There have been letdowns and disappointing seasons on the Cleveland Indians this year, and then there has been Nick Swisher.
Signed in December 2012 to become the new face of the franchise, things have not gone exactly as planned for Swisher. Since inking his four-year, $56 million deal that includes an option for 2017, Swisher has hit just .231 as an Indian, with nearly 25% of his plate appearances resulting in strikeouts.
In 2013, he hit .246 with 22 home runs and was clear in spring training this March that he felt last season was a down year for him, one that could be better in 2014.
“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 and the Indians are each falling short of their lofty goals.
This year has been full of strikeouts, injuries and defensive miscues. Swisher has struggled at the plate all season, hitting just .208 with eight home runs and a .278 on-base percentage. He’s struck out 111 times and walked just 36 times in 401 plate appearances. Defensively, he’s played as poorly as he’s hit, committing nine errors at first base in just 52 games. When the Indians signed Michael Bourn and Swisher was moved from the outfield to first base, Indians Manager Terry Francona said Swisher was a, “very good,” first baseman.
Nothing about Swisher in his 242 games with the Indians has been very good. He’s lost his spot at first base to Carlos Santana and been dropped deep in the lineup. In many interleague games this year—when a designated hitter hasn’t been available—Swisher has found himself on the bench. With his big contract and disappointing production, he’s become a target for fans to boo and a centerpiece to blame for the team’s struggles.
Last Sunday, after striking out three times, he was booed, then pinch-hit for by Chris Dickerson as the start of a ninth inning rally. It was announced after the game that Swisher was hampered by a sore wrist. He missed two games before returning to the outfield in Cincinnati, where he misplayed a ball that led to a run and a loss. After two games in the outfield in New York, Swisher left Saturday’s game after limping around the bases. He couldn’t score from second base on a base hit to center field and was forced out at the plate on the next play.
Sunday, Swisher was placed on the 15-day disabled list for the second time this season, hampered by a sore left knee.
“I can’t keep playing like this,” Swisher told Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com. “We have to find out what’s going on.”
Indians fans, and likely the front office, would have to completely agree. No one is satisfied, Swisher included, with his production. His contract, now nearly half complete, has been a huge mistake to this point and now hangs over the Indians like an anchor as they try to rebuild a roster that needs starting pitching like the desert needs rain. Cleveland already has over $62 million committed in salary for 2015, with $15 million that headed Swisher’s way.
Starting pitching is arguably the most valuable position in baseball. It’s the toughest to trade for and the most expensive to sign on the free agent market. If the Indians continue to operate on a $85 million payroll, after money is appropriated for arbitration eligible players, the Indians will only have about $10-13 million available to help a roster in desperate need of starting pitching and improved defense. Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti will have to re-appropriate funds to improve the rotation, but moving Swisher’s contract is likely impossible. Next season’s roster will have to be built around Swisher’s contract.
Sunday, when the Indians announced Swisher’s second trip to the disabled list this season, Francona didn’t think it was a season-ending injury.
“I don’t think so,” Francona told the media. “I think it’s going to be something he’s going to have to manage. And, when he feels good, he’s going to have to continue to manage it. As you start to get, whether it’s arthritic changes or with some wear and tear, he’s going to have to take care of it. He’s never had to deal with that before.”
The Indians may continue to feel like they are in the Wild Card race after taking two of three from the New York Yankees and getting back to .500. However, Cleveland is in third place in the American League Central Division and 5.5 games back. They’re five games back in the Wild Card race, but three teams are in front of them in their pursuit of the Kansas City Royals.
With 44 games remaining, Cleveland isn’t out of it, but they’ll likely need a 10-game win streak similar to the one they tore off last September to leap all the teams in front of them. If Swisher is to help this team, he has to return healthy, not in a “manage it” mode. It’s probably safe to assume Swisher has tried to manage his knee issues all season and it hasn’t worked.
The Indians should give him all the time he needs to rehabilitate and return to the lineup at 100%. If he can do that in 2014, it would be great. He’s tried to play through injury most of this season and it hasn’t worked. If the Indians are still in playoff contention, and he returns healthy in September, he could provide a spark. Even if the Indians are out of contention, a strong two or three weeks of healthy production in September would go a long way toward everyone’s psyche for 2015.
And most importantly, if Swisher can’t get 100% by the end of the season, or can’t produce better than the numbers he’s put up in 2014, they need to shut him down for the year. Swisher isn’t the only reason the Indians have underachieved in 2014, but he’s one of them. His contract can’t become an anchor to the roster and the franchise for the next two to three years. He has to be healthy entering 2015.
Production at the plate and in the field from Swisher is imperative to the success of the organization for the future. Signed to be the face of the franchise before the 2013 season, he’s sacrificed for others and played through pain.
“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.”
Getting the Indians back to where they belong in 2015, and resurrecting Swisher’s career are now probably tied together. The best way to manage the remainder of Swisher’s 2014 may be to shut it down in hopes of the best Swisher the Indians have seen next season.
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