The Cleveland Indians made one of the shrewdest moves of the Winter when they traded star right fielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Cincinnati Reds, not because Choo isn’t an elite talent, but because of what Cleveland was able to bring back in return.
Choo was entering the final year of his contract and the Scott Boras client didn’t figure to sign an extension in Cleveland and wouldn’t come cheap if they did manage to re-sign him at all. Instead, GM Chris Antonetti moved Choo as part of a three team deal t hat brought center fielder Drew Stubbs, a gold-glove-caliber defender, and right hander Trevor Bauer, one of the most highly regarded young arms in all of baseball.
In moving Choo, however, the Indians opened a great hole in their lineup. On Sunday, Antonetti filled that hole for the foreseeable future by signing free agent Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal. If Swisher stays healthy, there is an easily attainable vesting option for a fifth year that would bring the total value of the contract to $70 million. It is the richest contract in team history, though the $14 million average annual value would make Swisher the second-highest paid player ever to wear the racist logo in an individual season.
There are plenty of people wondering what exactly the Indians are doing. As they sign Swisher, a 32-year-old veteran of nine big league campaigns, Antonetti continues to field calls and hold discussions about trading away right hander Justin Masterson, closer Chris Perez, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Thus far, Antonetti has avoided subtracting from his big league roster apart from the Choo trade, but when you consider that Swisher was signed to replace him in right, you have a net gain of two major league pieces in Stubbs and Bauer.
Cleveland made waves early in the off-season by naming Terry Francona as their new skipper. Coming off the most successful run of any manager in the storied history of the Boston Red Sox, Francona could have his pick of any job in the league, but chose to come to Cleveland to work with Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro, who are close friends of his. Regardless of friendships, I have a hard time believing that Tito would have taken the job if it meant a complete tear-down and re-build of the roster. At the same time, this Indians team lost 94 games in 2012; a quick turnaround likely isn’t in the cards.
I’ve heard plenty of reaction from Indians fans around these parts concerning the Swisher signing and the general consensus is that Cleveland overpaid to get a guy who is good but not great and will only decline as he ages. I won’t dispute the regression that is likely forthcoming, but the overall length and value of the contract aren’t terrible overpays. Would they have liked to get him at four-year with no vesting option? Of course, especially at $12 or 13 million instead of $14 million, but when you’re a 94-loss team that plays in Cleveland, Ohio and there is little to no fan support even when the team is ion contention, sometimes you have to overpay to get the player to sign. That’s what happened here, but it’s just the cost of doing business for a team like Cleveland. If you want the player, this is what happens.
The question that Tribe fans should ask themselves is if they’d rather have Swisher or not have Swisher. He makes them a better team, especially when added to Stubbs and Bauer.
The Indians’ off-season hasn’t been as tumultuous as many had anticipated, at least not so far. If they hold on to guys like Masterson, Perez, and Cabrera, the additions made in the Choo trade, plus Swisher and new first baseman Mark Reynolds should provide the Indians a nice uptick in production and in success in 2013. They still don’t have enough starting pitching to contend next year, but they should be a better, and more balanced, team than they were in 2012.