Changing the topic from money, the Mets fight over a draft pick and Michael Bourn

Michael Bourn. (MLB.com)
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Michael Bourn, an elite defensive center fielder with great speed, would be a serious upgrade to the Mets' outfield.

He's not such a transformative player that the Mets would become contenders by acquiring him, as they're reportedly interested in doing. But he's good enough that lots of other teams want him, too: he's expected to earn more this winter than B.J. Upton, for instance, who signed with the Braves for five years, $75 million.

The Mets' owners, of course, are struggling financially, and the team, relatedly, hadn't signed a major league free agent until Thursday's modest one-year deal with pitcher Shaun Marcum. 

And beyond the money it would take to sign Bourn, the Mets might have to give up their 2013 draft pick to get him. Under the rules of the current collective bargaining agreement, the top ten picks in the draft are protected. By virtue of finishing 74-88, the Mets earned the tenth pick. But when a team fails to sign its top pick, it gets a first-round pick the following year, and when the Pirates failed to sign 2012 pick Marty Appel, it entitled them to the ninth pick in the 2013 draft. That bumps the Mets down to eleventh, and out of protected territory.

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It's this last thing, now, that is ostensibly the sticking point: The Mets have signaled an interest in fighting it.

But really, if they don't have the money to sign Bourn in the first place, it's just a distraction. 

While the players' union is willing to discuss altering this language, both Ken Rosenthal and Adam Rubin report that Major League Baseball is not. It is in their interest to keep player salaries down. The very point of reducing the number of protected picks from 15 in the last C.B.A. to 10 in this one was to drive down free agent salaries.

So while M.L.B. making an exception to benefit the Mets would be nothing new in recent years, it doesn't appear likely to happen here.

The Mets have said they would be interested in signing Bourn to a long-term, backloaded contract. This is problematic for several reasons. The 30-year-old Bourn relies on speed for his value; a decrease in that speed would both limit his success stealing bases and, more critically, have a detrimental effect on his center field defense. And his bat simply isn't potent enough to be useful in a corner outfield spot.

So by the time Bourn were to earn big money, he probably wouldn't be worth it, and possibly not even worth starting anymore, a drain on resources at the earliest possible moment the Mets, several years away, could be considered contenders.

Bourn is likely to be at his best now, precisely as the Mets aren't in any position to contend, with or without him. .

There's another red flag here, too: the Mets' owners managed to defer $23 million they were going to owe David Wright and Jason Bay in 2013. They borrowed another $160 million last month against their S.N.Y. ownership share. Shaun Marcum's one-year deal is reportedly for a base salary of $4 million (with incentives that could push it higher, however). That they still can't spend money in 2013 on Bourn, while a $320 million debt against the team looms in 2014, provides a sobering reminder that no matter how many salaries the Mets clear from the books, it won't be sufficient to reduce their mountainous debt load anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Bourn is a great example of the current conundrum facing every potential acquisition by the Mets. Any potential new Met can be dismissed with the logic that no one acquisition is going to help them contend. And any potential new Met can be embraced because he'll make the Mets, who have roster areas with massive black holes, significantly better.

So the real question about any acquisition isn't either of these: it is whether signing that player is going to be justified by the contract. Signing Bourn may be, but the longer the deal, the less likely that is to be true. And any attempt to improve the team cannot be about one or two acquisitions, but a significant infusion of talent. Sandy Alderson said as much last August, prior to this sleepy offseason.

The rebuilding Mets need their draft pick (and just as important, the league-limited pool money that goes with it; forfeit the draft pick, and the Mets would have far less alloted to them to spend on 2013 draft picks across the board). And the league doesn't appear likely to give them an exception to pursue Bourn.

What the league has given them, instead, is something other than their deep financial problems to blame for their inability to improve.