The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is a core member of the team and key to contention this season and beyond.
I can’t possibly be the only one thinking it. I hate to be negative, but I’m a Clevelander, so it’s kind of innate. Go ahead and tell me that you’re not wondering it too…
Will the Indians ever see Michael Bourn 100% healthy?
Early in spring training last year, after years of tearing up the basepaths and the outfield grasses in the National League, the Indians came out of nowhere and signed Bourn to a four-year contract with a vesting option for 2017. He came over as an elite, Gold Glove outfielder who led the NL in steals three times. Since, he has shown flashes of his outstanding tools, but has also been nagged by some lingering injuries.
“I was feeling it a little bit,” Bourn said of his substandard 2013 season. “Nicks and bangs come throughout the season, but last year I felt it a little bit. It was just a year where I had to go and grind it out. I had to give what I had for my teammates. We were rolling well and I felt like they went off of me. I tried to just do what I do and tried to be a sparkplug with the talent that we had throughout the lineup.”
The first nick came during just the Tribe’s 10th game of the season, as Bourn’s hand was stepped on by White Sox reliever Matt Thornton while diving into first base in the eighth inning of a 3-1 loss to Chicago. A stint on the disabled list followed and Bourn, who was batting .333 at the time of the injury with 15 hits in 10 games, never really picked up where he left off. The hand injury seemed to nag at the speedy centerfielder all season.
“When I say ‘healthy’, I’m not talking about little nicks and bangs like your ankle or hand might be sore,” Bourn said, “I’m talking about things that hinder you from the way you want to play.”
The injury proved to be somewhat more than a hindrance, as Bourn hit below his career norm with a .263 batting average and swiped only 23 bases which was a career low for seasons in which he played 105 games or more.
“It had to do with me getting familiar with the league a little bit,” Bourn said of his low stolen base production. “I’m working on little things as far as base stealing goes. It’s just getting familiar with people’s moves and how they want to attack you; when they want to come over, when they want to pitch out and things like that. I feel like I’ll be better this year as long as I’m healthy.”
Now, as the Indians are getting ready to break camp, Bourn is not healthy and is nursing a hamstring injury that was aggravated in Cactus League play last week. Early reports said that Bourn should be out ‘about one week’, but according to Cleveland.com, manager Terry Francona said he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was a few days more than that.”
The injury is reported to be in a different spot than the hamstring problem that required surgery at the end of last season, so according to Bourn it is an unrelated injury. The fact that Bourn could be missing regular season time due to the same hamstring still raises some red flags nevertheless.
“In the last (regular season) game against the Twins, that’s when it happened,” Bourn said of his previous injury that required surgery. “I didn’t want it to linger around for the whole offseason…like let’s rehab it for eight weeks and then see if it’s ok. No, I wanted to get right down to the bottom of it. I asked (trainer) Lonnie (Soloff) about it and he had me see a special physician from Dallas and he was able to the surgery real quick, like a week or a week and a half into the offseason…which I wanted to do. I started my rehab about a week after that. I took (the rehab) a little slow because there was no reason to rush it.”
Despite the injury on the last Sunday of the season, Bourn still appeared in the team’s lone playoff game against the Tampa Bay Rays just a few days later.
“We had worked so hard throughout the whole season and I wanted to be in there with my teammates,” Bourn said. “I knew what kind of position we were in and I had a little bit of experience having played in that game before. I really wanted to play, so if I could go…then I was going. It wasn’t a hard decision for me.”
The decision was criticized by some, however, as Bourn went 0-4 with two strikeouts including a key at bat in the bottom of the fifth when he whiffed with runners at the corners and nobody out. For the evening, Bourn stranded a total of five Indian baserunners in a game where the team was desperate for a spark of any kind. Perhaps ignoring the obvious, Bourn doesn’t blame the injured hamstring for his subpar game.
“It bothered me a little bit, but I could go, so I don’t have any excuses for that,” Bourn said. “I just didn’t come through in the situations…it was as simple as that. When I look back at it, I had opportunities in that game to drive in a run and try to get us on the board. All I think we needed was to get on the board and get the crowd ignited. They were ready to go, but so were we. We just didn’t come through like we normally do.”
Despite the disappointing end to his team’s magical season, Bourn still has high hopes for his team entering 2014.
“Last year, nobody expected us to be where we were at. This year, coming in, people already know. It’s not going to be as easy,” Bourn said. “I think we have a high ceiling, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Baseball is such a long process…it’s a slow, steady grind and you have to take it one game at a time because every game counts.”
This one-day-at-a-time approach causes Bourn to rethink things when aiming for his own personal goals.
“I set personal goals one year when I was in AA and I haven’t ever set them again,” Bourn said. “I might have set the ceiling a little bit too high because I had some unreal numbers on that paper. I don’t really set a lot of goals, but one goal of mine is to stay healthy. I try to do that, but I’m not going to change my game—like stop trying to dive for a ball or something—I’m just going to try to stay healthy.”
With the health of Bourn’s hamstring the biggest issue of all, the Tribe does have some options should the injury linger. If a disabled list stint is necessary, the Indians have temporary candidates who could fill his spot on the roster and in centerfield. Minor league free agent signee Nyjer Morgan has years of Major League experience and is the obvious choice, but Elliot Johnson also has the ability to play centerfield as well. If a another solution is wanted, Michael Brantley could shift back to play center as he did earlier in his career, while Ryan Raburn could take his spot in left and David Murphy and perhaps Nick Swisher take the time in right. Bourn, however, hopes this is all a moot point.
“I think if I stay healthy and stay on the field then I’ll be ok. Every year, I’m on the field pretty much every day and that’s all I ask for.”
Bourn’s health is all we are asking for too.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer