On Wednesday AJC beat writer David O’Brien asked if the Braves can afford to re-sign Michael Bourn? And can they afford not to re-sign him? On that first question, I’m not so sure. Bourn could very well want a Carl Crawford-type deal approaching an average annual value of $20M for at least four years. If the Braves could afford this, as good a player as Bourn is, I’m not sure I want to see them spend that sort of money on a player who will be 30 next season with a career OPS+ of 92. Again, I think Bourn is a very good player and will continue to be one for a while longer but that’s the kind of money a team like the Braves should only spend on elite or near-elite talent.
As to the second question of whether they can afford not to re-sign him, I think clearly they can. O’Brien seems to be asking whether the Braves can afford to be without such an offensive catalyst and outstanding centerfielder, especially considering there are no centerfield options in the minors to take his place. I do think they can find a decent centerfielder outside the organization that wouldn’t cause them to take too big a hit.
As far as Bourn and the Braves’ leadoff hitter, consider what the Atlanta offenses did from 2006 to 2010, the years between Rafael Furcal (the last “prototypical” leadoff hitter) and Michael Bourn. They went with players like Marcus Giles, Kelly Johnson, Gregor Blanco, Nate McLouth and Martin Prado leading the team in games at the leadoff spot during those years. But during that span they were third in the National League in runs scored, behind only the Phillies and the Rockies, teams that play in pretty extreme hitters’ parks and, in the case of the Phillies, a team that had one of the better offenses of the last 10-15 years. If we include last season, a down year for the Braves’ offense, a season without Bourn for most of it and with a sub par Bourn for the final two months, the Braves still were fourth in the National League in runs scored, from 2006-2011.
If your idea of a prototypical leadoff hitter is a guy with great speed that can make things happen on the basepaths, certainly lacking one of those types did not seem to cost the Braves much from 2006-2010. They had some up and down years from their leadoff hitters in those seasons but still managed to be one of the top 3-4 offenses in the league over that span. There are leadoff options currently in house. Prado has done it before. Heyward would be a solid choice.
If they don’t re-sign Bourn they do have to find a centerfielder and a leftfielder (as Prado is expected to move to thirdbase), and make up the deficit created by losing Bourn and Chipper Jones, both among their best players in 2012. But that deficit may not be as hard to make up as it seems on the surface. For starters, hopefully Mike Minor will continue his improvement next season, and hopefully guys like McCann and Uggla (assuming he’s still here) will bounce back at least to some degree. Then there is Paul Maholm for a whole season, who should at least provide something close to league-average innings in the rotation. With those things and the acquisition of at least solid major league outfielders for leftfield and center, I believe the gap would nearly close.
Baseball Reference estimates Chipper and Bourn at 7.4 Wins Above Replacement so far this season, so that’s what the Braves would lose. With improvements at catcher and secondbase, with at least a solid centerfielder and at least a solid leftfielder, with improvements in the rotation from Mike Minor and possibly others on the pitching staff, with Paul Maholm in the rotation for a whole season and with the possibility of gaining more value at shortstop with a full season of Andrelton Simmons, all of that should eat in to the approximately 8 wins the Braves might lose with Chipper and Bourn moving on.
The Braves’ front office should not necessarily be looking to replace a “prototypical” leadoff hitter, if they lose Bourn. I suspect the Braves’ front office realizes this. They seem smart enough to realize the quality of the players matters more than worrying about acquiring players that would allow them to set up some sort of prototypical batting order. I trust the front office to go out and get the best player available that fits the budget and/or that they can trade for without setting the franchise back to fill open positions, batting order be damned.