If I had to make one prediction about a remarkably unpredictable Phillies offseason that unofficially begins at the GM meetings this week, it's that one of the club's two young, athletic, inexpensive outfielders--Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn--will be traded. Indeed, rumor already has it that the team will dangle both in prospective deals for pitching.
But which one should they look to trade away? It's a complicated decision, hinging on not just the merits of the two players themselves but how other roster decisions--how far to go in bringing back Aaron Rowand and what happens at third base, among others--play out. Below I try to set out the case for trading and keeping each player, but first some 2007 stats.
Victorino: 510 plate appearances, .281 average, .347 OBP, .423 SLG, 12 HR, 46 RBI, 37 SB/5 CS, 17.1 VORP, 94 OPS+, 3.7 P/PA, .302 BA/BIP, 12 Win Shares
Bourn: 133 plate appearances, .277 average, .348 OBP, .378 SLG, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 18 SB/1 CS, 6.0 VORP, 85 OPS+, 4.0 P/PA, ,330 BA/BIP, 4 Win Shares
Keep in mind that Win Shares and VORP reflect playing time, so the fact that Victorino had nearly four times as many plate appearances as Bourn somewhat accounts for the discrepancy. League average for batting average on balls in play is approximately .300; league average for OPS+ is 100.
Let's look at Victorino first. He'll play the 2008 season at age 27, for which Baseball Prospectus projected him as of spring 2007 to be good for .292/.350/.465 triple-slash numbers and a VORP measure of 16.9. Given Shane's leap in base-stealing accomplishment this year, it will be interesting to see by how much BP revises upward its 2008 estimate that he'd steal 9 bases in 13 attempts. Victorino is regarded as an above-average defensive centerfielder; as a right fielder he's borderline excellent, with a Zone Rating of .930 that led NL RFs, and his 10 assists were second only to Atlanta's Jeff Francouer. If he stays with the Phillies in 2008, Victorino presumably would return to right field if Rowand comes back, and shift to center if he does not.
Why deal him? Victorino is two years older than Bourn, and a year closer to free agency; he'll get expensive sooner. Shane's big steal and assist totals might give tools-fixated GMs the sense that he's better than he is; he might be the one player outside the Howard/Utley/Rollins/Hamels core that could land an impact pitcher.
Why keep him? Unlike both Bourn and Rowand, Victorino's 2007 numbers were actually better on the road (.307/.350/.465) than at home. His power is valuable, especially if Rowand departs, and not a CBP fluke: Victorino hit six homers each at home and on the road, in 228 at-bats each. (Creepy, no?) And while he's older than Bourn, one can make an argument they're at similar points on the developmental curve: playing high school ball in Hawaii, Victorino didn't face the same quality of competition, and his minor-league stats show a guy who improved as he moved up the levels of competitive ball. Another hint of this is that his walk rate dramatically improved in 2007--from 5.2 percent of his plate appearances in 2006 to 7.3 this season--and is likely to keep getting better.
Now Bourn. He'll play 2008 at age 25, for which BP projected him as of last spring at .278/.353/.414 in 486 plate appearances, with a VORP of 11.2. Bourn too is assessed as an above-average centerfielder, though not quite at Victorino's level. Since most of his 2007 defensive action came as Pat Burrell's late-game caddy in left field, where he showed terrific range, we have little new data to suggest or disprove the general perception that he's an asset in the field. If retained, Bourn's role on the 2008 Phillies could be starting centerfielder, a platoon role in any of the three outfield slots, or the fourth/fifth outfielder job he held this past season.
Why deal him? In 2007, Bourn was used in such a way that his strengths were emphasized while his vulnerabilities were hidden. The 18-of-19 stolen base success rate will catch the eye of any GM who promises his ownership and fan base "an aggressive style," and Bourn's range in the field will appeal to any executive trying to bolster the confidence of a young pitching staff. Those weaknesses, meanwhile, are pretty significant: against lefties in 2007, Bourn hit a horrendous .154/.241/.192 in 29 plate appearances, and his anemic power is really going to stick out in CBP. Unfortunately, there's little in his minor-league track record to suggest he's got more pop than has been seen thus far. Finally, Bourn's 2007 BABIP was .330, suggesting his underlying performance was worse than the numbers suggest.
Why keep him? The same qualities that should make Bourn attractive to other teams make him appealing as a Phillie in 2008 and beyond. There's little question his glove will play in centerfield, and as long as Pat Burrell or other lumbering dinosaur types are found in one or both corners, that's pretty valuable. Bourn also has the potential to be that true pest of a leadoff hitter the Phillies haven't had since Dykstra--not that I'm complaining about Jimmy Rollins, who might win MVP honors, but if Rollins were to drop to the mid-order spot his increasing power numbers suggest, Bourn could be the on-base/speed guy from Central Casting. As a rookie in limited playing time--the circumstance in which one would most expect an overly aggressive plate approach--he drew walks in 9.8 percent of his plate appearances. With regular action, that rate likely would improve, maybe even to the level of his outstanding 2004 minor-league campaign, and his speed turns a lot of those walks and singles into effective doubles.
Conclusion:I think the two key factors here are whether or not the Phillies re-sign Rowand, and whether Victorino has as much trade value as I'd like to believe. If Rowand comes back, Victorino's expendable, and he should be dealt leaving Bourn as the fourth outfielder or platoon partner for Jayson Werth. If Rowand leaves, Shane's power is more important and he should be kept, trading Bourn for whatever pitching help he can fetch. Of course, if Victorino (and other pieces) somehow can command an Erik Bedard in trade, that probably overrides all other considerations and contingencies.