Yes, I know I'm the head of minor league coverage at Citizens of Natstown and no, this is not a minor league subject. It is a subject that I've struggled with during the offseason so far, though, so I figured to write what was on my mind (and because it takes forever to write 549 player profiles for this year's minor league free agents as I plan on doing).
Michael Bourn is a very good baseball player, and is both better and younger than Shane Victorino. I will not argue with that at all. I do think that the situation isn't quite that simplistic, however, and busted out my Ted Mosby yellow legal pad to make a pros and cons list to make my decision.
Bourn will be 30 on Opening Day and Victorino will be 32. Edge: Bourn
2012 OVERALL PERFORMANCE
Bourn put up an impressive 6.4 WAR in 2012, much better than Victorino's 3.3 WAR. Edge: Bourn
2009-12 OVERALL PERFORMANCE
A little closer, but Bourn has averaged a 5.025 WAR over the past four seasons to Victorino's 4.175. Edge: Bourn
2012 BATTING PERFORMANCE
Bourn had a 104 wRC+ as opposed to Victorino's 94. Edge: Bourn
2009-12 BATTING PERFORMANCE
This one may surprise you - Victorino's 110.25 average wRC+ over the last 4 years is much better than Bourn's 99.25 over that timeframe. Edge: Victorino
FINANCIAL COST TO THE TEAM
While obviously we should take Jim Bowden's words with a grain of salt and a dose of penicillin, he projects (ESPN Insider required) Bourn to get a 5 year, $75 million contract while he thinks Victorino will sign for 3 years and $28.5 million. Edge: Victorino
OTHER COSTS TO THE TEAM
Signing Bourn would require the Nationals to give up their first round pick in 2013, whereas signing Victorino would not. The $5.5 million difference between the two players' projected salaries could fill holes elsewhere in the Nationals organization, such as fortifying the bullpen or going towards the 5th SP fund. Brian Goodwin could be ready as soon as the 2014 season, and having Bourn signed to a 5 year deal would completely block him until Bourn and Werth become free agents in 2017. Edge: Victorino
According to Baseball-Reference's player similarity scores, Shane Victorino's top 10 similar batters through age 31 are Steve Finley, Coco Crisp, Roberto Kelly, David DeJesus, Ken Landreaux, Bob Skinner, Randy Winn, Phil Bradley, Tony Gonzalez and Jose Cruz, who all together averaged a .274/.340/.429 triple slash from age 32 until retirement (102 OPS+), playing an average of 520 games in that time span. Bourn's top 10 similar batters through age 29 are Max Flack, Brett Butler, Dave Collins, Roger Cedeno, Brian Hunter, Albie Pearson, Solly Hofman, Johnny Bates, Bob Bescher and Rudy Law, who all together averaged a .280/.362/.369 triple slash from age 30 until retirement (102 OPS+), playing an average of 481 games in that timespan.
Victorino's comparables from age 32 to retirement have put up essentially the same numbers and played an average of 39 more games than Bourn's comparables from age 30 to retirement. So much of Bourn's value is tied up in speed and defense that a team that will have to buy into his ability to keep being that fast and that aware on defense through his age 35 or 36 season, which is a bet that I'm not willing to make. Edge: Toss-up
Michael Bourn by himself is a better player than Shane Victorino, both in 2013 and beyond, but Victorino's ability to provide league average or better production for the next 2-3 years while not demanding the frankencontract that Bourn will need makes him a better option for the Nationals, as it will allow them to keep building through the draft in 2013 and will let them reallocate the difference in salary between the two players to patch up their bullpen and rotation.