Bearing Out The Bourn Situation

Sandy Alderson, being quite content with himself - Andrew Burton

The Michael Bourn horse has been run pretty ragged in the last couple weeks, so I figured it was the perfect time for me to come out of hiding, just to keep you nutty readers from getting too fed up with it.

Much ado has been made about the peculiar way in which the Mets' front office has been going about their negotiations with Michael Bourn. They've not only publicly acknowledged interest, but also publicly acknowledged the hurdle of draft pick compensation. Even stranger, they've publicly revealed that they will not request Major League Baseball make a ruling on the complicated draft pick compensation issue until after they already have an agreement in place.

On the surface, this is all quite perplexing. Wouldn't the Mets want to know whether they'll be able to maintain ownership of their draft selection before they agree to terms? And why all the transparency? It goes completely against traditional wisdom, especially when dealing with a master manipulator like Scott Boras. Is this just the next giant mess the Mets have found their way into, or is there something else going on?

Let's consider the alternative--a possible world in which the Mets were staying mum with the media, quietly asking MLB to protect their pick, and having secret late night flirtations with Scott Boras. Let's also say that MLB agreed to protect the Mets' pick. Where would that leave negotiations with Boras?

Boras would be able to argue that once the Mets' draft pick became protected, their cost of acquiring Bourn instantly dropped. He would argue that some of that reduced cost should in turn translate into compensation for his client. He'd do everything he could to try to trap the Mets into bidding against themselves, and he'd have plenty of ammunition to do it with. And even if the Mets refused to bite, he could sell some other shill on the notion that the Mets had upped their offer--a plausible bluff once the Mets are no longer at risk of losing their precious draft pick anymore.

Now let's consider reality as it stands today--where anyone who follows a Mets beat reporter on Twitter knows exactly what's happening between the club and Bourn's representatives, and where the Mets have openly declined to request clarification on the draft compensation issue.

Since it's unclear whether the Mets' pick will be protected or not, Boras can't use that as leverage. From a negotiating standpoint, the Mets can and should treat the situation as though signing Bourn would mean losing the pick. However, there's still some chance that signing Bourn wouldn't cost them their pick. Loss aversion is a powerful bias, even if it is just a bias. By declining to push a ruling, Alderson can maintain a position rooted in loss aversion without actually having to worry about it coming back to bite him.

Further, by commenting so openly on everything, a portion of Boras's market is forced out into the open. With a team like the Mets--who are ostensibly quite low on the short term win curve and who are risking a high value draft pick by pursuing Bourn--so firmly entrenched in negotiations, any claims about "mystery teams" offering astronomical bodies for Bourn's services are going to smell pretty fishy. If Boras has such tempting offers, why hasn't he walked away from the Mets yet to focus on other suitors?

Sandy Alderson has built himself a rock solid negotiating position--one where he should feel no pressure to go beyond his preconceived limits, and can yet remain optimistic about his chances.

Venturing further into the realm of speculation, we can guess what said limits might entail. If part of the cost of acquiring Bourn might be a draft pick, it's perfectly reasonable for Alderson to stick to a position where he can try to recoup said loss via trade. That doesn't necessarily mean Alderson has to hope he can deal Bourn for elite prospects, just the value of a fairly high draft pick minus around $1.5 million (to account for the signing bonus teams pay when they draft such a player). That roughly translates into a prospect right on the fringe of Top 100 lists along with a bit of salary absorption.

There has also been some discussion about granting Bourn a multi-year contract with an opt-out clause after one season, which is a concession the Mets have little incentive not to make under the new rules. If Bourn opts out of a multi-year contract after a single season, it stands to reason that he will not accept a qualifying offer. In this scenario, the Mets can essentially turn the tables on the situation next year, putting themselves in a position of receiving another team's draft pick as compensation for Bourn's departure. It might not be the 11th pick, but it wouldn't have to be when you've already gotten a high quality season out of Bourn (which we can assume it would have to be, if Bourn is opting out).

While the whole courtship between the Mets and Michael Bourn may seem bizarre and unusual, Sandy Alderson has given himself yet another chance to look brilliant from a future retrospect. The Mets might get Bourn, they might not have to pay an exorbitant amount, they may still get the 11th pick in the draft, and may also be able to later use Bourn as an asset in trade or to net themselves an extra draft pick next year. Such a desirable outcome is certainly worth the risk of "just" having to live with a decent player like Bourn without any of these bonuses for a few years. It's hard to imagine the Mets getting all that potential gravy under a more traditional approach to the situation. And if Bourn goes elsewhere it's simply a case of no harm, no foul.

Update: As fellow writer Michael Donato was quick to point out, if Bourn opted out and the Mets made a qualifying offer, they would not directly receive the pick forfeited by the team that then inked Bourn, but rather a supplemental "sandwich" round pick. This doesn't change things too much, but it does make a sign, opt out, and qualifying offer scenario a bit less appealing.

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