Put Your Money Where Your Bat Is
Steve Eby | On 21, Feb 2015
Back before 2013, the Tribe spent gobs of money on two marquee free agents when they inked Nick Swisher to a four year, $56 million deal and then shocked the world by signing Michael Bourn to one worth $48 million over the same four years. The Bourn deal seemed like a bargain at the time, as the 2012 All-Star had been holding out for a deal worth around $75 million. Currently, however, it is very easy to place all blame on the Indians for what have become the two biggest—and most expensive—elephants in the room.
Neither Swisher nor Bourn have lived up to the immense expectations that Cleveland has put on them as both have missed significant time due to injuries and both have dramatically underperformed when they were healthy enough to be on the field. On the whole, the Tribe as a team has generally overcome these two albatross contracts and somewhat overachieved over the past two seasons by earning the first AL Wild Card in 2013 and posting a second-straight winning season for the first time since 2001 in 2014. The result of 2014 just might have been another playoff spot, however, if Bourn, Swisher and some of the other more expensive names on the roster could have performed even close to their expectation.
The Tribe used phenomenal seasons by Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Corey Kluber to keep them in mathematical contention late into September, but had the anchors of Swisher, Bourn and a struggling Jason Kipnis dragging them down and keeping them from reaching their ultimate goal. Throw in a poor second half from David Murphy and a nightmarish whole season from Ryan Raburn and suddenly a large percentage of the Indians payroll had dramatically underachieved in 2014.
About $42 million was spent on these five players in 2014 and the group managed to bat a combined .238 with 29 homeruns, 191 RBI and 437 strikeouts compared to just 170 walks. The $42 million spent on these five made up more than half of the Tribe’s $81,150,800 payroll last season.
Prior to 2014, all five of the aforementioned players had a proven Major League track record of varying success. Because of this, it’s tough to place all of the blame on the Indians for spending money by adding proven, veteran players to their young nucleus. Bourn and Swisher had been to a combined three All-Star Games, while Murphy was coming off of a seven year stretch where he averaged hitting .275 with 12 homeruns and 52 RBI. Twice during that same stretch, Murphy batted over .300 and one other time hit .291. Raburn had had an up-and-down career but was coming off of a magical 2013 season that was certainly his best since 2009 and 2010. Kipnis—a part of that young nucleus—is the only player that wasn’t a free agent addition, but was coming off of a 2013 All-Star season and given a contract extension to keep him an Indian for the long haul.
With the addition of Brandon Moss via trade from the Oakland Athletics this offseason, playing time may be scarce for Murphy and Raburn if the roster remains as it currently stands and everyone stays healthy. The opportunity will certainly be there for Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis, however, to prove that the important trio is back and ready to contribute to the team’s betterment—not to their detriment.
The importance of Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis returning to some form of productivity cannot be understated if the 2015 Cleveland Indians are going to make the jump from “2014 pretention” to serious contention. The trio was counted on heavily last season and flopped as all three players had arguably the worst seasons of their careers. The evidence of how much the three were counted on at the beginning of the season was evident by the trio batting first, second and third in the Tribe’s lineup on the first day that all three were healthy enough to be in the starting lineup on April 16. As the season progressed, Swisher had been moved down in the order and was ultimately out of the lineup on the disabled list by early August. In addition, Kipnis was regularly hitting in the bottom half of the lineup by the end of the season as well. There may or may not have been any coincidence that the Indians played their best baseball of the season once Swisher exited the lineup and Kipnis was taken out of the heart of the order.
It’s very easy and perhaps a bit uneducated to blame the Indians for the lack of offense that some of their more expensive veterans have provided. The Tribe, however, was generally seen as spending their money wisely at the time—especially when investing in the talents of Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis—so it’s probably more accurate to place the blame on the individuals, not the organization. Any return to form from Bourn, Kipnis or Swisher would be a gigantic boost for the 2015 team, but just a bump up to become an average Major League starter for any of them could be enough to push the Tribe back into the playoff picture.
Photo: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press