Braves center fielder Michael Bourn is having a career year, just three short months from hitting free agency for the first time in his career. Bourn has sparked Atlanta's offense this year, OPSing .758 at the top of the order with a team-leading 29 stolen bases. His eight homers are a career high, and more than he had in the last three seasons combined. Bourn is also an elite defender in center field, logging 13.2 UZR and +13 DRS. However, despite how valuable he's been for the Braves this season, there is no chance in hell he's going to be a Brave past this season. Let me explain.
Even before Buster Olney's confirmation that the Phillies coveted Bourn, any sane baseball fan knew that the Phillies would have interest after dealing impending free agent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers last week. When Philly gets involved in negotiations, a player's price goes through the roof. Before the season, everyone assumed that Bourn would get a contract in the range of five years and $60 million. That's out the window now after Bourn's fantastic year, and of course, the interest of a large market club. The new salary estimate for Bourn starts at $16 million per season, and while you can argue the merits of giving that kind of money to a soon-to-be 30-year old center fielder who's best asset is his speed, the Braves simply cannot afford to pay that kind of money to one player with their current payroll situation unless the deal was heavily backloaded.
First off, the Braves payroll is rather static. It's going to sit between $90 and $95 million, and there isn't a damn thing that anyone can do about it. Blame that on whoever the hell you want to (Liberty Media, Frank Wren, SportSouth, Atlanta fans, whatever), but nothing is changing in regards to the payroll unless something unforeseen happens. By "something unforeseen", I mean that a multi-billionaire offers Liberty 20% over market value for the team and pumps money into them like the team is a deflated cream puff, or that something happens with SportSouth that makes the network renegotiate the extremely favorable (for them at least) TV deal they have with the Braves. Quite frankly, I don't think either will be happening any time soon.
Looking at the Braves payroll for next year, despite Derek Lowe's behemoth contract coming off the books and Chipper Jones's retirement, there isn't a lot of wiggle room. Dan Uggla is owed $13.2 million, and that's not going to be going anywhere. Brian McCann has an option for 2013 that will surely be picked up for $12 million (at least, due to the presence of awards escalators that can bump it up by $3 million). Tim Hudson has a $9 million option that's going to be picked up (and bumped to $9.5 million in oh, six starts or so). Barring an awful two months with the team, new acquisition Paul Maholm has a $6.5 million option that will be picked up. With just those four players, the Braves payroll is over $41 million...or nearly halfway to the budgeted goal.
Then, you have to figure in the arbitration raises. Martin Prado is making $4.75 million, and let's guesstimate that he gets a raise to $6 million or so after his bounceback year. Eric O'Flaherty is making $2.49 million in his second to last arb year, and a raise to $3 million seems feasible. Bam, you're already over $50 million in payroll. Jair Jurrjens has a year left of arbitration, but there is no chance in hell that the Braves are going to pay him the $6 million he'd likely be awarded.
There are also the younger players who will be entering arbitration for the first time, and they're all guys that are pretty crucial parts to the team on varying degrees: Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters, Kris Medlen, and Cristhian Martinez. It's a pain in the ass to determine value for first time arb players, but let's compare Heyward to Hunter Pence (who settled for $3.5 million as a Super Two in his first year of arb) and Hanson to Chad Billingsley (settled for $3.85 million in his first year of arb). Give the three relievers (or quasi-starter in Medlen's case) $1.2 million each, and you're at about $11 million for just those five players and something like $62 million overall.
This is the issue the Braves are faced with now. They'd have around $30 million or so left to spend on their team, and be short one outfielder (two if you move Prado to third), and three slots on the bench (assuming either of Janish/Pastornicky and Francisco are penciled in for the 2013 team). The rotation would look something like Hudson/Maholm/Hanson/Minor and one of Delgado, Teheran, Gilmartin, Medlen, etc. So if the Braves wanted to sign Bourn and throw say $18 million per year at him, they'd only have $12 million to fill the other holes on the team...which would likely be doled out to mediocrity, or hell, be eaten and have slots given to young players.
Keep in mind, that this entire piece says nothing about how silly it would be to give a player like Bourn a possible nine figure deal. I don't think Bourn will get Carl Crawford money by any means, but I think he'll get more than Torii Hunter. If this was the 90s, and the Braves' $90 million payroll was one of the top five in the league, I could rationalize a long-term deal for Bourn at a comparable rate. But in the year 2012, where $90 million doesn't even put you in the league's top ten...it just doesn't make sense for this team at this point in time.
Photo courtesy of Daylife.com
@MichiganGoat Michael Bourn at 5 years for 16 per is not a good idea but esp. for a team not likely to be in it next year