The Phillies have a few glaring holes heading into the 2013 season, the most important of which is centerfield. After trading Shane Victorino this summer, the team permanently installed John Mayberry up the middle, and the experiment didn’t work out. Mayberry proved that he was a platoon player in a corner outfield spot, not a regular centerfielder. Unfortunately, he was the closest thing to a longer-term solution on the Phillies roster.
Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix could have faked it, but the former was only signed for one season and the latter is a pinch-hitter. Neither saw any time in centerfield and for good reason. Tyson Gillies just completed his first season at Double-A and is at least a year away from seeing the big leagues. The Phillies currently lack a solution. Fortunately, this year’s free agent class and trade market are flush with competent centerfielders.
It isn’t often that a position as important as centerfield sees so much turnover — teams usually tend to lock these players up before they hit the market — but the Phillies enter the offseason with selectivity at their disposal. There are a number of players they could acquire, but Peter Bourjos of the Angels makes too much sense to not seriously pursue. He would provide the team with elite defense and baserunning, offensive potential, cost-certainty and team-control, all of which are extremely important for a team in the Phillies position.
The centerfielders available via trade or free agency fall into five different groups:
- Popular and Expensive: Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn
- Less Expensive, Solid Productivity: B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan
- Wild Cards, Solid Yet Risky: Shane Victorino, Chris Young (pre-trade to Oak)
- Under-the-Radar, Also Risky: Peter Bourjos, Grady Sizemore
- Part-Time Players/Platooners: Endy Chavez, Nate McLouth, Reed Johnson
Hamilton and Bourn will both sign big deals taking them into their mid-30s. The Phillies should steer clear of both players, as Hamilton won’t be able to play the position in two years, and I don’t consider Bourn worth the risk of spending $17 million per season for the next five seasons to hope he ages like Kenny Lofton.
Upton and Pagan are both solid players, and either would help the Phillies. If Amaro signed one of them to a reasonable three-year deal with a fourth-year option, that’s great. There isn’t really a wrong answer among Upton, Pagan, Victorino or Bourjos.
Bourjos combines some of the best attributes of everyone above. He makes less than everyone else and isn’t yet arbitration-eligible. He plays better defense than Bourn and runs the bases better than anyone not mentioned in this sentence. He hasn’t experienced any issues with his legs, his most valuable limbs. His offensive game is still raw and unproven, but consider that his numbers from 2010-12 — his entire career — aren’t far off Bourn’s and Pagan’s over the same span.
Bourjos has a 95 wRC+ from 2010-12 — the metric adjusted for park and league that sets the league average at 100. Over the same span, Bourn is at 99, and Pagan is at 105. There are differences here, but the offensive advantages these players have over Bourjos is nothing compared to his defensive advantage.
Yes, small sample size disclaimers still apply, as Bourjos has one full season and two partials under his belt, but raw UZR is a counting stat. We wouldn’t discount a player’s home runs total just because he didn’t qualify for the batting title, and while this situation isn’t entirely analogous, it bears acknowledging that Bourjos’s very high UZR in fewer innings than most others on the leaderboards is a positive, not something detracting from his value.
He has only played centerfield in his career and has a tidy +40 UZR in about 2,200 innings. That UZR ranks 2nd in all of baseball from 2010-12, among all positions, to Brett Gardner‘s +51 mark in left, and Gardner has played over 1,500 more innings. Under that contextual lens it’s easier to see the impressive nature of his fielding.
Bourn ranks 3rd on that list at +35 and he has played over 1,600 more innings at the position. On one hand, we are more confident in Bourn’s true talent fielding ability because of his playing time. On the other hand, it’s scary (in a good way) to think of what Bourjos’s UZR might look like had he been given the opportunity to play another 800-1,000 innings.
It stands to reason that Bourjos’s rate stats in the field would blow others out of the water, given his high counting stat in a smaller sample of playing time, and it’s true. Per UZR/150, which shows what a player’s fielding rating would look like over a full season, Bourjos has a +23.9 mark. That tops the leaderboard among all centerfielders with 2,000+ innings over the last few seasons. In fact, it’s not even close in this regard. Behind Bourjos is Jacoby Ellsbury at +13.8 and Carlos Gomez at +13.1.
Bourjos’s fielding mark isn’t entirely range, either, as +12 of his +40 UZR has come from his arm rating. The arm rating is based off of fielding aspects like throwing runners out via outfield assists, as well as how often runners advance. Taken together, he has some of the most range of any active centerfielder, and when balls do happen to fall in, runners don’t usually take any risks. So why would the Angels even want to trade such a valuable player?
For one, they currently employ arguably the best player in the sport in his position, and there is no way in hell the Angels are going to do anything with Mike Trout to accommodate Peter Bourjos. Second, moving Bourjos to a corner outfield position would hurt his value based on the relative values of the positions. He isn’t a slam-dunk, tremendous offensive player, and derives a lot of his value from playing centerfield so incredibly well.
Third, the Angels are likely to use Mark Trumbo in one corner next year, and they have interest in bringing Torii Hunter back to play the other spot. They could also continue to use Vernon Wells in the other corner. If everything works out, there literally isn’t a spot for Bourjos in the lineup. While he provides value as a reserve, he could bring back a decent haul that would benefit the Angels more than his sporadic playing time.
Who would the Phillies trade? It’s not going to be anything like the Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt or Hunter Pence deals, but it’s not going to be inconsequential. It might take one of their two catchers, but then dealing one of them was always in the cards. One of Sebastian Valle and Tommy Joseph is more likely to benefit the Phillies as a trade chip than as a legitimate catching option. The Phillies are also flush with young arms, which could greatly aid an Angels organization that might not retain Zack Greinke, just traded Ervin Santana, and is likely to decline Dan Haren‘s option.
The Phillies don’t have an elite farm system but recent moves and the developments of previously unheralded players have gradually strengthened it. They have pieces to deal now and aren’t restricted to the free agent pool to make a move. And if said move involves bringing in a young, pre-arb/team-controlled player, it’s hard to argue with that move.
Mostly everything here has been positive, but we have to acknowledge negatives. Bourjos isn’t established as a solid hitter yet, and there is inherent risk that he never develops. In his lone full season, when he played regularly, he hit .271/.327/.438, with a good wOBA and a wRC+ 13 percent better than the league. In his two sandwiching partial seasons — 2010 and 2012 — he has hit considerably worse, with respective wRC+ marks of 65 and 72.
He provided plenty of value in both seasons, tallying 1.9 WAR each year in under 200 PAs, but he hit about as well as Mayberry did prior to August. The key here is not to trust any specific season more than another, but rather to evaluate Bourjos based on his career marks, and estimate his true talent level by regressing him to the mean.
Because 552 of his career 940 PAs came in his 2011 campaign, the stats are obviously skewed in that direction, but a conservative estimate of his true talent level would peg him about 7-9 percent below average as a hitter. While being below average as a hitter is obviously worse than being average or above, what is of more interest is his overall value. He can afford to be 7-9 percent below average at the plate because he more than makes up for it by creating runs on the bases and saving runs in the field. Evaluating certain components of a player’s game is important, but overall value matters far more.
The risk here is that his 2011 season was fluky and that he really is a poor hitter in the 70 wRC+ range. There is no concrete answer for that, which is unnerving. The Phillies outfield is a question mark on the whole, and adding another risky player to the mix might not be palatable. That is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, and maybe in that context, Bourjos is better as a last resort plan if others like Upton or Pagan get big offers elsewhere. In other words, while his elite fielding, solid baserunning and offensive potential mean he could easily hit the 4 WAR mark over a full season, he might not be worth the risk given that, compounded with the other outfield risks on the roster, the situation could deteriorate quickly.
The Phillies have plenty of options at their disposal, and Jon Heyman has reported that they are considered frontrunners for B.J. Upton. If they opt to think a little differently, they could potentially fill the position for years to come with a cheap and very effective, very productive, under-the-radar player that plays the position better than just about everyone else. Again, there is no wrong answer to the centerfield issue as long as they don’t go crazy breaking the bank for Hamilton or Bourn. I would be perfectly happy with Upton or Pagan or Victorino as well. Bourjos represents an interesting alternative to those oft-discussed options, however, that could help the Phillies for years to come while allowing them to allocate funds elsewhere.