Johnson Showing Trade Could Be Even Better Than Initially Thought

Last week when Cleveland Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti found a way to trade away both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and get a Major League Baseball player in return, it felt like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat or David Copperfield performing one of his famous escape tricks.

Swisher and Bourn were both overpaid and under-performing veterans who seemed like their nearly $30 million combined salaries for 2016 would be a large albatross to any hopes the Tribe had of revamping its roster in the offseason.

Swisher, who will be 35 years old in November, and Bourn, turning 33 in December, have both battled injuries and ineffectiveness since Cleveland handed the pair large free agent contracts before the 2013 season. At the time, the deals were viewed as great moves for a small-market, young, talented team, that usually pinches pennies. Those two would be the veteran presences a youthful squad needed to get it over the hump and into playoff contention.

For a year, the plan worked. Swisher and Bourn helped the Indians to the 2013 Wild Card. Neither performed quite up to expectations in Year 1, but neither was a major disappointment. Bourn had 23 steals, while Swisher hit 22 home runs. That Bourn’s stolen base total was down from his 40-plust of the prior four seasons could be explained by a new league and a hamstring injury. Swisher hit only .246, but just a little shy of his normal .260-.280. Surely he was pressing in trying to be the face of a franchise for the first time.

Neither got better. In fact, both got worse. Swisher is now in his second injury-riddled season. Bourn, had trouble staying on the field last year, as well. This year, he has been healthy, though several hamstring injuries later, seems to be a shadow of his young self on the base paths. He had 13 with Cleveland in 95 games.

Bourn is set to make $14 million in 2016, Swisher’s deal will see him rake in $15 million. Neither have performed to those numbers since coming to the Indians. Despite that, the Atlanta Braves were willing to take both bad contracts of the Tribe’s hands in exchange for one slightly less bad contract and $10 million to help cover the expensive duo.

Antonetti managed to turn two of Cleveland’s worst contracts in team history into Chris Johnson. Johnson has also not performed to expectations since signing an extension with the Braves last summer. However, his contract is a lot more team-friendly and he is younger than the guys Cleveland parted ways with.

At the age of 30, there is hope that Johnson is not washed up as Swisher and Bourn may very well be. It was also a little foolish for Atlanta to give Johnson a lucrative deal when it did.

In 2013, his first season with Atlanta, Johnson had a career year. He finished second in the National League with a .321 batting average, hitting 12 homers and 68 RBI. In 2012, his first full Major League season, Johnson had hit a much more modest .281 between Houston and Arizona. When the Braves extended Johnson for three guaranteed years and one team option year, it was May, 2014. At the time, he was hitting just .255. Looking at that, the Braves likely jumped the gun. However, Atlanta, like Cleveland, was trying to hone in on and lock up core players.

Johnson continued to have an average season in 2014, finishing at a decent .263 clip, though hardly the level of hitting the Braves had guaranteed $23.5 million for.

This season, Johnson was bother by a fractured left hand and was hitting a disappointing .235 in 56 games in Atlanta. He was becoming the Braves’ version of Swisher and Bourn, only younger and less expensive.

Sometimes a change of scenery can work wonders for an athlete and it would be great for the Indians if that is the way things work out for Johnson. The issue will be finding a place for him to play. His primary positions have been first base and third base. Cleveland wants rookie Giovanny Urshela to take hold of third base, a position that has been in flux for years. The Tribe also has Carlos Santana under contract at first base. Despite a down year, offensively, Cleveland seems willing to give Santana all the chances in the world as he has show the ability to mash and hit for a decent average in the past.

Thankfully, for Johnson, he is now in the American League where the designated hitter rules apply. He has also played some outfield, though early in his career, at the Major League level. He could become something of a super utility player for the Indians, like Ryan Raburn currently is, in 2016 and 2017 when he is guaranteed $7.5 million and $9 million, respectively.

Johnson, though it is very early on, is off to a good start with Cleveland. In his first three games in a Tribe uniform, he has seven his in nine at bats, good for an astounding .778 average. Just that small amount of success has raised his season average .265. Remove that 2013 season, which seems more and more like a career year, and that is about normal.

If Johnson can hit even in the .275 range for Cleveland, that would be welcomed with open arms by a club that has been hurting offensively. There is no reason to think he can’t help Cleveland, at least a little bit. He is young enough to rebound from a down start of the season and the hand injury.

In place of the aging Swisher and Bourn, the Indians have a guy who likely will be able to contribute a little more at the plate. His more team-friendly deal also opens up some room for the Indians to add a player or two in the offseason. That Antonetti was able to get a warm body for two horrible contracts is amazing. That he got a guy who could still be useful at the plate, even if he is under performing based on his salary, is nothing short of a magic act.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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