Revisiting Michael Bourn, Scott Boras, and the market for center fielders

Scott Cunningham

Is agent Scott Boras overplaying his hand with Michael Bourn, or is he going to stun the baseball world again?

Almost a year ago to the day, Ryan Madson signed a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Early in the offseason, there were reports that Madson had re-upped with the Phillies for four years. In the end, he had to settle for a year. It was a make-good contract, not a once-in-a-career jackpot. And before the season could even start, his elbow disintegrated. It was a rough offseason.

A year ago to the day, Prince Fielder was still a free agent. Albert Pujols signed his mega-deal with the Angels, and it looked like the market dried up for stars looking for star money. In the end, Fielder received a huge, nine-year deal from the Tigers. There were whispers that Fielder would have to take a three- or four-year deal. Instead, he nabbed his once-in-a-career jackpot. It was a good offseason.

The common thread: Scott Boras. He was the agent for both Fielder and Madson. When Madson went from four years, $44 million to one year, $10 million in just a couple months, it was a Mighty Casey moment for Boras. There was no joy in Mudville, in which Mudville is defined as "the Maserati dealership closest to Ryan Madson's house." And it wasn't completely ludicrous to think maybe teams were getting wise to Boras's tricks. Maybe Boras had lost his touch.

And then Fielder signed for half of the decade's military budget.

Two Boras clients. Two very, very different results. Are either of those deals applicable to Michael Bourn, another Boras client waiting for a big payday a January later?

As late as November 30, here was the scuttlebutt on Bourn:

Bourn, whose agent, Scott Boras, will be seeking more than $100 million for the speedy outfielder, may not be an obvious fit for the rebuilding Cubs, but they would be looking at him much the same way the Washington Nationals viewed Jayson Werth.

Nine figures. And after B.J. Upton signed for $75 million, it almost seemed reasonable. That's just what the market was going to bear. There were a lot of teams looking for a center fielder, and Bourn was the best one available, so it made sense that he was expecting a substantial payday.

But then the dominos fell. The Twins traded both Ben Revere and Denard Span, which allowed two teams to drop out of the Michael Bourn sweepstakes. Angel Pagan returned to the Giants for less than half of what Bourn and Boras were expecting. Josh Hamilton signed with the Angels, and Shane Victorino went to the Red Sox. The center fielders left the offseason bazaar, but so did the teams interested in center fielders.

When you scour the MLB Daily Dish page for Bourn, there are a lot of Rangers mentions. There's also a stray Braves rumor. An Upton, Bourn, and Jason Heyward outfield would be the best defensive outfield in baseball, but it would be hard to imagine the Braves committing big money to another outfielder this offseason. The Mariners come up as a possibility, too, but that's about it. Rangers and Mariners. Mariners and Rangers. It's a game of chicken at 10 m.p.h., with both teams hoping Boras will give up.

So is Bourn a Madson or a Fielder? Has the market already fallen out from under him, or will he still come back and stun the baseball world with a substantial long-term deal?

Never bet against Boras. When it comes to a free-agent deal for a Boras client, at least. If you get the opportunity to bet against him in a karaoke competition or something, go for it. But for decades, Boras has consistently procured money for his clients. Madson is the exception, not the rule.

Except here's the difference between Fielder and Bourn: The Tigers could sign Fielder, turn around, and trumpet that the offseason was a success. They could put Fielder's face on tickets, and they could stick him in every television promo from February through November. Your mom probably knew who Prince Fielder was.

Your mom doesn't know who Michael Bourn is. He isn't the kind of free agent who will save an offseason, who will whip the fan base into a ticket-buying frenzy. His value is apparent to the WAR-sniffing connoisseurs among us, and certainly teams are aware that his leadoff/defense combo is rare and desirable. But he isn't an instant PR coup. And at 30, he isn't exactly a sure bet for a four- or five-year deal. It's not like he's a perennial MVP candidate that a team will sign long-term just to get the short-term boost found with the guaranteed perennial-MVP-candidate seasons.

The Rangers would do well to get Bourn for something similar to what Upton received, but he wouldn't single-handedly save an offseason in which they lost two of their best hitters. The Mariners would be a better team with Bourn, but they would still be the fourth-best team in their division.

Never bet against Boras. Except this time. The nine-figure deal for Bourn -- especially considering that he'll cost a draft pick, too -- is gone. It might never have been there in the first place. Boras isn't the equivalent of a .400 hitter; he's more like a top-flight closer, converting 95 percent of his opportunities. In this case, though, it looks like a couple of bloops and an error have loaded the bases with no outs. It will take some magic and good fortune to get out of this one. Don't bet against him. But don't bet on him, either.

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