Indians' Signings of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher Are Winning Back Fans
I spent two hours on Monday afternoon writing a nice, snarky piece making fun of the signings of Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka, making parallels about how these signings are all that Chris Antonetti and the Cleveland Indians can seem to do anymore.
As providence would have it, though, I didn't get it finished before I had to go work, and it didn't get published. And thanks to the Monday evening signing of Michael Bourn, it never will.
In a move that was absolutely shocking not only to me, but also to most of baseball, the Indians were able to land Bourn in a bargain four-year, $48 million deal.
The signing elicited a reaction out of me that was akin to Harry's reaction in Dumb and Dumber when Lloyd traded the dog van for a moped: "Just when I thought you couldn't possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this...and totally redeem yourself!"
Jonah Keri explains in his piece for Grantland.com that the price at which the Tribe got Bourn is about the going rate for an average player in baseball right now and is considerably less than the five years, $75 million he was seeking. Bourn is certainly better than an average player and adds a much-needed piece to nicely fill out the Tribe's lineup.
The move allows Nick Swisher to likely move to first base, which will keep him healthier than playing in the outfield. It also enables new manager Terry Francona to insert Bourn into the leadoff spot in the lineup and move Drew Stubbs to the nine hole, where his high strikeout rate won't be as big of a killer.
Additionally, as Keri also points out, the outfield trio of Michael Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs is one of, if not the, best defensive outfields in all of baseball. According to data that Keri lays out, Bourn has been the best defensive center fielder in all of baseball over the past three seasons. An outfield that skilled will invariably help out the Indians', uh, we'll call it "lackluster" pitching staff (more on them in a bit).
The move of Swisher to first base also moves newly acquired Mark Reynolds into the DH role, where he could be platooned with Giambi. That makes the DH spot much less of an issue as it was looking and allows those guys to focus on just mashing the ball four or five times per game.
The big-ticket offseason signings of Swisher and Bourn have worked to quell the angry cries of Tribe fans who have been petitioning for the front office to spend some money to improve the team. They have shown their disapproval with the direction of the team by not showing up to the ballpark even when the team spent time in first place early in the past two seasons. There simply wasn't a belief in the team as a whole for fans to invest their money in what has born out over the past several seasons to be below-average product.
Swisher and Bourn change that narrative. While neither guy is necessarily a "star" per se, they are impact players with WARs of 3.5 and 6.0, respectively, last season. For comparison's sake, Shin-Soo Choo had a WAR of 3.1 last season.
The backbone of the Indians roster is still with its home-grown talent in Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall. But Antonetti has been able to supplement the roster with trades (Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez), bigger free agents (Swisher and Bourn) as well as low-risk signings (Giambi, Matsuzaka, Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir and Reynolds).
Now, about that pitching staff.
One might look at the improved talent on the field, remember the steady greatness that is the bullpen and think that all is well before coming to the startling revelation, as Harry did upon the news that Lloyd had sold their dead bird: "Lloyd! Petey didn't even have a head!"
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The starting pitching rotation can be viewed as the proverbial "head" of a baseball team. The Indians starting pitching staff last season had an abysmal 5.25 ERA. The "stars" of the rotation, Masterson and Jimenez, posted ERAs of 4.93 and 5.40, respectively. The pitching staff as a whole surrendered a league-high 845 runs in 2012.
For this reason, much of the enthusiasm around the Tribe heading into spring training needs to be tempered a little. If the starting pitching can't be better in 2013 than they were last season, the Tribe won't be going anywhere. The lineup isn't that good to make up for atrocious pitching.
Kyle Lohse is still available, and the market for him appears to be drying up. It's possible that Antonetti could get a similar deal with Lohse like he did with Bourn. As teams start to fill out their rosters, the spots where the remaining free agents can land begins to dwindle. Lohse may have to sign for less than he would like over not getting a paycheck at all.
Lohse, 34, was fantastic last season in St. Louis with a 2.86 ERA and a 3.9 WAR. He would be an instant upgrade to the rotation and could possibly slide into that No. 1 role, especially considering that the Indians didn't have a starting pitcher with a WAR above 0.0 last season.
Without Lohse, the Tribe will have to hope that the pitchers they do have can replicate the success they have all experienced in that past.
Both Masterson and Jimenez have shown signs at times in their careers that they have the ability to be high-level pitchers. Matsuzaka was very good in his first season in Boston and played a major role in helping them to their World Series championship that year. Myers didn't start a game last year and hasn't really been good since 2010 in Houston (3.14 ERA, 4.7 WAR). Kazmir was great from 2005-08, striking out more than 160 batters each year including leading the league in 2007 with 239, before dropping off drastically after that leading to him only throwing 1.2 innings in 2011 and then playing independent ball in 2012.
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While the chances are that they won't be good again in 2013, there is at least the hope in knowing that they have all experienced some Major League success in the past that could pop up again.
Zach McAllister, who was decent in 2012, and Carlos Carrasco, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, will likely be in the mix to make the rotation out of camp.
The real hope of the rotation is with Bauer, the uber-talented former first-round draft pick who came over in the Choo trade. He's a bit of an oddball, but there's no denying that he is very talented. The Indians are hoping that he can put it together and contribute to the team this season. Bauer is the big wild card with the Tribe rotation for sure.
While I don't expect the Indians to be good enough to win the division in 2013, they will certainly be better than they were last year. And who knows? No one expected the Orioles and A's to make the postseason runs they did last year, so anything could happen. The Indians could get hot early like they have the past couple seasons, and with the backing of the fans and maybe a shrewd trade by Antonetti, they could be this year's surprise team.
I apologize for that. I just couldn't help myself. Let's just hope that we don't see any more of that this season.
You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.
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