CD's Connect The Dots... Bourn To Run

CD's Connect The Dots... Bourn To Run

Maddening, thy name is Philadelphia Phillies. At almost warp like speed, this team can play as a National League champion one day and an equally dismal outcast club the next. Interestingly enough, an outfielder who has rarely played seems to have the same change of pace. Yet there is much to like about speedy outfielder, Michael Bourn, an athlete...Bourn to run.

While it may seem odd to focus at this time on a fly-chaser with a mere 35 at bats and not yet 10 hits on the season, instinct and reason speak to the fact that sooner rather than later, rookie outfielder Michael Bourn will become a valued member of the Phillie starting lineup. Perhaps not within the month, but probably before the end of summer.

The signs are everywhere, and as the whispers get louder and louder of potential moves involving either Pat Burrell or Aaron Rowand, the apparent winner when the dust settles will be the young Mr. Bourn, a player the Phils have valued almost since they drafted him in the fourth round out of the University of Houston in the June 2003 draft.

In perhaps the clubs weakest draft since the turn of the century, the Phils are counting on Bourn and right-hander, Kyle Kendrick, to provide some semblance of return on what also featured such forgettable players as Tim Moss, Matt Linder and Jason Crosland. Still, should Bourn eventually become the player the team envisions him becoming, and should the righty Kendrick continue his progress through the system, the '03 draft will have been spared much disdain and criticism.

Much was made of the fact that Michael Bourn made the major league club out of spring training after less than half a season in Triple-A during the 2006 campaign. Equally confusing to many were the reasons that the Phils felt compelled to keep Bourn on the major league roster. Other than as a speedy pinch-runner and an occasional late inning defensive assignment for Burrell in the outfield, Bourn has spent much of the first third of the season doing little else.

Yet, the Phils have been impressed with his base stealing ability [9-for-9 on the basepaths] and he has shown outstanding range and defensive skill in the outfield. Although he has started less than a handful of games as the leadoff hitter, he has also displayed a solid batting eye and an ability to score when he gets on base.

Much like the team he plays for however, Michael Bourn has shown the disquieting trend of turning on a dime, one moment wowing the club with his athleticism and skill and in another moment frustrating them with his lack of concentration and base running wisdom.

Twice in one week, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Bourn's lack of base running knowledge cost the Phils dearly. In the first game, he slowed down heading for second base on what he thought was a game ending ground ball to first base. When the ball went through the first baseman's legs, Bourn attempted to turn on the afterburners but was eventually held at third base.

The final out came moments later and the Phils had lost by one run, a run Bourn might have scored had he been running hard from the moment the ground ball was hit. Instead, his indecision caused him to stop at third base, and the Phils lost a valuable game.

Two nights later he was on second base in the ninth inning of a one run game with slugger Ryan Howard at the plate. The Phils trailed 4-3 but had only one out and seemingly the right man at the plate. The D'backs played Howard the way most teams do, with an exaggerated shift towards right field.

Everyone seemed to notice this shift except Bourn and when Howard rifled a ball directly at an infielder he was off with the swing of the bat. The problem was that the shift had caused the line drive to head directly at a D'back infielder, positioned perfectly due to the shift. Bourn was easily doubled off second base and the Phils had lost another tough game.

Still, Bourn performs much like the team he plays for, and two nights later he made a sparkling defensive gem in left field to save a victory for lefty Cole Hamels. This catch was certainly worthy of web gem mention and helped the Phils end a 4 game losing streak, a streak that Bourn had helped start with his poor baserunning.

The Michael Bourn story began when the Phillies selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 amateur draft after he had performed well but not spectacularly during his three year career at the University of Houston. A natural left handed hitter, Bourn had fashioned collegiate batting averages of .303, .328 and .330 during his three seasons at Houston.

These numbers hardly stand out in the collegiate game nowadays, what with the advent of smaller parks and aluminum bats, but the Phils were impressed with his strike zone knowledge and fell quickly in love with his speed, defense and ability to bat first in the order.

He signed quickly and began the steady and often spectacular climb through the Phillie system. His rookie season at Batavia saw him steal 23 bases in a mere 35 games and he improved on this during his second professional season with 57 stolen bases and a stellar .317 batting average at Lakewood. This was the season that the Phils began to suspect they had a future major leaguer in their midst.

Much like they had done in previous seasons, most notably with star second baseman Chase Utley, the Phils decided to challenge the 22 year old Bourn with a double jump from Low Full-Season A ball to Double-A Reading for the 2005 season. Predictably enough, Bourn had the typical up and down campaign that often accompanies a jump of this nature.

Oh, there were the 38 stolen bases, rifle arm in the outfield and a workman like 135 games in the outfield. He even hit an acceptable .268 though the team was privately hoping for a bit more given his outstanding speed. And, there were the weaknesses to his game to suggest that he was not yet ready for the bright lights of Broadway.

Most alarmingly, Michael Bourn struck out a staggering 123 times at Reading in 2005 and for a leadoff hitter, this number is completely unacceptable. His walk totals began to slip a bit also. Always considered a patient hitter at the plate, Bourn instead to swing recklessly at times, contributing in large part to the high strikeout totals.

When the organization's players reported to spring training in February of 2006 it was widely expected that Bourn would receive another promotion, this time to Triple-A at Scranton. Instead the Phils made it clear to the speedy outfielder that he would have to return to Reading earn his right to move up to Triple-A.

Angry and confused, he struggled for nearly six weeks before snapping out of it and finally earned the promotion to Triple-A for the final 38 games of the season. In all, his average improved at Scranton to .283 and his baserunning continued to be one of the best part of his game. In all, he stole 45 bases and was expected to use this late push to help him improve at Triple-A this year.

Quite frankly, few people within the Phillie system expected him to make the big club out of spring training. After all, Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino had the starting spots wrapped up and over the winter the Phils had signed free agents Jayson Werth and Karim Garcia. Both were expected to make the team out of spring.

Surprisingly, the Phils elected to keep Bourn on the 25 man major league roster and let go of Garcia, a veteran who had recently returned from a two year stint in Japan. This might have provided a tiny insight into just how highly they rate Michael Bourn and just how much they think he can help them with their hoped for pennant push over the summer.

Clearly, the Phils would like to eventually find a spot for Bourn in the starting lineup and when this happens, watch for him to soon replace shortstop Jimmy Rollins in the leadoff spot. He is a natural born leadoff hitter and could eventually steal 50 bases a season given the encouragement that new coach Davy Lopes has instilled in the Phillie baserunners this year.

Watch for the Phils to try and move either Burrell or Rowand at the trading deadline on July 31 and if and when this happens, watch for Bourn to slide comfortably into the starting outfield. Anything less than this would almost make a mockery of the Phils decision to keep him on the big league roster, given his relative inexperience at the Triple-A level.

Another factor to consider is that teams almost always believe it is better for a young talent like Bourn to play regularly in the minor leagues than toil only occasionally in the big leagues. The Phils are no exception when it comes to this belief system and have said so many times.

The fact that they felt it more essential for Bourn to learn from the likes of Lopes, Rollins and Victorino speaks volumes about how the Phils see his skills and how quickly they will probably translate into the Phillie lineup. Yet, for this to happen, either an injury must occur to one of the Phils current starting outfielders or a trade for Burrell or Rowand must take place soon.

Interestingly enough, both names have been mentioned recently in trade talks and it does seem likely that those talks will increase rather than decrease as the July 31 deadline quickly approaches. In fact, the Phils must soon decide whether or not to be buyers or sellers once June turns to July and given their peripatetic ways this year, it might not be easy to decipher whether the team is headed up or down when July comes.

If ever there was a team that seemingly enjoyed the daily rides of a Roller coaster it would appear to be this years Philadelphia Phillies. Truth be told, one rarely knows whether they are coming or going when it comes to a ride on the Phillie Express, a vehicle that almost interchangeably shifts gears and directions at the drop of a hat.

The same club that went into enemy territory in both Atlanta and New York and came out with three-game sweeps of both the Braves and Mets is also the team that allowed a young Diamondback team to sweep them in Philadelphia during the same period. Clearly, this is a team with a split personality and the prevailing feeling is becoming more obvious with each triumph or defeat...this is a team that is more suited to play on the road than at Citizens Bank Park.

The reasons are not so obvious, though theory and conjecture are worthy of report. For one thing, the Phils remain a fairly thin skinned group of players and Philadelphia is no place to wear your skin thin. The team almost always appears tightly wound and uncomfortable when playing in front of the home crowd and pitchers seem to throw with less confidence at CBP.

This is undoubtedly due to the perception, if not complete reality, that the Phils new playpen is a pitchers worse nightmare and a hitters greatest delight. Seasonal statistics tend to disprove this theory but in the greatest Phillie example of perception becoming reality, the baseball world has viewed the teams new stadium as somewhat of a travesty. Phan friendly? Indeed. Great sightlines? Absolutely! Short fences? Without a doubt!

This continuing vexation with the stadium perception has caused the Phils to continue their practice of drafting young hurlers whenever possible. Last season, they used their top amateur pick to select high school pitching phenom, Kyle Drabek and this past week they made another Texas hurler, lefty Joe Savery, their top pick. Savery is the latest pitching phenom from the University of Rice and may begin his professional career as a relief pitcher.

Yet, as poorly as the team plays at home, they play equally well on the road. On foreign turf they appear loose, confident and relaxed and it is well known that a baseball player will perform best when he is feeling all of the above. How this will eventually translate for the Phils remains to be seen, but the feeling persists that should the team make a run at the National League East title this summer, Michael Bourn will become one of their primary runners.

The reasons for the potential moving of Burrell or Rowand are as diverse as they are logical. In Pat Burrell's case, the Phils have finally become completely frustrated with his inability to improve his hitting techniques after far too many seasons of trying. Perhaps no player currently on the clubs roster could more quickly help to turn around the teams fortunes than Pat Burrell.

A power-hitting right-hander in the middle of a lineup dominated by lefties like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Burrell would command an imposing presence should he ever return to the form of his early seasons with the Phightins'. Unfortunately for both he and the team, this may never occur in Philadelphia and there are now rumblings that for the first time since he signed with the Phils back in the Summer of '98, he might be agreeable to a trade. Stay tuned.

In the case of Aaron Rowand, this has more to do with his impending free agency than anything else. Clearly, the Phils cannot decide whether or not to re-sign the popular centerfielder and with each passing day that option appears more remote. It does not help the team's chances that Rowand is currently enjoying a banner season offensively and will likely be wooed by several teams during the off-season, most notably the Chicago White Sox.

In fact, this is still the team that is most often mentioned when discussions about Aaron Rowand deals come to print. The Phils still seem intent on obtaining relief help if possible and names like righty Mike MacDougal and lefties Boone Logan and Matt Thornton continue to make the rounds. In any event, dealing either Rowand or Burrell will free the Phils to start Michael Bourn in the outfield.

Of course, should this happen, the club will need to address the notion that with both Bourn and Shane Victorino in the outfield the team is likely to have the least powerful flychasers in baseball, even if Burrell remains with the club. Rowand, at least, is capable of 15-20 home runs while Bourn will hit perhaps 4-5 in a good season. Victorino is a tad more powerful than that, but not much.

Nonetheless, the team has considered the possibility of moving current leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins down in the order and this might transpire should Bourn become the starting center fielder. The Phils might well envision a top of the order with Bourn and Victorino as the top two table setters for the more powerful strokes of Mssrs. Utley, Howard, Burrell and Rollins. Perhaps.

As the Phils continue their unpredictable ride to who knows where this season, the ongoing tide of the team continues to turn. It will surprise no one if either Freddy Garcia or Jon Lieber are moved before the trade deadline and, given the announced signing of ancient reliever Jose Mesa to a contract, the team might decide that returning former ace Brett Myers to the rotation isn't such a bad idea after all.

Rumors also continue to persist that current General Manager Pat Gillick may soon become the president of the Seattle Mariners, a move that could leave the Phils in a complete state of flux. Gillick recently bought a home in Seattle and despite repeated denials, this is a story that appears to have legs. Should he leave, watch for Asst. GM Ruben Amaro to replace him.

Still, those are discussions for another day, as are the eventual prospects of stardom for one Michael Bourn, rookie outfielder-in-waiting with the Philadelphia Phillies. His eventual place among the stars in the National League remains to be seen, but regardless of his spot on the charts, one thing will continue to remain clear.

What remains clear is that Michael Bourn will use his legs and speed to both frustrate and fascinate his team and future opponents because in the end this is a baseball player who was...Bourn to run.

Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast.

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