The debate rages on whether or not the Mets should forfeit their first-round pick, the #11 selection overall, in order to sign free agent Michael Bourn. Those in favor of the move point out that Bourn would address a major need for the Mets while those opposed think the club is unlikely to contend while Bourn would be good and that the club would be better off continuing its youth movement by stockpiling draft picks.
When the offseason started, Bourn was not on my radar. It seemed like the Mets would not be able to afford him and his lack of power and his batting from the left side of the plate seemed like it would not be a great fit for the club. Then throw in the draft pick it would cost to sign him and it seemed like a foolish idea.
But after spending more time thinking about all of the pros and cons, my opinion has changed.
Part of my initial opposition to signing Bourn was my belief that he just wasn’t very good. But it’s four straight years now that he’s been better than good. From 2009-2012, Bourn has amassed 20.1 fWAR, which is the 16th-best mark for a non-pitcher in MLB. Bourn has provided more value in this time period than Prince Fielder, more than Josh Hamilton and more than David Wright.
This is a hard concept for people to grasp because so much of his value comes on the defensive side of the ball. Rightfully so, people in general do not trust defensive metrics as much as they do offensive ones. But there are several different systems out there – UZR, Defensive Runs Saved, Total Zone, to name just three – and they all agree that Bourn is terrific defensively. He also passes the eye test out there.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the defensive numbers are accurately portraying Bourn’s value. It’s still far from clear if he’s worth pursuing for the Mets. Let’s look at the reasons not to sign Bourn: The #11 pick is too valuable to give up, the Mets are not close enough to winning to make Bourn an attractive play and do you really want one of your high-salary players to be Bourn?
By far the most often-cited reason to pass on Bourn is forfeiting the draft pick. Everyone assumes the #11 pick is extremely valuable but we need to determine both how valuable it is and how valuable it is compared to what Bourn is likely to give. Let’s look at the second part first. Bourn posted a 6.4 fWAR last year but it does not seem accurate to use that as his worth going forward.
Over the last four years, he’s averaged just over 5.0 fWAR per season. But Bourn turned 30 in the offseason and it’s likely that his value will decrease going forward. A typical, back of the envelope, conservative forecast is to have a player’s value decrease by 0.5 WAR per year. Let’s assume that the Mets can sign Bourn for a three-year deal. We would calculate his expected value as 4.5 fWAR in 2013, 4.0 in 2014 and 3.5 in 2015 for a total of 12 fWAR over the life of the contract.
How likely is it that the #11 draft pick would produce 12 WAR?
We can go back and look to see what the #11 pick has done previously. And the historical answer is – not very much. In the 20-year period from 1980-1999 (chosen to allow people enough time to complete the majority of their MLB career) there has not been one superstar picked. The closes thing to a star is Shane Mack, who went on to play parts of nine seasons in the majors.
Perhaps 20 is not a large enough sample. So, below is a chart detailing the 9th through 13th picks of those same drafts, giving us a sample of 100 players. The chart is color-coded, based on the career MLB bWAR of the picks. Here’s what the colors mean:
Green – lifetime bWAR of 12 and above
White – lifetime bWAR between 5 and 12
Yellow – lifetime bWAR between 0 and 5
Blue – never played in the majors
Red – lifetime bWAR in negative numbers
Only 23 percent of the 100 draft picks in our sample produced a lifetime bWAR of 12 or above. Some of these were Hall of Fame talents, like McGwire, Ramirez and Wagner. But there were also guys like Weiss, who compiled a 14.6 bWAR in 14 seasons. Is that really more valuable than getting 12 WAR in three seasons?
My preference would be for the expected 12 WAR of Bourn over the next three years to a dozen of the players highlighted in green that surpassed 12 WAR but who took a dozen or so years to compile that total, like Weiss in the illustration above.
Additionally, 46 of the 100 players either did not make the majors or they posted a negative WAR when they did. You were twice as likely to get a bust then a 12-WAR player from our sample. That’s pretty amazing.
One could make the case that drafting has improved since the time period under review here. But it would be a mistake to think that it’s now a given that a player drafted around #11 will make and contribute in the majors. In the first two years after this study alone, six of the 10 players drafted in these slots failed to make the majors.
Each person would have to decide for themselves where it makes sense to keep the draft pick and where it makes sense to surrender it and sign Bourn. To me, the 20-year sample above is nowhere close to where it would make sense to hoard the draft pick.
From a pure mathematical point of view, my preference would be to have about a 25% chance of drafting a guy who could put up, say, a lifetime 30 WAR and above, with another 25% chance of drafting a guy who could put up a lifetime double-digit WAR. Basically it would be nice to see 50-50 odds of getting a true All-Star with the pick, not some guy who gets picked because a team needs a representative. Our chart shows less than a 25% chance of getting an AS-type player.
And even that doesn’t address one problem – the Mets need a quality defensive center fielder right now, which Bourn would provide. The current season has value and the upgrade from Kirk Nieuwenhuis to Bourn should not be diminished because a playoff season seems a long shot. The only way to give the team a shot to compete is to accumulate value. The Shaun Marcum signing potentially did that and a Bourn addition would, too.
This is all predicated on the Mets being able to pick up Bourn on a short deal. A three-year contract would be ideal because the financial outlay would not be outrageous and he should be productive over the life of the deal. Most of the people who are against surrendering the draft pick under any circumstances think it would make sense to wait until the Mets are competitive to enter the free agent market.
But do those same people think the Mets will still be doormats in 2015? Do they project Nieuwenhuis or Matt Den Dekker to be a 3-WAR player that season? Do they think there will be a free agent with Bourn’s skill set available at the exact time the Mets need it?
However, among all of the objections to signing Bourn, perhaps the most significant issue is this: If you are comfortable surrendering a draft pick to sign a free agent – do you want that player to be Bourn? It seems pretty clear that the Mets are not going to have an expensive player at every position, so essentially it’s imperative for the team to get the proverbial most bang for the buck when it does venture into free agency. Is a player whose calling card is defense worth sinking one of your few eight-figure contracts into?
The Mets are paying David Wright to be an All-Star. They hope Ike Davis can become a consistent 30-HR threat. They are punting defense at second base with Daniel Murphy – and perhaps one day soon with Wilmer Flores. They are again punting defense trying to turn Lucas Duda into an outfielder. It does not seem unreasonable to have a stud defensive player in center field with this particular collection of players, especially given that the club is emphasizing starting pitching, anyway.
One final thought – some have speculated that a player who depends on their legs like Bourn is subject to age quicker than a hitter who depends on their bat. But this is simply not true. Jeff Zimmerman of Beyond the Box Score found the following:
” Fast players age extremely well from their peaks at 26 to 31, then they lose on average fewer then five runs over five seasons.”
Recall the supposition that was used to project Bourn’s worth on the mythical three-year deal – that he would decline five runs per year. Zimmerman’s research shows that Bourn’s class of player would lose this over a five-year period, not annually. So, instead of a 12-WAR player, we might more realistically be looking at a 13.8-WAR player.
Which only makes me more willing to surrender the #11 pick if the dollars and years make sense.