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The Indians, Michael Bourn, and unexpected bargains

A look back at how the Tribe got such a deal for the speedy center fielder.

Kevin C. Cox

When the offseason began, things were looking good for Michael Bourn.

In his first full year in Atlanta -- his last year prior to hitting free agency -- Bourn put together his fourth consecutive solid season and seemed primed for a big pay day. While his offensive numbers have never been anything to write home about, his defense and base-running were elite, a large number of teams were on the market for a center fielder, and his main competition in the open market -- B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino -- were coming off of career-worst seasons.

The rumor "on the streets" when October baseball ended was that Bourn was looking for a deal in the neighborhood of $100 million, and with the number of clubs potentially on the hunt for a centerfielder --- not to mention the help of uber-agent Scott Boras -- it appeared as though he was going to get something at least close to that number.

But it wasn't to be.

The Washington Nationals were the odds-on favorite to sign Bourn when winter began, and seemed best-poised to give him the kind of salary he wanted. The club had been a fixture in center field trade rumors for months, and Bourn seemed to fit the speedy, defense-first type player they were looking for.

Not even a month into the offseason, however, the Nats were out of the Bourn market completely. The Minnesota Twins -- in dire need of pitching help -- unexpectedly dropped Denard Span off in the nation's capital in exchange for a single pitching prospect, thus ending the Bourn-to-D.C. hypothesis.

While the Nats/Span news could have been seen as an omen of things to come, this first bit of bad news for Bourn was largely muted by the monster five-year, $75.25 million deal B.J. Upton signed with Atlanta the day before. If Bourn's former club was willing to shell out that kind of money for a guy whose best season came five years ago, surely someone was going to give him more.

But then the Winter Meetings came and went. Shane Victorino got three years and $39 million, Angel Pagan got four years and $40 million, and Michael Bourn got a whole lot of nothing. The Mariners, Rangers, and Phillies emerged as possible landing spots during the hectic week in Nashville, but so too did the first whispers that perhaps Bourn wasn't going to get that big contract.

The Phillies were off the table as a potential landing spot by the end of the Winter Meetings as the Twins struck again, giving away another center fielder -- Ben Revere, this time -- for some more pitching depth. Then a week later the Reds acquired Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians with the hopes of putting him in center.

And just like that, there seemed to be no one left.

A little more than a month had gone by in the offseason and every team that was in dire need of a center fielder at season's end now seemed to have one. The Braves, Nationals, Red Sox, Giants, Phillies, and Reds all had new guys to patrol the outfield grass, and every one of them at a lower cost than Bourn was set to command.

Writers began speculating about where Bourn could end up, but none of the options seemed very likely. The Mariners? Well, they're still getting over the whole Chone Figgins debacle and would have to give up a high first-round pick to get him. The Rangers? They seem pretty set on moving forward with what they've got despite losing Hamilton and Napoli.

Reports started coming in not about which clubs were legitimately interested in the outfielder, but rather which clubs seemed to "make the most sense." Not a good sign for a free agent, even one with Scott Boras in tow.

As Spring Training approached and no one seemed to be biting, the New York Mets finally jumped into the fray, but they seemed like a longshot from the get-go. The Mets seemed willing to go to four years with Bourn -- and apparently did offer him a deal of that length -- but were also bogged down by their attempts to appeal to the MLB for draft pick protection.

At last glance, Bourn was thought to be seeking a contract in the range of five years and $75 million, equal to what his replacement, Upton, scored in Atlanta. Scott Boras is usually very good at getting clients what they want -- and making teams believe that a player's market price is much higher than it actually is (see: Soriano, Rafael) -- but in the case of Bourn, he had the Mets (lol) and then no one.

Enter the Cleveland Indians.

Unlike the Mets, the Indians' top pick in the draft was protected -- so no appeal needed -- and had a bit of money to spare because of a new TV deal. Yes, the club had Drew Stubbs set to be their Opening Day center fielder, but he's much better suited as a platoon option with Michael Brantley in left field.

The Tribe entered the Bourn rumor mill as early as last week, but not without the major caveat that his price tag would have to drop considerably. And so drop it did, almost into Angel Pagan territory, giving the Indians a new center fielder.

If anyone had told you in November that Michael Bourn would still be available on the first day of Spring Training, you would have probably thought s/he was crazy. He was the best center fielder not named Josh Hamilton in a market full of potential suitors. But a series of unfortunate events -- namely his qualifying offer and the Twins deciding to twice ruin the Bourn family Christmas -- allowed him to fall all the way to Cleveland, who were nowhere on the Bourn map until the very last minute.

Bourn is no Kenny Lofton or Willie Mays-Hayes, but four years and $48 million is a serious bargain for a player of his calibre. Tribe fans should just zone out the sub-par pitching and enjoy their shiny new outfield.