New Faces Benefited From Fresh Starts
Craig Gifford | On 12, Oct 2015
Sometimes, the best thing to happen for a struggling athlete is to get a change of scenery. That scenario certainly paid off for a pair of players, who were in vastly different points in their careers.
This past season, Chris Johnson and Abraham Almonte both left situations in which they were struggling to get much going on the baseball field. After arriving in Cleveland, each player prospered and thrived better than they had in quite some time.
Johnson was not hitting very well with the Braves, in his second season since signing a rich, long-term contract. Almonte was a yo-yo between the San Diego Padres and Triple-A. He was not quite able to stick in Major League Baseball at any point, hurt by San Diego’s big league outfield depth. Both found smoother sledding and better footing with the Indians.
Both players became Indians via midseason trades. Almonte, a 26-year-old center fielder, was brought to Cleveland in a minor deal that saw the Tribe ship out middle reliever, lefty Marc Rzepczynski, to the Padres.
Johnson, a 31-year-old first and third baseman, arrived to Cleveland in one of the more celebrated trades in recent Indians history. It was celebrated, however, more for what the Tribe dealt away. Cleveland shipped off the struggling and pricey Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for Johnson. It was a trade that saw both teams jettison high-priced players who were not living up to their billing.
Johnson, whom the Braves gave a three-year extension to in May of 2014, had hit nowhere near his lofty .321 clip he had hit at in 2013. Set to make a guaranteed $16.5 million in 2016 and 2017 and hitting only .235 as July was starting to draw to a close this season, following a 2014 that saw him hit at disappointing .263, the Braves were looking to just get anything for their investment.
Likewise, the Indians had Swisher and Bourn who were both signed to lucrative contracts before 2013. Neither of them had played to anything near expectations – especially in 2014 and this year. Both teams had high-priced former stars to trade away and decided new pastures could work best for all involved.
For Johnson, the change worked swimmingly. Johnson had hit over .280 in each of his first three seasons so the drop off in average was a bit alarming for Atlanta over the past couple of seasons. Upon arriving in Cleveland, Johnson looked like the hitter he was pre-contract.
The veteran was viewed around Cleveland as a “somewhat bad” contract to get rid of two “horrible” contracts. If Johnson could simply come in and be serviceable as a bench player/utility player for the next two years, the Tribe would be better off than with a pair of albatross contracts of guys who could not stay healthy or perform when actually healthy.
Instead, Johnson spent his two months with the Indians showing he may be more than just a part-time player. He may, indeed, be a guy the Indians could start and have produce at a consistent clip.
Johnson played 27 games and batted 90 times with the Tribe. He hit .289 with one home run and seven RBI. He was really raking the ball before a bug bite to his left index finger stalled his progress in early mid August. Still, Johnson looked like the good hitter he was before Atlanta gave him the lucrative contract. He showed enough that he could enter next season as a candidate to play first base over Carlos Santana or third from Giovanny Urshela.
Meanwhile, Almonte never could get a real shot with the Padres. San Diego beefed up its outfield this past offseason and it was the best part of its every day lineup. Almonte had little chance to break in.
A trade to Cleveland was the best thing that could have happened to Almonte. Outside of Michael Brantley, the Indians had no other great outfielders. The Tribe’s trade of Bourn and early deal of David Murphy opened up even more space in the outfield.
Almonte took advantage of his extended look with the Indians, proving he does belong in the Majors. He was afforded the opportunity to play in 51 games with the Tribe and was an integral part in Cleveland’s late push toward a Wild Card spot.
Almonte had 178 at bats with the Tribe and hit .264. However, the batting average does not tell the full story. He shined with both his power and speed that could be called underrated. He belted five home runs and ran his way to five triples, while adding in six steals. He appears to have 20/20 potential that only Jason Kipnis in the current lineup can claim to have.
In two months, Almote went from a guy who few knew anything about and was traded for a middle reliever to a guy who could help the Indians as either a fourth outfielder or even an every day left or center fielder.
Both Johnson and Almonte were going nowhere with their National League teams. Johnson was an unwanted contract and Almonte was someone who could barely crack the Major League roster. Now both will enter 2016 with a chance to start for the Indians.
Not only could they start, but both look like they could be strong contributors to a team that should enter next season with postseason aspirations yet again. That is heavy stuff for a couple players that were struggling to make their marks on teams that were not even sniffing the playoffs this past September.
Cleveland, over the years, has been pretty good at taking other teams trash and turning it into gold. Corey Kluber, whom the Indians previously got from the Padres, is just one example. The Indians could again have found a pair of players that were spinning their wheels in another organization and could turn them into key players.
A change in scenery can truly help a struggling player and Johnson and Almonte certainly proved that to be true this past season.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images