When word began to spread around the internet like fire on Friday that the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves were engaged in trade talks once again, it seemed like a tease of something quite possibly too good to be true for Tribe fans.
When the rumors became reality, the overwhelming sense of elation and glee was palpable.
How on earth had Indians general manager Chris Antonetti pulled it off? Not only had he found a taker for the disastrous and backbreaking contract that was obligated to Nick Swisher, but he had peddled Michael Bourn and his similarly immoveable pact into the same deal! And to top that off, he managed to do so while conducting business with a far more veteran general manager in John Hart, a name familiar enough in Tribe lore for his legacy in sculpting the 1990s Indians teams that the city remains enamored with to this day. It was not some rookie general manager that Antonetti was fleecing. Why would the Braves make this deal just to part with Chris Johnson, knowing full well how little the two returning players had contributed and played over the last season and a half?
As the dust settled, however, and more and more thought has gone into both sides of the deal, it becomes a little easier to believe that both sides truly benefit from the blockbuster broken just days ago. While it generally takes years to see the true winners and losers of a trade, this particular one looks as though it could very much assist both clubs at a high level.
The casual fan seems to have a hard time understanding what benefit the Braves would get from taking on two bad contracts of oft-injured and underperforming veterans from the Indians roster.
It certainly does not come without its risks, as if either player struggles in Atlanta, the team will suffer with wasted roster spots surrounding a generally young club.
After a hot start, it became clear that this year was not the year for the Braves. On a three-game winning streak heading into Sunday’s game, they are 51-60, eight and a half games behind the New York Mets and eleven games out of the NL Wild Card picture.
Hart’s plan in Atlanta has been clear since he entered the franchise’s front office – acquire and develop good young pitching and be prepared for a run when its new ball park, SunTrust Park, is set to open in 2017. The Braves will vacate their current home, Turner Field, that was constructed in 1996 for the Summer Olympics and has been their home since 1997. High maintenance costs and transportation and parking issues had led the team to look into a new place to play.
Hart was busy wheeling and dealing in the offseason, sending free agent-to-be outfielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals while picking up several years of control of pitcher Shelby Miller, who has been strong in their rotation this season. A trade in June with Arizona brought home pitching prospect Touki Toussaint and July deals with the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers brought home other pitching prospects from those respective clubs.
Other moves freed up chunks of current or future monies owed, led by the deal just before the start of the season that sent closer Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres. Several of their other trades over the course of the season have involved the movement of lesser, but still costly, contracts of veteran role players for the club.
As they look towards 2017, they will owe Swisher and Bourn $29 million for the 2016 season. Both players have vesting options for 2017 based on achieving 550 plate appearances each, something the club could reasonably control over the course of the year, if injuries do not do the deed for them.
Presumably, the Swisher and Bourn money will be off of the books for the Braves in 2017, leaving them large obligations only to the $20.5 million of first baseman Freddie Freeman, $11 million of outfielder Nick Markakis, $8 million of shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and $6.3 million of pitcher Julio Teheran.
The Braves will undoubtedly be active in supplementing the roster between now and then.
Both Swisher and Bourn can benefit the Braves for the same reasons that they were beneficial in their time in Cleveland. The 34-year-old Swisher is a World Series veteran, understands playing in larger markets like Chicago and, more notably, New York, is a former All-Star, and brings about a passion and excitement for the game of baseball that few can match both on and off of the field. The 32-year-old Bourn knows the expectations of being a Brave after several seasons with the club. He has won a pair of Gold Gloves and, like Swisher, is a former All-Star. Their dugout contributions in Cleveland, impossible to measure, combined with the presence of Jason Giambi, are presumed to have had at least some sort of a positive effect on the Indians’ sudden and somewhat surprising Wild Card surge late in the 2013 season.
The ability of all three to be healthy, present, and active contributors to the 2014 version of the Cleveland club could be said to have had the reverse effect on that season’s outcome.
Meanwhile, the Indians do the Braves a favor by taking infielder Johnson’s $7.5 million off of the books in 2016 and $9 million from their 2017 obligation, while also owing at least $1 million in 2018 to buy out his potential $10 million team option. Cleveland also sent a sizable amount of money south as part of the deal, once reported as $10 million on the day of the trade, but thought to be more in the ballpark of $15 million, as reported by MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince on Twitter Saturday afternoon.
In essence, the Indians extended some of their wasted spending into an extra season to lighten the burden placed on the 2016 campaign, while also gaining an additional roster spot not tied up to the tandem of Swisher and Bourn. The money sent, regardless of what it might be, will likely offset the much smaller contract more in line with the league minimum, filled by any of the slew of minor league players awaiting their opportunity at Triple-A Columbus to crack the MLB roster for an extended stay.
Now, with both guys gone, the Indians can take a good look at Johnson and find out if and where he fits on the roster moving forward. The team could benefit from a versatile right-handed bat off of the bench, but what he provides is not as significant at his primary third base position with the right-handed hitting Giovanny Urshela on the roster as the team’s starter. He could spot first baseman Carlos Santana, who has struggled against lefty pitching with just five extra base hits and no home runs in 146 plate appearances this season as a right-handed hitter. He will also reportedly see some time in the outfield, where he has logged exactly one inning of work in his professional (not just Major League…) career.
Johnson was hitting .235 for the Braves in 56 games after missing time with a broken bone in his left hand. Just two seasons ago in 2013, he hit .321 and finished second for the National League’s batting title.
In the event that he does not fit on the club, Antonetti may find it easier to move Johnson and the $17.5 million owed over the next three seasons in the offseason to a club that can take on that burden while ridding himself altogether of the remnants of the bad Bourn and Bro-hio bids.
The trade itself, while not buying the club too much additional financial flexibility, does give the team the roster flexibility now to see some of the younger kids from Columbus to gauge what role, if any, they can have on the club for next season, especially knowing that the spots of Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn may very well be up for grabs on the bench.
Tyler Holt was already up but failed his audition. He undoubtedly will be up by September and will get a look as a potential fourth outfielder of the future. He had a look last season, hitting .268 in 36 games while playing in all three spots in the outfield, but has little offense to support his game. In nine games this season, he has two singles, a walk, and nine strikeouts in 21 plate appearances, good for a .100 batting average, a .143 on-base percentage, and another trip back down to Columbus to calm himself down.
Abraham Almonte, the outfielder acquired on July 31st from the Padres for reliever Marc Rzepczynski, finally got the call to the Majors for Cleveland after almost joining the club a week ago. He is a switch-hitter and can play all three outfield spots, giving him the versatility needed of a bench guy. He took advantage of his initial look, at least for a day, by tying a career high with four hits in the Tribe’s 17-4 trouncing of the Twins on Saturday, totaling nine bases with a homer, two doubles, and a single.
Twenty-six-year-old Lonnie Chisenhall is arbitration-eligible after the season after signing a $2.25 million tender prior to the season. He could fall into the $2.5 to $2.75 million range after the season in arbitration and could be on the bubble to be cut loose. His left-handed bat and ability to play multiple positions now with some level of proficiency does grant him a little consideration for a bench role for the future. The Indians have devoted a lot of time to Chisenhall and have occasionally been rewarded for their patience, but have clearly moved away from the former top prospect in favor of Urshela, who has played well both offensively and defensively in his rookie opportunities.
Jerry Sands, now a bit of a journeyman with his fifth team since being drafted in the 25th round of the 2008 draft, will turn 28 years old at the end of the season. He has only had a long look in the Bigs in 2011 when at the age of 23 he hit .253 in 61 games for the Dodgers with four homers and 26 RBI. He played nine more games with the club at the Major League level the following season and played in a dozen for the Tampa Bay Rays last season, hitting .190. It may be that he is a quad-A player; it could be that he has never had an extended look after that rookie season. A team in desperate need of a power right-handed bat like the Indians will give Sands a solid look at first base, in the corner outfield spots, and at designated hitter before the season’s end to see if he is worth holding on to. A clutch pinch-hit grand slam to erase all doubt in Saturday’s game did not hurt his cause.
This does not include other potential September 2015 call-ups from Columbus like Jesus Aguilar (.255 average, 14 homers, 68 RBI in 103 games), Tyler Naquin (.253 average, five homers, 15 RBI in 43 games), James Ramsey (.238 average, eleven homers, 36 RBI in 104 games) or Zach Walters (.242 average, six homers, 35 RBI in 69 games), although each has failed to press the Indians to call them up any sooner throughout the season when opportunities presented themselves.
The blockbuster trade and its side effects also has a trickle down effect into next year, when the same guys or other guys a bit further off on the horizon like Bradley Zimmer, Ronny Rodriguez, Erik Gonzalez, Clint Frazier, and/or others, could see opportunities with the club now free of the financial constraints and roster spots held hostage by Bourn and Swisher.
In the locker room and in the dugout, the players who will be in Cleveland long term – Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, etc. – now cannot fall back on the veterans in the room who should have been some of the loudest voices on the team over the last several seasons.
Swisher is gone. Bourn is gone. David Murphy and Brandon Moss are gone. The two remaining elder statesmen of the clubhouse – Aviles and Raburn – will likely be playing in other stops around the league after the season.
These core guys will have to step up, something that has already happened with the vocal leadership both privately and publicly from Kipnis in the last several weeks and even from the relocation of Brantley’s locker to that formerly of Swisher, a corner spot near the coaches and the door, easily accessible by all.
When the Indians locked up Swisher to a $56 million contract in December of 2012 and just months later inked Bourn to a $48 million one of his own, it signaled to fans that the Indians were all in. With new manager Terry Francona and those two veteran additions, the new complementary pieces to the otherwise unproven and young roster of talented budding stars would go a long way to help advance the franchise towards a successful future.
Antonetti and the Indians ownership may be a bit gun shy in the future about shelling out the kind of money that they invested in a now sunken cost. Free agency always comes with its inherent risks and, unfortunately for the development of the Indians roster and their playoff hopes, Cleveland did not get a fair return on their transactions. They, like all other teams who dabble in the free agency waters, paid a far bigger cost for the acquired’s previous success rather than what the player was going to contribute over the length of the marriage.
Now, in jettisoning the cost of both players and their contracts, they may have only shuffled the obligation around a little, but it allows the otherwise financially-strapped club to gain back some of the flexibility that they were lacking due to the albatross contracts and to better enable the club to attempt to contend again in an AL Central that now appears to be just a one-horse race. The other four teams, while just trotting about now, have all shown enough potential over the last several seasons to be able to get back into the race for years to come with just the right moves.
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