Orbiting Cleveland: Bourn leaving leadoff spot is right move for Indians

“Patient,” “Stubborn,” “Loyal to a fault.” They’re all traits that have been used to describe Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.

For better or worse, Francona has always been the type of manager who gives his players the benefit of the doubt. Even when a player struggles, sometimes for months at a time, Francona hesitates to make a change. It’s what’s fueled his reputation as a players’ manager. It’s also a reason why his teams are viewed as appealing destinations for free agents.

Case and point: Would Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have ever signed with Cleveland had it not been for Francona?

That being said, in the rare instances where Francona does opt for changes, it’s clear that it’s a drastic situation. This should help provide some context as to just how bad things have gotten with Michael Bourn.

In the Indians’ 8-6 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, Michael Bourn did not hit leadoff, the first time in 252 career games with the Indians that Bourn did not bat in that spot. To find the last time he did not start elsewhere other than leadoff, you have to go all the way back to June 28, 2011, when he batted second for Houston.

Knowing that, one can only imagine how difficult of a decision this was for Francona. Bourn is one of Francona’s guys, which is clear every time you hear the Tribe skipper affectionately refer to the centerfielder as “Bournie.”

However, if Francona is being honest with himself, it was the only decision to make. Overall, Bourn is hitting just .169 on the young 2015 campaign. He’s stolen just one base while being caught twice, and FanGraphs estimates that he’s been worth -0.3 wins this season. Yes, it’s been that bad.

The sad part is that it was not supposed to be like this. This offseason, Bourn spent time working with former Olympian Leroy Burrell, head track and field coach at the University of Houston. Health has been a factor with Bourn in the past, but it appeared as if he was taking all the necessary steps to rectify the situation.

As Francona said back in January, “You don't see a lot of veteran players do what Bournie did. Brad Mills (bench coach) went and watched him workout and said he's really getting after it. He understands what we need from him. When he gets on base, he has to disrupt the game.”

Except, disruption has only really been a rumor with Bourn since he signed on with the Indians prior to the 2013 season. He averaged 51 steals a year over a five-year period from 2008 through 2012, but has managed just 23 and 10 steals, respectively, during his first two seasons with the Tribe. He’s not off to a much better start this season either.

Hitting has been a rumor with regard to Bourn as well. His OBP has never been above .316 in any of his seasons with the Indians. That’s far off from the .348 that he averaged in the four seasons that preceded his stint with the Tribe.

As noted above, injuries have often been pinpointed as one of the reasons for Bourn’s struggles, but when does that argument change? Bourn was supposed to be in the best shape of his life for this season. He was supposed to “wreck havoc” on the bases. Instead, he’s wrecked havoc on this lineup.

As EHC’s Jim Pete said yesterday in his Corner of Carnegie and Ontario column, “What about Michael Bourn?  He's just not very good. I've been an apologist of his over the past two-plus seasons. Maybe it was the injuries. Maybe it was age. But, if he could just be healthy, he could reach glories of year's past. Nope. You can pull out some weeks here and there where he's been good, but it's never been consistent, and mostly horrifically inconsistent. If you are hitting lead-off, you need to get on base... period.”

Yesterday, it finally appears as if Francona came to the same conclusion that Pete, myself and much of EHC’s baseball contingent figured out months ago: Michael Bourn is not who we thought he was, and it’s only getting worse.

This is not to fault the Indians for the signing of Bourn. I, like many others, was excited the moment that they signed Bourn. It’s not worked out, but that’s a forgivable mistake. In his open letter to General Manager Chris Antonetti, EHC’s Adam Burke touched on this, writing, “Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher were justifiable gambles that have not paid off due to injuries. I cannot slight you, or the organization, for that. Sure, signing players on the wrong side of 30 to lucrative free agents contracts is debatable, but the signs of aging were not entirely prevalent and the expectation was to get market value or better in the first two years of the contract to make the last two years bearable. This is my “I forgive you” moment for those signings. I, as I always have, justified them, came to terms with them, and agreed with them. They have not worked. That’s the business of baseball.”

Unfortunately, the business of baseball basically requires that the Indians continue to play Bourn for the remainder of his contract. Including this season and next, he’s owed $27.5 million. Ponder that for a moment. We still owe nearly $30 million to a player who has equaled exactly 2.2 wins in his two-plus seasons with the team. Are you cringing as well?

Without question, players like Tyler Holt, James Ramsey or Tyler Naquin could join this club and at least offer the exact same type of production, yet at a much lower cost. However, we know there are 27.5 million reasons why that’s not going to happen.

As long as the Indians are strapped to this contract, Bourn will be played, likely in high frequency. We cannot expect them to just eat that type of money.

However, what we can expect the team to do is minimize the damage. Sunday was a good step toward doing that.

In his first appearance in the No. 9 hole, Bourn went 0-for-4 with an RBI and a strikeout. It was nothing really dissimilar to what he’s been doing in the leadoff spot.

However, even a 32-year-old Bourn has some baseball skills, albeit declining ones. We already know that the Indians are never going to make good on this Bourn contract, but having him bat No. 9 does help lengthen the lineup a bit.

At the very least, Francona deserves some credit. The season is barely three weeks old, but he’s taken a step toward fixing the lineup. It seems minor, but given Francona’s personality, this not an easy decision for him to make.

Baby steps? Perhaps. But it’s still progress, regardless of how small these steps may seem.
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