Justin K. Aller
Free agent outfielder Michael Bourn has been touted as a natural fit for the Yankees, a breath of needed speed and athleticism. All of that may be true, but when they also fit him for the leadoff spot, that's where you have to draw the line.
It is hard to get used to the idea that Michael Bourn has reached a level of achievement where he is being touted as a good fit for the Yankees. It was just five years ago that he was a punchless speed ‘n' defense type who was overvalued by Phillies and Astros general manager Ed Wade. In 2008, Bourn hit .229/.288/.300 for the Astros, drawing only 37 walks in the process. Though he was clearly an excellent center fielder and baserunner, you can't help anyone that way. To his credit, he refined his approach at the plate, becoming more selective and thereby finding a few pitches he could drive into the gap for triples. Since then, he's hit .280/.348/.378 with 216 stolen bases, and when you get to as many balls in center as he does, that's enough offense to provide real value.
In that, Bourn is a lot like a Brett Gardner who can stay healthy. However, what he isn't is a leadoff man, and that seems to be part of the motivation for signing him, that the Yankees have been missing a quintessential top of the order hitter, as if Derek Jeter hadn't been good enough in his nearly 1000 games in that slot. He's hit .310/.377/.442 in the role, which is just fine, thank you very much. Now, although Jeter had a remarkable season at 38, there is no guarantee he's going to do the same at 39, so sure, the Yankees probably could use someone else who fits the leadoff description. The problem is that we tend to misunderstand what a leadoff hitter is and what the true function of the batting order is.
I've written this many times over the years, so forgive me if you've seen this before, but the old-time conception of the batting order is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. There have been great leadoff men who were high-volume basestealers (Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines) and great leadoff men who were not (Wade Boggs, Pete Rose, Lou Whitaker). The batting order does a little to stimulate interactions between batters or set up sequences that lead to runs, but it's more properly viewed as a machine to distribute playing time. The player who bats first every day is going to have the most plate appearances on your team, the player who bats second is going to have the second-most, all the way down to the number nine hitter, who might bat 150 times less than the guy in the leadoff spot.
When a manager lists a player somewhere on the lineup card, he is saying, "I think you should play today." When he lists that player in the leadoff spot, he is saying, "I think you should play more often than anyone else." It's a qualitative judgment that has traditionally been reduced to speed, but consider playing time and ask yourself: if each player is at his best, who is a more productive leadoff man, Michael Bourn or Derek Jeter? Sure, Bourn is more likely to steal a base, but his career on-base percentage is .339, Jeter's is .382. Who is more likely to open a game with a double? Who is more likely to lead off with a home run? Who is more likely to take a walk?
Again, Jeter may not be the same Jeter next year, so I'm not insisting that the leadoff man has to be him. I'm suggesting that to sign Bourn and elevate him to the top of the lineup based purely on his great speed (which is different than being a great percentage base-stealer -- he's not) will probably fractionally retard run creation rather than enhance it. Bourn's value is in giving his team a little bit of offense and a whole lot of defense. He would be a worthy signing (assuming the price and length are right), especially if that meant keeping Gardner in left field and pushing Curtis Granderson to right field. That would probably be the best defensive Yankees outfield of my lifetime.
As far as hitting at the top of the order, though, Nick Swisher would make a better leadoff man.