The Atlanta Braves had been unable to find an adequate center fielder for years following the departure of Andruw Jones. The team tried with guys such as Gregor Blanco, Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer, and all of them failed to be long-term solutions.
Then came the 2011 trade deadline which brought Michael Bourn to Atlanta. All eyes were on Hunter Pence, but anyone who took a quick glance at the two player's stats knew Bourn was the true star dealt at the deadline.
Bourn solidified center field for the Braves like none of his afore mentioned predecessors did. He was worth a little more than eight wins in his one-and-one-third seasons when going by WAR, which is phenomenal. He gave the club a legitimate leadoff hitter, a stud defensive outfielder and a great presence in the clubhouse. It was a perfect fit.
All of this being said, Bourn, who is a 30-year-old free agent this offseason, should not be back in Atlanta next season or beyond.
It's a far too common theme in Major League Baseball: players who rely solely on their speed to be productive do not age well. Whether it be Chone Figgins, Juan Pierre or any other veteran with an awful, team-hindering contract right now, keeping speedsters past their prime is almost always a recipe for disaster.
Bourn likely has an above-average season or two left in him before his production begins to steeply decline. Unless the projections are way off, he's likely to see a deal for at least five years, if not longer.
The Braves cannot afford a contract like that. It'll be tough to part with Bourn, but it's a move the club must make as they continue to be limited financially.
So what are the options?
On the free agent market, there could be a few fits. B.J. Upton's name has been linked to Atlanta in recent years. The enigmatic center fielder has more natural talent than most in the league, although attitude and work ethic questions have followed him throughout his career. And given that one team will likely overpay for what he could be -- instead of what he's done the last few years -- it's tough to see him coming to Atlanta.
Shane Victorino is probably the most likely option out there. Love him or hate him for his flamboyant style, but the soon-to-be 32-year-old outfielder can still be a productive player. The biggest issue with Victorino is exactly that: he'll turn 32 in a month, is coming off the worst offensive season of his career and may no longer be able to handle the defensive rigors in center.
If Victorino is willing to settle for a two- or three-year deal, he could be a fit with the Braves. My bet is he wants more than that and eventually lands elsewhere.
Then there's the trade market. This is where I think Atlanta finds their guy.
There really are a bunch of options here. Well-known names such as Dexter Fowler and Denard Span make a lot of sense, as do possible up-and-comers in the mold of Peter Bourjos or Ben Revere. The common theme with all of these players is that none of them will come to Atlanta unless serious pitching talent is dealt in exchange.
As general manager Frank Wren showed at this year's trade deadline with Randall Delgado, he is no longer afraid of moving a pitching prospect (or two) to gain an attractive piece. It seems much more likely Wren elects to deal a prospect or two for one of these players than overpay for someone in free agency.
There are a couple players I would be OK with, but my guy is Span. And there are a bunch of reasons why he makes perfect sense for Atlanta.
Span is 28 years old. That's typically when players begin to hit the prime of their career.
He's a career .284/.357/.389 hitter, which ranks him above average for center fielders. He won't steal a ton of bases, although he's regarded as a solid base runner and could swipe 25 bases if healthy all season.
Whether it be UZR or DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), Span ranks amongst the best center fielders in baseball. His +20 DRS was the second best in either league last season behind only Bourn. He would be coming over from the spacious Target Field, so a transition to the roomy gaps at Turner Field should not be an issue.
The final aspect of all this -- and perhaps the most important aspect of it all -- is Span's contract. He is set to earn $4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014 and has a friendly club option for $9 million once 2015 rolls around.
If the Braves were to acquire Span, they would have about $20 million remaining to spend on acquiring a power-hitting left fielder or third baseman, whichever Martin Prado was not occupying. That money could also be used to work out a long-term contract extension for Jason Heyward and/or Freddie Freeman, who are clearly the two players worthy of leading the franchise for the foreseeable future.
The price in prospects may be high, but Span seems like the perfect fit for the Braves for next season and beyond.