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Will the Indians Ever Experience Bourn’s True Identity?

Will the Indians Ever Experience Bourn’s True Identity?

| On 05, May 2014

It’s often said the teams who sign free agents pay players in the 30s for their performance in their 20s.

No words could be truer when it comes to the Cleveland Indians and center fielder Michael Bourn. The Indians and Bourn surprised much of baseball in February 2013, agreeing to a four-year, $48 million contract on the eve of spring training. It shifted the original plan of the Indians season, moving players around the diamond, building a stronger defense.

But Bourn was signed to provide a spark at the top of the batting order. When Bourn signed with the Indians, he had five straight seasons of 40+ stolen bases, including three seasons that he led the National League. Bourn’s Gold Glove defense was supposed to be a great asset to the disruption he would create on the base paths and the effects it would have on the rest of the hitters behind him. Cleveland hadn’t had a leadoff hitter like Bourn since Kenny Lofton a generation ago.

However, Bourn hasn’t shown the dynamic speed on the base paths while a member of the Indians. Instead, he made his first trip to the disabled list in 2013 and had a subpar season. Bourn hit .263—his lowest batting average since 2008—with six home runs, 50 runs batted in and just 23 stolen bases. His 23 stolen bases were the lowest of his career in a full season. Those that watched Bourn before his Indians debut recognized something was different about his game last season.

At the end of last season Bourn had surgery to repair his left hamstring. He injured it in the Tribe’s 162nd and playoff-clinching game. Bourn played two nights later and when the season ended, he admitted it had been bothering him longer than a couple days. This spring, Bourn suffered the same injury in spring training, forcing him to miss the final 10 days of exhibition play and open this year back on the disabled list.

Bourn strained the same left hamstring again Saturday night, trying to leg out an infield hit. After missing the first 13 games of 2014, he’s now day-to-day as he nurses the same injury for the third time.

“It just tightened up on me,” Bourn told Zack Meisel of “I tried to extend it too far, probably. It’s not feeling too bad. It doesn’t feel like it did last time. It has a different feeling to it. In a few days, I should be back to where I was.”

Bourn thinks he’ll need a couple days to be ready for game action again. Indians manager Terry Francona thinks it is possible Bourn could play as early as tonight, but the organization recalled Nyjer Morgan from Triple-A Columbus Sunday morning. That’s a lot of mixed messages and different timetables.

It’s likely Bourn’s injury is not significant and he’ll be back on the field by the end of the week. But the same injury for the third time—no matter how severe—is of major concern for a player who has built his game on his legs and speed. Even Lofton could steal 40+ bases just once after he turned 30-years old.

When the Indians signed Bourn just 15 months ago, a four-year contract was perceived as a deal by his agent, Scott Boras. For the Indians, it might have been a stretch on the length of the contract, knowing Bourn’s legs are the key to his game and would break down over time. But with a small window to compete with veterans and Francona on board, the Indians likely felt the dynamic speed and disruption at the front of the contract would be worth his decline in the back half.

Unfortunately, it looks like the decline has started much earlier than expected. Bourn and his increasing injury history isn’t the only reason to blame for an anaemic start by many middle-of-the-order hitters or the Tribe’s poor defense, but his absence from the lineup certainly isn’t helping either.

Now, the length of that four-year contract seems to be no deal. Bourn makes $13.5 million this season and next, before making $14 million in 2016. With the long-term signing of Michael Brantley, it seems unlikely Bourn could move from center field to left field to save his legs, defensively. Offensively, with little power in his game, he has to hit at the top of the batting order. When healthy, his role on the field isn’t likely to be diminished or changed.

Worse yet than his growing inability to play like he did in his 20s, or stay on the field, Bourn’s contract could hinder the organization in acquiring more help for the roster. Bourn and Nick Swisher will make $28.5-$29 million combined, each season through 2016. That’s a huge investment for a team that seems only committed to spending $80-85 million in payroll each season. It’s unlikely any team would want Bourn’s large salary while his skills have started to erode.

The Indians and Bourn are closing in on 200 games together. It’s likely not the start either expected. If Bourn regains his health and speed, he could be the catalyst to their next win streak and playoff appearance.

But, if Bourn’s decline continues, he might not be the only one hamstrung by his injuries.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images