After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?
Last February 15, just as pitchers and catchers were getting ready to report to spring training, the Cleveland Indians surprised their fans and the rest of the baseball world with a major free agent signing.
In dire need of a true leadoff hitter, following the trade of Shin-Soo Choo, the Tribe splurged on former Astros and Braves speedster Michael Bourn. It came as shock because the usually stingy Indians had already broken the bank on signing Nick Swisher. Now they were giving Bourn a guaranteed $48 million over four years, with the possibility of a fifth season and another $12 million.
Bourn was coming off a 2012 season in which he swiped 42 bases for postseason-bound Atlanta. The three prior campaigns, he led the National League in steals, with 61, 52 and 61 (2009, 2010 and 2011). It appeared Cleveland was set at the top of the lineup for the next half decade.
Now that Bourn’s first year with Cleveland has passed, there is some concern he may not have quite the speed he once had. While not a complete disaster, the center fielder’s initial summer with the Indians was his worst since 2008.
This past year, Bourn had 23 steals, his lowest since his rookie year total of 18 in 2007. Worse than that, he was caught attempting to take the next bag on 12 occasions. That means Bourn was gunned down on more than one-third of his base-stealing attempts.
While not horrible, Bourn batted just .263, below his career mark of .271. It was his worst batting average since hitting .229 in 2008. The on-base percentage was .318, lower than what teams would like for a leadoff hitter, who should be making a living getting on base and then swiping the next one.
In Bourn’s defense, he did have a new league to get used to. After six full seasons in the NL, 2013 was his first in the American League. He said, at one point, that he was working on adjusting to AL pitchers and catchers. That is certainly plausible. A scarier idea is, at 30, his speed may be declining with age.
Not only were Bourn’s stealing and hitting numbers down, his defensive numbers were also nearly a career low. His field percentage was .989, lowest since that forgettable 2008 season. His three errors were tied for second most in his career for a season.
Despite the miscues, he did show good range in the field, so speed did not seem to be an issue on the defensive side of the ball.
It is likely Bourn had trouble adjusting to a new league, new ballparks, new pitchers and new catchers. He would not be the first quality free agent that happened to.
When 2014 hits, Bourn will be 31. In reality, that is not all that old. Yes, Bourn has used his legs a lot during his baseball career. However, unlike football running backs who tend to slow at 30, a baseball player is not taking bone-crunching hits from big defensive linemen.
Another reason for Bourn’s down year could have been a lacerated finger he suffered on April 14. His hand was spiked sliding into second. Nothing was ever made of it, but it is very believable that Bourn could have been a little gun-shy upon his return nearly a month later. He may have been cautious with his hand. It could have also slowed down his bat speed as he was batting .303 at the time of the injury.
Again, the 2013 season was not a disaster for Bourn. The issue is, he did not look like the former All Star and Gold Glover that he was. It was he needs to be at the money he is making. The Indians really could use the Bourn who stole 40-plus bases and hit over .270 the four seasons before joining the Tribe.
Next season will tell a lot as to where Bourn stands. With a season in the AL under his belt, there is a chance he will run free on the bases as he once did. He very well could rebound. It is not as if Bourn stopped running, entirely, or even hit in the low .200s. He does not have a lot to do to resemble the player he was in Houston and Atlanta.
A challenge could come from the fact Bourn had minor hamstring surgery on Oct. 15. He hurt his left hamstring during Cleveland’s final regular season game. However, he did play in the Wild Card contest so the injury is not too severe. He is expected to go through his normal offseason routine and be ready to fully go at the outset of the Cactus League season.
Returning to full health will be no problem for Bourn between now and the start of April. Returning to the Bourn of 2009-2012 could be a bigger challenge. It is a challenge the Indians really need their potential star center fielder to meet and defeat in order to remain a playoff-caliber squad for years to come.
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