Free Agent Signing Has Indians Bourn into New Territory
By Mike Brandyberry
After the Cleveland Indians’ Monday evening surprise signing of Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million deal, the direction of the Indians and Major League Baseball both might be heading into unforeseen territory.
Bourn’s deal, including a fifth-year option for 2017 if he has 550 plate appearances in 2016, currently gives the Tribe an offense full of power, speed and free swingers. Bourn, along with the Tribe’s other high-profile free agent signing, Nick Swisher, are locked up through 2016 — just like new manager Terry Francona. It appears the Indians have created an opportunity for themselves through offseason moves to be a contender through Francona’s contract.
With Bourn’s surprise signing, the Indians this winter have committed $117 million in guaranteed contracts to players. The Indians newfound free agent ambition has to be fueled at least in part by the Dolan family’s sale of SportsTime Ohio to FoxSports Ohio for $230 million in December. FoxSports also will pay the Indians $40 million per season for the next 10 years to have the local broadcast rights to Indians baseball. A cool $230 million up front, plus another $400 million over the next 10 years has to have some impact on the Tribe’s new level of spending.
Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer reports Bourn will make $7 million in 2013, followed by $13.5 million in 2014 and 2015 and $14 million in 2016. Even with a back-loaded contract, the Indians are looking at an Opening Day payroll between $85 million and $90 million, the second largest in team history behind only the 2001 Indians.
New local television deals have provided stimuli of money to several Major League teams in the last five seasons. But in addition to the television deal, the new collective bargaining agreement between the Players Association and Major League Baseball certainly has worked to the benefit of the Indians in its first full year of implementation.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, any free agent offered a qualifying offer (the average salary of the top 125 players in the game) by their original team prior to free agency is worth a compensatory draft pick in the next June First-Year Player Draft. This year, all nine players offered the $13.3 million qualifying offer declined the one-year deal from their existing clubs. When the player signs his free agent contract elsewhere, his new team is obligated to surrender its first round pick in the draft and the slotted cap money allotted to sign amateur players. Teams now are reluctant to give up large sums of their amateur money they are allowed to spend.
In an act to aid struggling teams, the top 10 picks in the draft are protected. Thus, when the Indians signed Swisher — one of the nine who received qualifying offers — they only had to surrender their second round draft pick. Signing Bourn resulted in the Indians only giving away their third pick in the draft, the 69th pick overall. Cleveland still holds its first round pick, fifth overall. The New York Mets, the team thought to most be in pursuit of Bourn, would have had to give their first rounder (11th overall) to sign the speedy outfielder.
The combination of increased available funds for the Indians and the new free agency rules working in Cleveland’s favor has created another new direction for the team. Now with Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs to go along with Bourn and Swisher, the Indians find themselves with roster flexibility. Brantley and Stubbs could platoon, or Swisher could transition to first base and the three speedsters could be left to roam the outfield with another winter acquisition, Mark Reynolds, becoming the designated hitter.
Most importantly, it provides the Indians an opportunity to continue to improve the 25-man roster from areas of its own strength. Cleveland now has a surplus of bullpen pitchers and outfielders, especially center fielders. At least for the short term, the Tribe doesn’t have to consider pending free agency in its own players to dictate trades. It can look to fill remaining holes with its own surplus of talent.
Realistically, Monday’s free agent signing of Bourn does not catapult the team to playoff contention until its starting pitching proves its own value. However, the signing does prove a new relevance to the Tribe’s dedication to winning, spending and building a level of excitement that hasn’t been felt inside Progressive Field in several years.
It’s a nice new direction.
Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images