Indian winter: In big surprise, Cleveland steals Bourn from Mets

The Indians sign Jason Giambi, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Nick Swisher and now all-star Michael Bourn this winter. (Getty Images)

The Indians and Mets are both rebuilding. They are just doing it at different rates.

Cleveland’s surprise signing of Michael Bourn for $48 million over four years -- plus a vesting option that could take it to $60 million over five -- was the punctuation mark on a wild winter engineered by young GM Chris Antonetti that also brought native son Nick Swisher back to Ohio for $56 million over four years. So that’s more than $100 million for two outfielders when they already had a decent outfield.

The Indians got in the game. Good for them.

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As for the Mets, well, they might want to push back their target date for contention back a year, or two. And as for the Mets’ outfield, to quote their own GM Sandy Alderson from three months ago: “What outfield?’’

There isn’t much to see there, so the Mets will now presumably try to pick up one of Cleveland’s scraps. Drew Stubbs is very likely the odd man out in Cleveland and eminently available. And guess what, he just might be the Mets’ best outfielder if they get him.

The Indians are getting everyone, it seems, these days. This week alone, they’ve signed up Jason Giambi, Daisuke Matsuzaka and now Bourn, giving folks three more reasons to make the trek over to visit the hidden gem in Goodyear.

The Mets? They are still searching. (Though there isn’t much left.)

While the Mets, who seemed like the public favorite for Bourn, debated whether to add a vesting option to their $48-million, four-year pass, they never officially did. And the reality is, the Mets’ offer was conditional, anyway, meaning Bourn was left with little choice.

The Mets told Bourn their interest at $48-million over four years was only there if they could be guaranteed that they’d retain their first-round draft choice with a Bourn signing, something that wouldn’t be known for a week, and more realistically, two weeks.

Bourn couldn’t very well wait around to see whether he might have a lesser deal. He had two other teams in the mix, but he was happy to go to Cleveland, who unlike the Mets had an unconditional offer on the table.

The truth is, the Mets should have obtained a ruling on the draft choice a few weeks back, then bid on Bourn if they won the grievance to keep the pick. The reason they waited was their belief that the price would rise if it came out publicly that they could sign the player while saving the pick.

But realistically, that was their only chance to get him. No team can expect to make a conditional offer to a top free agent and expect to win said player.

The Mets might have won the grievance, but now we’ll never know. MLB, citing the new CBA, argued that their pick wasn’t a protected pick since it wasn’t one of the top 10 picks. The union (and Mets) were prepared to argue that since they were the 10th worst team in 2012 and only bumped back to pick No. 11 because of the Pirates’ failure to sign last year’s No. 1 pick that by the spirit of the rule they should keep the pick.

To have any real shot at the player, the Mets needed to make their petition earlier, and get their answer, even if it meant public pressure to sign Bourn were to increase. The other choice they had was to sign the player now, then file the grievance and hope for the best in the hearing room later. But they weren’t willing to take that chance.

Now, what they are stuck with is arguably the worst. The worst outfield in the bigs, at least if you go by resumes.

Without Bourn, the best center fielder in the game according to the number folks who keep track of range, the Mets have as their center field hopefuls Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Colin Cowgill, two unproven players with serious question marks.

Lucas Duda, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd and a bunch of other guys make up the rest of the Mets’ outfield. What’s strange is that Alderson, while telling jokes about the Mets outfield in public, privately has told some people inside baseball he believes the Mets can contend. And that’s in 2013.

That’s with that outfield, plus the sub-.200 hitting John Buck as the catcher at least to start the season, no closer they’re happy with (Frank Francisco is the best of the lot right now) and a rotation diminished by the loss of R.A. Dickey.

The Mets took a hit to their credibility by failing to sign Bourn. Their system isn’t so deep that they can win without future free agents, and it’s easier to lure them if you convince them the foundation is already in place. David Wright’s a very nice player, but one player does not make a foundation.

Give the Mets points for locking up Wright to a team-friendly $138-million contract, and also for trading Dickey for some terrific prospects. But pencil them as a possible contender for 2014. Maybe.

It’s hard to imagine the Indians threatening the excellent and improved Tigers in the A.L. Central. And a wild card won’t be easy in the American League. But they are certainly an interesting story, and team, now. They've given themselves a shot.

The Indians have some definite strengths, with a deep and talented bullpen, one of the best-hitting middle-infield combos in the game, improved firepower around the diamond and the best trio of center fielders in baseball (the Yankees aren’t too bad, with Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki).

The Indians also got Bourn at a fair price. The $12 million AAV (average annual value) is the highest ever for a player who never hit more than 12 home runs or topped a .400 slugging percentage, and it's better than the other speed stars who got big deals, such as Juan Pierre, who once got $44 million over five years from the Dodgers, and Angel Pagan, who got $40 million over four from the Giants this winter.

Some might say Bourn’s a better player than B.J. Upton (though obviously not the Braves, who gave Upton $75.2 million over five years). But the reality is, power pays.

Bourn also was hurt by the draft-pick situation, as teams desperately didn’t want to give up their No. 1 pick and the slot money associated with it. It is believed three of the four final teams in on Bourn were among the top-10 picking teams, with the Mets being the fourth. Neither the union nor MLB could have predicted the effect the lost pick (and slot money) would have on teams as they pursued players who received qualifying offers, but it seemed to be immense.

The Indians, as a team with a protected pick, took advantage, signing up both Swisher and Bourn. The top 20 teams were less anxious to make plays for these fine players, including also Adam LaRoche, who went back to the Nationals on a two-year deal, and Kyle Lohse, who remains unsigned.

The new rule led to players who had mediocre years (such as Edwin Jackson) or worse (Shane Victorino) getting big deals because their old teams understandably didn’t want to make them the qualifying offer.  And also allowed players fortunate enough to be traded during the year (such as Anibal Sanchez) to hit the lottery.

The rule is too quirky to be fair, and surely needs to be changed for next year. It’s too late to help the poor Mets though.


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