Around the trade deadline last season, Michael Bourn was plugged in. He had his “sources,” he said. And they were telling him the Nationals, starved for a long-term answer in center field, were one of the teams with interest in trading for him.
“I knew about it,” Bourn said yesterday at the all-star press conferences. “I knew about all that was going on. It didn’t happen that way that time. After the season is over with, we’ll see what goes on.”
After the season is over, Bourn, the Braves’ all-star center fielder, will become a free agent. The Nationals are again expected to be one of his suitors, still looking for a definitive, long-term solution in center field. In the middle of a playoff race, Bourn predictably isn’t tipping his hand about any possible interest in Washington.
“I’m going to sit down after it’s all said and done, and I’m going to take my time and make that final decision,” Bourn said. “Right now, I’m focused on this season right now. I think I’m on a good team right now in the Atlanta Braves.”
Bourn, who will turn 30 in December, has all the attributes the Nationals are looking for in the field and as a leadoff hitter. He has 4.5 wins above replacement this year, per FanGraphs.com, second in the majors behind Mike Trout.
Bourn has a .340 career on-base percentage, but he bumped that to .366 this season. He seems to be developing more power as he reaches his 30s; he had 13 career home runs before this season but already has seven in 2012. He’s one of the fastest players in baseball and last led the majors with 61 steals. Over the past three seasons, FanGraphs’s ultimate zone rating ranks him as the second-best defensive center fielder in baseball.
Bourn would be a great fit for the Nationals, but not quite perfect. Signing Bourn would require a long-term commitment, and speedy players like him tend not to age well into their mid-30s. The Nationals’ nucleus includes a handful of players – like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond in the near-term and Strasburg and Harper in the long term – who are candidates for contract extensions. The cost to keep their own coveted players is a factor in any Nationals’ decision to sign any pricey free agent.
A few factors have changed since last year, when the Nationals showed interest in Bourn. Harper has come to the majors and played center field more than any other position. He could eventually grow out of the position, but the Nationals are comfortable with him there for now and the next couple seasons.
Keeping Harper in center field would give them more flexibility and bide time until Brian Goodwin reaches the majors. He is a prospect, and therefore not a certainty, but he has started his professional career on a tear. Goodwin, 21, is hitting .317/.439/.503 with six homers and 14 steals in 183 at-bats at Class A Hagerstown.
The player he is most often compared to, incidentally, is Bourn. While the Braves’ center fielder wasn’t discussing the chances he signs in Washington, he raved about the Nationals’ starting rotation.
“They got excellent pitching,” Bourn said. “When Strasburg and Gio [Gonzalez] are your number 1 and 2? Then you Zimmermann behind that. Then you got Edwin [Jackson] after that, too. Then you got [Ross] Detwiler. So you got five legit guys who could be a No. 1 or No. 2 on anybody’s team, and they’re all in the same rotation.”
Bourn was asked if he really would lump Detwiler into the 1-2 discussion. “I think he’s coming towards that level, I do,” Bourn said. “He has that type of stuff. He’s still learning how to pitch with it. But, man, he can go. When we see him, he doesn’t seem too bad at all.”
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