Is Indians' College-Like Recruitment of Nick Swisher a Gimmick or an Innovation?
Free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher has strong ties to the state of Ohio. He was born in Columbus and then went on to star at Ohio State University.
The Cleveland Indians wanted to make sure he didn't forget it when Swisher visited with them on Monday and Tuesday. They put his Ohio roots on a pedestal during his visit, and they may have unwittingly started a revolution in the way free agents are recruited in the process.
The story, according to Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer, goes that the Indians had a special video lined up for Swisher when they took him on a tour of Progressive Field. It featured Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, head basketball coach Thad Matta and baseball coach Greg Beals all encouraging Swisher to take his talents to Cleveland.
The fun didn't stop there. The Indians further surprised Swisher by having former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel drop in for lunch. Since Swisher is an Ohio boy who also played football in high school, that must have been a real treat for him.
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Swisher ended up leaving town with a four-year offer worth close to $50 million. That may not be a competitive offer, seeing as how Jim Bowden of ESPN and SiriusXM has said that Swisher could get a four-year deal worth $60 million, but he may not care so much about money after being treated like the king of Ohio for one day.
The Indians are certainly not the first team to pull out all the stops to recruit a big-name free agent. But usually when it happens, you only hear about things like fancy dinners, a night on the town, trips to the other local sports venues and so on. Big-name free agents who shop their services around can generally expect to get the same treatment wherever they go.
What the Indians did with Swisher is a little different. They did more than appeal to his wallet and his sense of comfort. They appealed to his sentimentality, and it wasn't really just part of the experience. It was the experience.
Shoot, had the Indians been able to do the same in their pursuit of Shane Victorino, maybe he would have taken the $44 million deal they offered him before he bolted for Boston. Alas, he's from Hawaii, which doesn't quite have the same vibe as Cleveland.
It's easy to mock the Indians for treating Swisher like a high school quarterback, as Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy did on Tuesday. At the same time, it's easy to sympathize with why they did what they did.
The Indians are hardly the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers or Red Sox. Signing big-name free agents is not their thing due to several notable barriers: They play in a small market, they have one of the smallest local TV deals in baseball and Cleveland itself is not the kind of city with bright lights that athletes tend to flock to.
The Indians no doubt want to sign big-name free agents every winter, but this may be a rare case where they both want and need a player like Swisher. They need a right-fielder with a good bat after trading Shin-Soo Choo, and the fact that Swisher's personality would fit well with new manager Terry Francona and in the clubhouse culture they're trying to build is icing on the cake.
The Indians probably would have hosted Swisher and made him an offer even if he didn't have ties to Ohio. But if that was the case, they would have been crossing their fingers in hopes that he didn't run into a better offer and/or a better hosting experience in his travels.
In reality, they saw his Ohio roots sitting there waiting to take advantage of, and they seized the chance to arrange a pitch that no other interested party is going to be able to duplicate. It's possible that this will result in them stealing Swisher from teams willing to offer him more money.
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If that ends up being the case, other teams will surely follow Cleveland's lead. Indeed, they won't be the last team that will have an opportunity to bring a big-name free agent home again.
For example, San Francisco Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum is going to be a free agent next winter, and the Seattle Mariners could try to convince him to return to the Great Northwest.
Lincecum was born and raised in Washington, and he starred at the University of Washington. The Mariners could make like the Indians and arrange for Huskies head football coach Steve Sarkisian and head basketball coach Lorenzo Romar to recruit Big Time Timmy Jim.
The list of possibilities goes on and on. Curtis Granderson was born and raised in Illinois and went to school in Chicago, so either the White Sox or Cubs could appeal to his roots next winter. Matt Garza grew up in the Fresno area, so he could be a target for the Oakland A's. Mike Morse grew up not far from Miami, so he could be a target for the Marlins.
What will be really interesting is if small-market teams establish a track record of success when appealing to free agents with roots in their cities. The word will be out to big-market clubs that the almighty dollar may not be so mighty when measured against the power of home.
But two can play at this game. Baseball players come from big-market cities too, so it's possible that rich teams could also start making recruiting pitches like the one the Indians made to Swisher.
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One possibility that looks real enough is Hunter Pence signing with the Texas Rangers next winter. Pence is from the Fort Worth area and he went to college at the University of Texas at Arlington, so the Rangers could conceivably enlist the biggest names in sports that the area has to offer (an impressive collection) to help them sign Pence to be their new right fielder.
Don't think it can't happen. Given the way the baseball landscape is changing, free agency is about to become much different than we're used to, and teams are going to be in a position where they won't be able to afford to let any available opportunities pass them by.
There's a lot of money being pumped into baseball these days, and free-agent players stand to reap the benefits. Complicating matters, however, is that more and more teams are going to use the extra money in the game to lock up their homegrown players before they hit free agency.
We're already seeing it happen with star players like Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria signing long-term extensions to stay right where they're at. If this is to be the status quo, then fewer and fewer star players are going to hit free agency in their primes in the coming years.
Thus, the star players who do hit free agency are going to be highly sought after in markets where the rich teams may not be the only ones making competitive offers. The small-market clubs still won't have as much money to throw around, but the new national TV deals are sure to give them the ability to throw their weight around in free agency like never before.
If this is what free agency is going to be like a few years down the road, then teams would be stupid not to pursue whatever unique advantages they may have. That means they would be stupid not to appeal to a coveted free agent's sentimentality if the opportunity to do so is there.
Just think. We could soon be living in a world where ballplayers are actually telling the truth when they tell the press that they didn't sign with a team because of the money.
Wouldn't that be something.
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