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Trade Retrospective: Astros trade Michael Bourn to the Braves

The Astros gave up a solid major leaguer for little return.

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

Last week, we took a look at one of the major trades by the Astros when they sent Hunter Pence to the Phillies in 2011. That same deadline, the Astros also sent Michael Bourn to the Braves in exchange for a package of prospects that included Brett Oberholtzer, Jordan Schafer, Paul Clemens, and Juan Abreu.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades because anybody can get lucky. Process over results. That being said, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Astros realized they needed to rebuild, and the Braves had a desperate need in center field. Though they had little chance of catching the Phillies for the division, the Wild Card was still a realistic goal.

Offensively, the Braves outfield was a bit of a mess. Jason Heyward and Martín Prado were not meeting the offensive standards of corner outfielders, and center field was even worse. Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth had combined for barely more than replacement-level play. Overall, the Braves’ outfield ranked second-to-last in the NL in offense during the first half.

Michael Bourn was never exactly a big hitter himself. He was terrible in his first year with the Astros, but he became a league-average hitter from 2009 to the time he was traded to Atlanta. In fact, at the time of the trade, he was on the best offensive run of his career. He was hitting .303/.363/.403, though that came with a .381 BABIP, which is very high even for a player with his speed. Still, even if he regressed to a below-average hitter, he would still be an upgrade over Schafer and McLouth, and that’s without even touching his true strengths.

Thanks to his speed, Bourn was an excellent defender and baserunner. For his career, he had already been worth 42 DRS. He was also in his third straight season of having a double-digit BsR. He stole 61 bases in 2009 and 52 bases in 2010, each time leading the league. He would go on to lead the league again in 2011 with 61 stolen bases, though he also got caught the most.

Even if Bourn’s offense declined, his defense and baserunning alone could have been worth an extra win for the Braves going forward. Seeing how tight the Wild Card race was, an extra win or two could be very precious.

The Braves did especially well in the trade, having paid little to acquire a player coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 5 rWAR. The biggest piece in the trade was Brett Oberholtzer, who was projected by both Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein as being a No. 4 starter. Schafer was already more or less a bust. Clemens and Abreu were basically lottery tickets.

Astros GM Ed Wade did well in the Pence trade, but you have to wonder if he expected to be fired, and as a result didn’t even try with the Bourn trade. That is how bad it looks from the Astros’ perspective. In a Braves system loaded with pitching prospects, receiving no better than Oberholtzer for Bourn is a big disappointment. The Astros’ farm system really needed the help, too.

Generally speaking, the argument against firing a GM shortly before the trade deadline is that you end up bringing in a guy who is not very familiar with the team’s farm system, and he might not be too familiar with other teams’ prospects either. However, keeping the lame-duck GM gives him little incentive to try. Yes, agreeing to bad trades would look bad to future prospective employers, but it likely would not break a candidate’s hiring.

The Results

Despite making a great trade, the Braves fell one game shy of the Wild Card. They did get to enjoy Bourn’s best season of his career in 2012, though. He hit .274/.348/.391, which was slightly better than league average, but he combined that with his usual elite defense and excellent baserunning to turn in a 6.1-rWAR season. He was arguably the best player on a 94-win team.

Bourn entered free agency afterward, and though it might have looked like he would be a hot commodity in free agency, there was a fair amount of risk attached to him. He was entering his age-30 season, and most of his value was in his legs. A player like that could fall off a cliff pretty quickly.

The Braves extended a qualifying offer to Bourn, but they did not end up re-signing him. Here is what they got from him.

Braves Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Michael Bourn 1 7 $11.20
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. All data are just from time spent on the Braves.

Adding in the fact that Bourn’s performance did end up falling off a cliff, that table looks really, really good. The Braves could not have managed it better.

It took until February, but Bourn signed with Cleveland for four years and $48 million. He struggled with injury and ineffectiveness and was traded, coincidentally, to Atlanta in August 2015. Bourn got so bad that the Braves chose to waive him at the beginning of the 2016 season and eat the $14 million left on his contract. He played for the Diamondbacks and Orioles last season and is currently a free agent.

As for the Astros, the trade worked out as one would expect.

Astros Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Brett Oberholtzer 6 3.3 $1.40
Jordan Schafer 4 -1.2 $1.15
Paul Clemens 6 -1.1 $1
Total 16 1 $3.55
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. Juan Abreu was omitted because he barely played. All data are just from time spent on the Astros.

Oberholtzer actually did end up being a serviceable back-end starter. After the 2015 season, the Astros included him in a trade package for Ken Giles. He had a terrible 2016. The Phillies waived him in August, and he was then picked up by the Angels. He is currently under a minor league contract with the Blue Jays.

Sometimes you can predict baseball, and this trade worked out as expected for both sides. We might never know why Wade agreed to such a poor deal, but it might behoove teams in the future to provide additional oversight to a GM who believes that he is going to be fired.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.