The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is a core member of the team and key to contention this season and beyond.
For Nick Swisher, the 2013 baseball season was not what he wanted from an individual standpoint. However, helping the Indians reach the postseason for the first time in six years made it impossible for the veteran first baseman and outfielder to call the year any sort of disappointment.
Swisher, in the first year of what could be a five-year deal, hit 22 home runs, with 63 RBI and a .246 batting average. All of those were below his career averages. In 10 big league seasons, Swisher’s 162-game averages are 28 bombs, 88 RBI and .255 BA.
Despite the somewhat off year, though, Swisher was a part of a Tribe team that earned an American League Wild Card nod with 92 wins. Albeit a one-and-done playoff loss to the Rays, it was the first taste of postseason action Cleveland had since reaching the American League Championship Series in 2007. Swisher said the team success trumped anything he did on a personal level.
“Last year wasn’t even about me,” Swisher said. “It was about the resurrection of the organization. (It was about) getting back to where this team belongs and where this team was.”
Where the team got surprised even the most ardent of Tribe supporters. Many felt, as the season began, the club would be somewhere around .500. The pitching was suspect. However, the rotation came together and the team had some timely hitting. Things snowballed into a strong September drive to the playoffs.
“Last year was hopefully that stepping stone we needed to get going in the right direction,” Swisher said. “I think last year was that amazing year we needed to have to get ourselves in that mind frame of we can do this and we are a good team.”
Now that the team is headed in the right direction, Swisher would like to get himself headed the same way. Ushered in last summer as the face of the franchise, Swisher got off to a solid start as he was hitting .269, with seven home runs through May. However, issues with nagging shoulder pain derailed him a bit in June and he batted just .160 for the month. He rebounded to hit .285 in July and was up and down in the season’s final two months.
Asked if he was pressing at all, being one of the leaders of the franchise, Swisher claimed he was not. The shoulder likely had more to do with his numbers being down and inconsistency at the plate. According to Swisher, he is now good to go and any health issues should be behind him.
“Was (last) year what I wanted? No,” Swisher said of his performance. “Was I happy about that? Hey, sometimes it happens. I’ve played for 11 seasons. It’s been crazy ups and downs.
“I’ve gotten myself back in shape and gotten myself back where I need to be. I’m super excited to get out there because last year wasn’t where I wanted to be. I set my goals higher than that.”
Swisher has definite hopes that he will post better numbers. He also sees, what is largely a young team, doing the same. Players like Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber were big contributors to last year’s run. They all have room to grow. Along with that, Swisher, who has been to the postseason every year since 2008, said just getting a taste of the playoffs will help make the squad better and hungrier this season.
“I know I want more,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be in these spots. It’s what you play for. It’s always harder the second time, but hopefully this is the start of something special for this organization. (This year) I want the same thing and more. I know we’re going to go out and give everything we’ve got. This is a fun and exciting team to watch play. Hopefully we can do our part and continue to keep building this organization and competing in playoff games.”
Continuing a successful run with the Indians is something Swisher hopes to do for at least the next four years. The next three seasons are guaranteed with a vesting option for 2017, based on reaching 550 plate appearances and passing a physical in 2016. Swisher has hopes of captaining an Indians ship to the postseason for a half a decade or more.
“I was so fortunate and so honored and so proud that the Indians came to me with a five-year deal,” he said. “To be in that position where you know you’re going to be here, you know you want to work on something, build something and be part of something and notch your name somewhere.”
Eventually, Swisher hopes to be wearing a Tribe uniform when the team finally notches its name on a World Series trophy. First things first, though, as Swisher and the Indians both will need to build on last year’s initial step.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer