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Richard Justice

Bourn offers cornucopia of skills on open market

Justice: Bourn offers skills aplenty on open market

Bourn offers cornucopia of skills on open market
There was a time -- and not that long ago -- when some of us doubted Michael Bourn would ever be in this position. He's poised to make millions in free agency as an impact player at the top of the lineup and in center field, and the Nationals and Phillies are among several teams believed to be interested.

If that was all Bourn brought to the table, it would be plenty. In the last four seasons, he has averaged 93 runs, 54 stolen bases and a .348 on-base percentage. Still, in Bourn's case, there's much more.

He has one of those happy, infectious personalities that wears well during the grind of a baseball season. If Bourn has ever had a bad day, he has never let anyone know it.

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He shows up with a smile and believes in the old-fashioned ideas of working hard and never taking anything for granted. Branch Rickey once said it's impossible to really know a player until you have him on your team. That's how it is with Bourn. Some team is going to get a first-rate player, but it's going to get an even better man.

OK, back to his journey, one that speaks volumes about his toughness and commitment to maximizing every ounce of talent.

For instance, in 2008, his first full season as an everyday player, he batted .229. I know, I know. Batting average doesn't tell the whole story. Didn't then. Doesn't now. In this case, it told enough. Bourn struck out 111 times that season, drew 37 walks and had a .288 on-base percentage.

He was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Brad Lidge from the Astros to the Phillies, and while Lidge was helping the City of Brotherly Love win a World Series, Bourn was fighting his guts out to prove he belonged in the Major Leagues.

When the Astros showed up at Spring Training in 2009, Lance Berkman tapped Bourn on the shoulder one day and invited him to join him for a post-workout round of batting practice in the indoor cages.

Over the next few weeks, they did this almost every day, mostly with Berkman talking and Bourn listening. Berkman had some mechanical suggestions, but the lessons appeared to be mostly mental.

Some of it was as simple as going to home plate with a game plan for both the situation and the pitcher. Some of it was about dealing with failure, that is, accepting that sometimes the pitcher wins the battle.

It's very tough to get a Major League Baseball player to dramatically change his approach once he has arrived. Regardless of the struggles, he figures he made it doing things one way and would be a fool to change.

That's especially true in Bourn's case, because he had the gift of blazing speed. Even if he never became a good offensive player, he had a gift that was likely to keep him in the Major Leagues for a long time.

But what Bourn showed the Astros that spring -- and what he has shown managers, teammates and others in the years since -- is that he burns to be great. One of the things teammates remember about him is how hard he works and how committed he is to improving every part of his game.

(I have a photo somewhere of a Houston Little League team that had Bourn, Carl Crawford and Jason Bourgeois on it. All three future Major League outfielders played the infield on that team. Yes, they won a state championship.)

In those first years in the Major Leagues, Bourn was not a great defensive player either. But he fielded hundreds of balls over the years, improved both his jump and his route to fly balls. He studied hitters, ballparks, the whole nine yards.

Since hitting .229 in 2008, Bourn has batted .288 in four Major League seasons. He has led the National League in steals three times, is a two-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time All-Star. He was 18th in National League Most Valuable Player balloting this season.

At 29, he's not as good as he believes he can be. He hasn't said that, but I know him well enough to know that there's some part of his game -- bunting, throwing, running, something -- that he's committed to improving this offseason.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Bourn's 6.0 Wins Above Replacement number was tied with Chase Headley for sixth-best in the National League, just 1.2 points behind leader Buster Posey.

Whether you buy that number or not, there's no question some team is going to do a really smart thing in the next few weeks when it signs Bourn. That team is going to know it's getting a good player, but that's just going to be the beginning of what it'll be getting.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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