GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The Indians only got a glimpse last year of what Michael Bourn can do. Injuries and getting acclimated to the American League prevented them from seeing the rest.
“Nicks and bangs come throughout the season, but last year, I felt it a little bit,” said Bourn, who missed time with a wrist injury and had hamstring surgery this offseason. “It was just a year where you had to grind it out and try to go out there and give what you can for your teammates.
“I feel like they went off of me, so whenever I could do what I could do, I would try to be a spark plug.”
Admittedly, Bourn, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove award winner, was unable to fill that role often enough. As Cleveland’s center fielder and leadoff hitter, he produced one of the lowest batting averages (.263) and on-base percentages (.316) of his career. He’s a lifetime .271 hitter in seven-plus seasons.
His most glaring deficiency came in the stolen base department, where the National League’s leader for three straight seasons (2009-11) totaled just 23 for the Indians and was caught 12 times.
“That just had to do with me getting familiar with the league a little bit,” said Bourn, who was in his first year in the American League. “Just getting familiar with people’s moves, how they try to attack you, when they want to (throw) over, when they want to pitch out, things like that.
“I feel like I’ll be better this year, as long as I’m healthy and ready to play. As long as I’m feeling that way, I’ll be OK.”
Bourn, 31, took steps to ensure that. Almost immediately after the Indians lost the one-game American League wild-card playoff to Tampa Bay, he underwent surgery on his left hamstring. He sustained the injury during the final series of the regular season in Minnesota and didn’t want it to linger into the winter.
“I feel pretty good right now,” said Bourn, who made his exhibition debut Thursday in a 12-3 win over the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. “We’ll see how everything goes in spring training, which I expect it to be OK, and then take it into the regular season.
“By the beginning of the season, I should be ready to go.”
Bourn, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract, joined Nick Swisher as one of Cleveland’s biggest offseason acquisitions in 2013. And though it’s clear Bourn didn’t earn that money in his first year, manager Terry Francona said he contributed in other ways.
“Michael Bourn, in my opinion, is every bit a leader as anyone in that clubhouse,” Francona said. “The days we’re getting killed are the days that he’s most vocal. Those are things that may not come out in the media, but they’re there.”
There was no better example of Bourn’s leadership than when he sustained the hamstring injury that required surgery, yet still played days later against the Rays in the playoff game at Progressive Field.
“It was hard. You want to be in there with your teammates,” Bourn said. “I knew what position we were in. I had experience playing in that (wild-card) game before. I really wanted to play. If I could go, I was going, and I could go. It wasn’t a hard decision for me.”
The result — being eliminated from the postseason — was much more difficult for Bourn. The Indians were shut down by right-hander Alex Cobb, losing 4-0 in front of a rare sold-out home park.
“When I look back at it, all we needed to do was get on the board to get the crowd ignited,” said Bourn, whose team outhit the Rays 9-8 but failed to produce when scoring opportunities arose. “(The fans) were waiting on it. They were ready to go. We were, too, we just missed on some opportunities that we normally would cash in on.”
Bourn is banking on the Indians seeing an improved version of himself, one that is more experienced in the American League and is able to avoid nagging injuries that limit his production.