Michael Bourn threatens the White Sox death-grip on second place


If there’s been a comfort in the White Sox mediocrity in recent years, where they have repeatedly taken out a lease on the second place spot in the American League Central, it’s that they have always existed as the last enemy to be vanquished for the eventual division champions. One has to at least be in attendance to become a footnote to history

A lot of that has been aided by the Royals and Indians, neither of whom have put together a winning season since 2007. As such, competing in the division has been simplified to “beat the Tigers”, or “beat the Twins”. This off-season, the both sorrow-laden clubs declared war on that idea with frenzied grabs for veteran talent.

While the Royals swung the biggest trade to bring in James Shields, the Indians have been the most active. Even when they weren’t acquiring actually decent players, they were still acquiring names–Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Daisuke Matusaka, Jason Giambi, Ryan Raburn, Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir, Matt Capps, Ben Francisco, Trevor Bauer, Drew Stubbs and now, to presumably cap it off, Michael Bourn is coming on a four-year, $48 million deal with a vesting option for a fifth.

"Fun fact: Making lots of moves doesn’t necessarily mean your team improved a lot.— Nick Schaefer (@n_schaef) February 12, 2013"

This is true, Nick, but perceptions of apathy that result in a second-to-last place marks in MLB attendance need to be combatted with broad gestures. The Indians haven’t been able to interest their fan base with flash-in-the-pan starts to the season, and are now looking to ignite passions by setting fire to the notion that big-money free agents cannot be lured to the city of Cleveland.

For that, they’re certainly better in the immediate (and dangerous in the future if this represents a new willingness to spend), and with protection of their first-round pick assured, it’s not at a disastrous price. Instead of looking for Drew Stubbs to rebound to the 2010 form, the Indians now have a proven above-average center fielder to slot in and a athletic, lefty-masher fourth outfielder to play around with. However, it’s notable how tenuous Bourn’s hold on being above-average is.

The 2012 line of .274/.348/.391 for a 104 wRC+ actually represents the best offensive performance of Bourn’s career. His existence as a player who can turn down qualifying offers and secure multi-year deals is based on elite baserunning and defense, which he certainly has, but may have trouble keeping as he enters his 30’s.

"4/48 is less than I thought he’d get, but Bourn is crazy risky. No carrying tool besides speed. Figgins-esque crater potential.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) February 12, 2013"

Between wondering whether Justin Masterson can bounce back from a rough season, or what has become of Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians will cobble a starting rotation together of back-from-the-bullpen Brett Myers, post-Tommy John Carlos Carrasco, the utterly serviceable Zach McAllister, and the still unrefined Trevor Bauer. They might reduce their reliance on Corey Kluber, but there’s not much above-average performance to be had there yet.

Teams with two-thirds of a contender built can be plenty pesky, and there should be a sense that if you haven’t beaten the 2013 Indians in the first six innings, you’re in trouble, but the only team in the division they have definitely separated themselves from is the Twins.

Until the season starts, and the surprise performances from players like Flowers and Viciedo actually take place, the White Sox cannot boast to be any more complete, leaving the two 90’s-rivals competing for an odd space–the formidable but incomplete team that nips at the heels of Detroit, hoping for a stumble or a wild card birth.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan