Michael Bourn, glittering like a mirage in the Mets' baseball desert

Michael Bourn. (MLB.com)
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It's been a tough offseason for fans of the New York Mets, following a tough season.

The Mets sent the 2012 Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey, to Toronto rather than signing him to an affordable extension, and the already weak roster hasn't seen any offsetting improvement. The Mets have yet to sign a major league free agent, while their general manager, Sandy Alderson, has been reduced to joking about the team's outfield, because there's not much else he can do about it.

So when Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com said on the MLB Network Tuesday night that the Mets have discussed free agent center fielder Michael Bourn "quite a bit," it constituted a big development.

Acquiring Bourn would unquestionably help the 2013 Mets, if not quite enough to make them into contenders.

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Fans shouldn't get excited just yet, though.

The upside would be huge: there's every reason to think Michael Bourn, in 2013, is going to outproduce the entire group of outfielders currently under contract with the Mets. The Mets currently expect to start Lucas Duda in left field, a platoon of Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill in center field, and a platoon of Mike Baxter and Andrew Brown in right field. The five players, combined, posted a value below replacement level in 2012 while amassing a combined 1,226 plate appearances. Bourn, in roughly half that many plate appearances in each of the past four seasons, has been worth more than four wins above replacement in each.

So not only would Bourn greatly improve the overall quality of the outfield, there's the matter of how he'll do it. Bourn provides speed that is largely missing from the rest of the lineup, not to mention strong outfield defense that will be absolutely vital if the center fielder plays next to, for instance, Duda in left.

Yet there's a strong argument against signing Bourn, beyond the issue of losing the team's first round draft pick in 2013 and the real question about whether ownership can even afford him right now, which has to do with where the organization sits in terms of development.

If the Mets bring in Bourn for a year or two, he'll improve the team quite a bit. But the Mets won 74 games last year with Dickey, and haven't done anything else of significance to improve the team, or even make up for the loss of Dickey. So sacrificing a draft pick to improve from a season of, say, 66-96 to 70-92 probably doesn't make a lot of sense. And by the time the Mets might contend again, which is realistically 2015 at the earliest, Bourn would be a free agent.

But signing Bourn for the long haul carries with it the inherent dangers of giving a long-term contract to a player who is already 30, and relies on a narrow set of skills—speed and defense—rather than a broad base of talent (think Carlos Beltran). Bourn's bat doesn't play anywhere, really, if he's not providing plus defense at a key position.

If the Mets wanted an overpriced aging outfielder in his mid-thirties providing minimal production, they could have simply kept Jason Bay.

Incidentally, there would have been a stronger argument to be made for signing Bourn had the Mets kept Dickey, and added some other parts. After all, they did keep David Wright, and maximizing what remains of his prime isn't a terrible idea.

But that's precisely the problem with the team's approach on its big assets in recent years: trade Dickey, keep Wright, let Reyes go for nothing. It's not coherent. They're alienating their fans while doing just enough, maybe, to stay in place.

Bourn would be an improvement over what they've got, to be sure, but he wouldn't actually make the team competitive. And with the current state of ownership's finances, don't be surprised if they decide not to pay more for the privilege of maintaining mediocrity. 

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