After year of adjustments, Bourn poised to improve

After year of adjustments, Bourn poised to improve

After year of adjustments, Bourn poised to improve

CLEVELAND -- Michael Bourn could have made excuses, but the Indians' center fielder refused. He could have cited the switch to the American League, or blamed the right hand injury that slowed him down after a strong start in his first tour with the Tribe.

Asked how he would evaluate his performance this past season, Bourn instead chose to be blunt.

"It's nothing special," Bourn admitted. "It helps when the team is playing good."

Cleveland brought Bourn into the fold with a four-year, $48 million contract at the start of Spring Training with the idea that he could be an offensive catalyst at the top of the lineup and a force defensively in center. At times, Bourn lived up to his billing, creating havoc on the basepaths and robbing hitters of extra bases with impressive running grabs in the outfield.

The Indians were hoping for more than just spurts of Bourn's game-changing ability, though. Fortunately for the Tribe, the offense was deep enough and the pitching strong enough to help the club claim the AL's top Wild Card spot. Bourn undoubtedly played a big role in the team's turnaround in 2013, but he also had teammates pick up the slack during his droughts.

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti believes Bourn and Nick Swisher -- each signed to lucrative deals as free agents last offseason -- simply tried to shoulder too much of the load in their first year with the team.

"Michael cares so much," Antonetti said. "He cares so deeply about contributing that he may have tried to do a little bit too much. With him, there's the added complexity of switching leagues. His game is dependent upon his speed, his ability to steal bases. Even the way he plays defense in the outfield is somewhat hitter-dependent in where he positions himself.

"I think what we'll see next year out of both [Bourn and Swisher] is that they'll be a little bit more comfortable with the team, with the organization, with the league, and I'd expect each guy to be a little bit more productive."

In 130 games this season, the 30-year-old Bourn hit .263 with a .316 on-base percentage and .360 slugging percentage. That OBP was his lowest since 2008, and Bourn's 23 stolen bases marked the first time he had fewer than 40 in a season since his rookie year in '07. Bourn ended with six homers, 21 doubles, six triples, 50 RBIs, 75 runs and 132 strikeouts compared to 40 walks.

Bourn, who spent seven seasons in the National League prior to signing with Cleveland, would not blame playing in a new league for his subpar showing.

"I knew that coming in," Bourn said. "Baseball is baseball to me. You go through ups and downs. At some points, I was hitting the ball hard and it wasn't falling. You think you're doing something wrong, and you're not. It's just not working out."

To Bourn's point, his .338 average on balls in play was only slightly below his career mark (.342) and his 22-percent line-drive rate (according to baseball-reference.com) was the second-highest average of his career. Bourn also posted a 5.7-percent extra-base-hit rate, which is equal to his career average. That could all be indicative of a solid comeback showing come 2014.

The difference between 2013 and his standout seasons with the Astros and Braves involved his plate discipline. The two-time NL All-Star and two-time NL Gold Glove Award-winner had the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career.

"I'm not really worried about my personal things right now," Bourn said before the last game of the regular season. "I can put it out the window with ease."

That was because the Indians enjoyed a successful season overall, making the postseason for the first time since 2007.

This winter, though -- after four to six weeks of rehab from Tuesday's minor hamstring surgery that will not impact his offseason -- it is a safe bet that Bourn will be working hard to correct the wrongs of 2013.

"He's so conscientious," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You want guys like that on your team."

Bourn hit .333 with a .975 OPS in his first 10 games of the season, showing the kind of player he could be for Cleveland's offense. That was before his ill-fated, head-first slide into first base on April 14, when White Sox reliever Matt Thornton spiked Bourn's right hand, resulting in a deep cut that sent the center fielder to the disabled list.

After Bourn returned on May 10, he hit .301 over his next 24 games, but then slumped to the tune of a .245 average across the remainder of the regular season.

"I was fine when I came back. I was OK," Bourn said. "When I got hurt, though, I was feeling really good. I was feeling really good at the time. But that's exacty when it happens. When I came back, I still felt OK, but I wasn't feeling like I was when I first left. Man, hey, I ain't got no worries about that part."

Bourn not only sounded confident in his own ability to bounce back in 2014, but he expressed confidence that Cleveland could build on its 92-win season.

"The talent, we've got the talent," Bourn said. "It's just about coming together and playing on one heartbeat. When we do that, man, we play pretty good baseball. Up and down our lineup, we're pretty good. We believe that."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.