any better off, as the jury’s out on how their motley crew of catchers is going to perform in 2013 defensively (not to mention offensively).

So in addition to being a lineup upgrade and a defensive upgrade, Bourn could also be a pest for key division rivals. These things combined would make him worth a handful of wins more than the Rays are looking at winning in 2013, and those wins could be the difference between them being AL East champions and them just missing out on winning the division.

I wouldn’t bet my bottom dollar on Bourn actually signing with the Rays, mind you. They’re not the type to use extra payroll space just because it’s there, and Boras probably isn’t anywhere close to being ready to allow Bourn to accept anything less than a top-dollar multi-year deal.

But because Bourn doesn’t have a wide array of options, and because the Rays could be willing to spend big bucks on a ticket to an AL East title, this is a rare long shot that comes off as a fair bet.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 


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