CD's Connect the Dots...The Race Is On
Michael Bourn in his college days.
Michael Bourn in his college days.

Posted Apr 19, 2004


Gentlemen, start your engines. The anxiety builds as the flag drops. As the crescendo of anticipation builds, it slowly settles downward, and the contestants start a run that will last a season, maybe two. Yet, the reality is that no matter how talented the two competitors are, they know that only one can be the winner. So, they run, without stopping, not even to pause for a second breath. A pause may be all that is needed for the opponent to get a lead he refuses to relinquish. The race is on.

Phillie fans, this is a race few fans are following.  It does not involve the daily box scores of a Marlin win or a Braves loss.  It has nothing to do with home field advantage in the playoffs, or wild card seedings in October.  Rather this is a race that involves two contestants, young outfielders Javon Moran and Michael Bourn.

 At stake is the probably future leadoff hitter in Philadelphia. To the winner go the spoils, to the loser, either an extended stay in the minor leagues or a trade to another organization. What makes this race so fascinating is the way the Phils have charted the course, almost as if they had planned it that way.

Face it, Phillie fans, Javon Moran and Michael Bourn are not household names outside of Philadelphia.  Few people outside the minor league followers or baseball draftniks are even aware of their presence.  Yet, one of them may hold the very key to the future success of a team that seems to lack for nothing but a dependable lead off hitter.

Close your eyes and pretend its 2007.  Ace hurlers Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd and Brett Myers lead a pitching staff that is the envy of teams from San Francisco to New York.  With sluggers Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd and Jake Blalock, the team is well fortified in the middle of the order.  Middle infielders Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are a fine double play combination, while 3rd base will be a battle between youngsters Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher.

While this may seem like only a dream, it certainly is more than that to the brain trust in Philadelphia, people like Mike Arbuckle, Ed Wade, Marti Wolever and Dallas Green.  To them, it is very much a possibility, but there was one thing missing.  In order for this machine to operate smoothly, it needed a top of the order speedster to ignite the engine.  Enter the 2003 Amateur Draft, when the Phils made a conscious decision to draft for speed, speed and more speed.

Although they were handicapped by the absence of first or second round draft picks due to the free agent signings of Jim Thome and David Bell, the Phils zeroed in on three collegiate speedsters who met their needs.  In the third round, they selected Texas Al-American second baseman, Tim Moss.

With picks in the fourth and fifth round, they selected outfielders Michael Bourn from Houston and Javon Moran from Auburn.  The similarities between the two were quite obvious to see.  Both were 5’11” and both weighed in at somewhere between 175-180 pounds.

Both played centerfield for top college baseball programs, and both were noted for one outstanding trait, their almost literal ability to fly around the base paths.  The Phils felt that given their talents, yet given the mortality rate of players attempting to make the grade from college to the big leagues, possibly one of them would be the future leadoff hitter with the Phils.

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this story, the race has become a two-player contest at this point.  Moss, having problems with high blood pressure, and the switch from aluminum to wooden bat, has been a dismal failure.  His average has rarely been over .100 and has never seen the light of .200.  At this point, he may well be written off as a third round bust.

Not so, Moran or Bourn. They have excited the Phillie organization in a way not seen since the days of Jeff Stone, a lefty-hitting outfielder who once stole 100 bases in the minor leagues.  However, while Stone was a speed demon with incomplete baseball skills, Moran and Bourn seem to have taken to the intricacies of professional baseball like a fish takes to water.

Lets take a closer look at these two racers, and make a fair guess as to who will cross the finish line and win the prize.  As mentioned, at first glance, they appear almost as twins, tall, lanky and athletic looking. Yet, a closer examination reveals a few subtle differences, the kind that may eventually lead to Citizens Bank Park.

While both were born in 1982, Javon is a few months older; having ben born on September 30 while Bourn’s birthday is December 27.  Also, Moran is a right-handed hitter, while Bourn hits from the left side.  This is a very subtle yet important difference, as Bourn is one step closer to first base, not unimportant when discussing the value of a lead off hitter.

Another important difference between the two is their plate discipline.  While Moran seems more of a free swinger, in the Jimmy Rollins mode, Bourn appears more patient, more willing to take a walk.  This may well be a prime consideration when a decision is ultimately made as to who stays, and who goes.

In college, both hit well over .300 for their careers, yet Moran showed walk totals of only 16, 9 and 11.  In 60 games at Batavia last summer, he walked 16 times.  Bourn, on the other hand, displayed good plate patience in college, with walk totals of 50, 46 and 23 bases on balls.  Though the drop in walks every year is a bit alarming, he regained his patience at Batavia, with 23 walks in 35 games.

Moran signed almost immediately last June and had the luxury of playing all summer. In 60 games, he hit .284, and stole 27 bases while being caught 11 times.  Bourn was a tougher sign, and didn’t begin playing until mid-July.  This did not stop him from stealing an eye-catching 23 bases in 35 games, while hitting a solid .280.

Clearly, the Phils were hopeful that they would continue their progress this year at full season Lakewood, but no one could have foreseen what has transpired in the early going for these two speedsters.  One thing is quite obvious… the Phils have given both players carte blanche to run at will, and they have taken this advice literally.

With Moran batting leadoff and Bourn hitting second, they have become a catcher’s worst nightmare, to the tune of 21 steals in 21 attempts!  Bourn has an astounding 13 steals in 9 games, while Moran has a more pedestrian total of 8 in 9 games.  The numbers are almost spellbinding.

In one game, they combined for 9 stolen bases, 5 by Moran and 4 by Bourn. In another game, Bourn stole 5 bases all by himself, with Moran contributing “only” one!  At this pace, Bourn will top 100 stolen bases and Moran will be very close to the century mark.

This early race to the finish line has made the Lakewood Blue Claws the darlings of Phillie minor league followers.  Not only have these two players captured everyone’s fancy, but the team also features such standout prospects as left fielder Jake Blalock, first baseman Bryan Hansen, third baseman Kiel Fisher and starting pitchers Scott Mathieson, Joe Wilson and Kyle Kendrick.

Infielders Moss and shortstop Carlos Rodriguez also grace the roster, though both are off to dismal starts.  Yet, it is the race between Moran and Bourn that has captured the fancy of most Phillie officials.  They recognize, better than most, the value of having a solid lead off hitter to set the table for the rest of the lineup.

Indeed, any Phillie historian will instantly recognize the necessity of a solid top of the order hitter and Phillie success in the won-lost column.  Quickly think of the best Phillie teams of the past half-century and they were all blessed with top-notch lead-off hitters.

The Whiz Kids were led by Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, still considered by most as the best lead off hitter in Phillie history.  It was not coincidental that as Ashburn’s star began to fall, so did the fortunes of the Phillies.

In the early 60’s Manager Gene Mauch and GM John Quinn recognized the need for a lead off hitter, and acquired one in Tony Taylor.  Within two years of his acquisition, the Phils were winning consistently, and this culminated in a near miss for a pennant in 1964.

When Taylor’s talents declined, so did the Phils, and it was not until the winter of 1973 did the Phils once again have a proto type lead off hitter.  Second baseman Dave Cash was brought over from Pittsburgh to bat first, hit consistently, and show the Phils how to win.  He did all three, and by 1976, the Phils were back in the playoffs. 

Though Cash left for Montreal, Bake McBride, Lonnie Smith and Pete Rose led the march to five playoff births, two World Series appearances and one world title.  Rose eventually left after the 1983 season, and it was not until Lenny Dykstra was acquired from the New York Mets in 1989 did the Phils once again fill their need for a top-notch lead off hitter.

Dykstra suffered through several injury plagued years, but when finally healthy in 1993, he had quite possibly the single greatest season a lead off hitter ever had.  Quite simply, his numbers were staggering.   Not only did he score 143 runs in 161 contests, but also he had time to hit 19 home runs, steal 37 bases, and hit for a .305 average.

Not surprisingly, he was the catalyst for one of the most exciting teams in Phillie history, one that came within two Mitch Williams’s meltdowns of a World Championship.  Equally not surprising, the downfall of the Phils coincided with the downfall of Dykstra.

This, then, had led us to the race between Moran and Bourn.  Oh, Manager Larry Bowa will say for public consumption that he has confidence in lead off hitters Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins.  He will point out that Byrd hit .303 last season, and that Rollins will very soon grasp the nuances of the top spot.  Don’t believe it!

While both Byrd and Rollins are fine players, and important roles to play in any future success the Phils may have, the truth is that the only legitimate lead off hitter on the Phillie roster is one who refuses to bat first… Bobby Abreu.  Byrd will eventually settle into the middle of the order, while Rollins lack of plate discipline will forever make him a bottom of the order hitter.

So, we cast an expectant eye towards Lakewood, and the two speedsters involved in a race to Philadelphia. While it is hoped that both will continue their success, the reality is that only one can grace the outfield grass of CBP.  Though equally talented, a team can only afford the luxury of one outfielder whose primary gift is speed.

No, the corner spots in 2007 are saved for the power bats of Burrell, Byrd, Blalock or possibly Abreu.  Only the vast reaches of center field is saved for a jackrabbit, one Javon Moran or Michael Bourn.  Though Bourn seems the more likely candidate, the Phils will not be choosy.  They like both players, and seem prepared to let both run fast and free until one separates himself from the other.

In the unlikely event that the race ends in a dead heat, then the Phils will kindly take bids from teams in need of a lead off threat.  The bids will be high, as players like Juan Pierre and Ichiro Suzuki are few and far between.  So, it certainly is in the best interests of all concerned for the race to be a high contested one, and with no clear winner.



In Philadelphia this summer, the hope is that a pennant race between the Phils, Marlins and Braves is an exciting and fast-paced one.  Expectations are high, and the winner will be the one who can maintain the course at optimum speed and efficiency.

Yet, in Lakewood, another exciting and fast-paced contest will continue, one that has high stakes ramifications for the Phillie future.  Cast your binoculars towards the two players batting first and second.  Keep a watchful eye, but don’t blink or you may just miss them as they present a blur on their way to stolen base records.  Fellows named Moran and Bourn.

The race is on…

Columnist’s Note:  I welcome suggestions, questions and comments.  Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond.  CD from the Left Coast


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