When last season ended, I did not have much optimism that the Indians would be buyers in the free agent market. I never expected them to sign Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn (nonetheless both) or to spend much money at all. I figured we should be thankful for the Mark Reynolds signing, because it was all we were going to get. I can’t remember how many blog posts I wrote (or even contemplated) where I tried to come up with some bargain basement solution to help fill holes on the roster. Vernon Wells? Alfonso Soriano? At the time, they actually seemed appealing if their clubs were willing to eat a majority of their salary. There were a few higher profile free agents the Indians considered before they made their splurge, and in many ways, I’m glad these deals didn’t work out. I figured I’d look at those free agents in comparisons to the ones we ended up with, along with a couple of players with which the Indians parted ways.
One of the big names early in the offseason was Kevin Youkilis. At one point, it sounded like he could feasibly come to Cleveland – it would reunite him with former manager Terry Francona, and he could move back to first base. When Youkilis’s suitors were down to the Indians and the Yankees, I’ll admit that I was a slight bit disappointed when he ended up choosing the Yankees. So far, Youkilis has spent almost more time on the disabled list than off – he’s only played in 28 games so far, hitting .219/.305/.343 with 2 home runs. One of the concerns about Youkilis in the first place was that as he aged, he became more injury prone. He came back briefly from the DL for 10 games, then immediately went back onto the DL – he’ll have back surgery and will miss 10-12 more weeks. The Indians should be thankful that the Yankees stepped in and snagged him.
With Michael Bourn, I’m not sure if the Indians dodged a bullet, as much as got really lucky in their pursuit of the speedy outfielder. Bourn spent part of 2011 and 2012 with the Atlanta Braves, but rather than keeping Bourn longer term, the Braves went for free agent B.J. Upton. If you haven’t been following the Braves, the elder Upton has been terrible so far this year. So bad, in fact, there was a time that the Braves actually considered sending B.J. Upton to the minors to try and work on his issues. He’s hitting just .166/.259/.308 with 8 home runs and 6 stolen bases. His career numbers are .250/.331/.415, and he hit 28 home runs in 2012 with the Rays, and stole 31 bases. I’m guessing that the Braves really liked B.J. Upton’s power, along with the fact that he was two years younger than Bourn. I think they may be regretting that decision, especially when Bourn is hitting .289/.338/.385 with 2 home runs and 10 stolen bases. (He probably has more stolen bases because he actually gets on base). The Indians also have to be thankful for the Mets stubbornly attempting to hold onto their first round draft pick. If that gets resolved sooner, Bourn may have opted for the Big Apple.
In the same vein, the Indians have to be thankful that the Orioles decided to non-tender Mark Reynolds. He made $7.5 million in 2012 and was likely due a raise; Baltimore figured it was best to non-tender him and try to sign him for less, or just let him walk. So far Reynolds leads the Indians in home runs (14) and RBI (43) and is hitting .230/.307/.435. That home run and RBI total would be tied for third on the Orioles with J.J. Hardy (behind Chris Davis and Adam Jones).
The Indians made a strong push for Shane Victorino, but he ended up spurning their advances and choosing a shorter, but more lucrative annual contract with the Red Sox. He’s been decent so far this year, despite the fact that he’s spent time on the DL and has played in 44 games thus far – .276/.331/.356 with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. His numbers are still significantly lower against left-handed pitching, which was one of the things that made me wary of signing him. As corny as it sounds, you have to look at some of the intangibles that Swisher has brought to this club – mainly his leadership and ability to bring some levity to the club house. Even though he’s struggled of late, and has dealt with his own injury issues, I still think Swisher is a better fit for the team than Victorino in the long run.
Once the Indians started their free agent splurge, a lot of fans started to get a bit greedy. Since pitcher (and Scott Boras client) Kyle Lohse was also unsigned, people thought the Indians should go for broke and ink him to a deal as well. I was against this at the time, and wrote about my concerns back in March. In a nutshell, I thought Lohse was ready for a regression; he benefitted from good BABIP over the past couple of years so I thought his numbers were a bit inflated. Plus I was worried that he wouldn’t perform as well in the American League (particularly since his time with the Twins was nothing too spectacular). Lohse ended up signing a three-year, $33 million deal with the Brewers. He had a somewhat rough start to the season (which could be due to the fact that he missed much of spring training) but he’s done a bit better recently – overall he’s 2-6 with a 3.84 ERA and 1.218 WHIP. During the month of June he lowered his ERA by about .50 and his WHIP improved by a full tenth of a point. With his solid June, a Lohse signing would have been much easier to swallow. However, the three year deal still leaves me wary; if the Indians could have convinced him to do a one-year deal, I would have been all for this. I still think in the long run, they probably dodged a bullet on this one.
I’m not sure how serious the Indians were about Edwin Jackson this offseason, but I heard some rumblings that they were pursuing him around the time they were talking with Victorino. I know Jackson is a relatively durable pitcher, but I’ve never been all that impressed with him. I certainly wouldn’t have been willing to pay him the four-year, $52 million deal the Cubs ended up giving him. Jackson is 3-8 with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.549 WHIP; he’s only made it beyond the sixth inning in two starts, and has had a lot of trouble locating his pitches. If this keeps up, it’s going to be a long three and a half years for the Cubs.
Travis Hafner started the year on fire for the New York Yankees, where he signed a one-year, $2 million deal with a potential $4 million in bonuses based on plate appearances. A lot of people were frustrated when Hafner teed off during the home opener, and I even heard a few people express regret that the Indians did not hold onto him. I figured that it was time for the Indians to move on; Hafner still has some brilliant moments, and has always had a decent OBP, but sometimes it’s just time to part ways. Hafner’s stats had been declining since the first few weeks of the season, but they’ve been in a free-fall in June – he’s now only hitting .221/.333/.453 with 11 home runs and 2 stolen bases. The home run totals are solid, but his average has dropped almost 30 points this month; in the 18-inning game against Oakland last week, he went 0 for 8. The two stolen bases are kind of a shock though, the same amount that he stole with the Indians from 2009-2012 combined. The other thing that’s been surprising is that Hafner has yet to spend time on the DL, one of the few Yankee regulars to not be injured. (Hafner always seemed to make his first DL trip by the end of May). I can only guess that Hafner is draining power from the other Yankees in order to keep himself healthy.
Another player with which the Indians parted ways this offseason was Roberto Hernandez (aka the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona). The Indians had a $6 million option on Hernandez for the 2013 season, which they declined. They claimed they were still interested in resigning him at the right price, but he ended up in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. Hernandez is typical Hernandez – maddening as ever. He’s 4-7 with a 5.02 ERA and 1.381 WHIP; and in his typical fashion he’s had some fantastic outings, and some games that were complete disasters. I read somewhere that Tampa hoped to sign him to a two-year deal, or at least build an option into the deal. Hernandez and his agent felt that he would have a great year and reestablish his value, so they fought for a one-year deal. I think the Rays may eventually be kind of glad they lost that battle.
One case where the Indians did not dodge the bullet is with Brett Myers. He’s been plagued with elbow problems for much of the season and his only pitched 21.1 innings over the course of four games. At one point, Myers appeared to be on his way back – he was appearing in some minor league rehab starts. His elbow acted up though, and he was shut down again. I’ve heard of no timetable for his return, and often it seems like these types of situations end with surgery. Even if he does make it back at some point this year, he’ll likely end up in the bullpen, as compared to the starting rotation. Myers has an $8 million option for 2014 that vests if he pitches 200 innings, which won’t be happening at this point – that’s at least half of a bullet dodged. Before his injury, Myers was 0-3 with an 8.02 ERA and 1.594 WHIP.
So these are some of my picks for the bullets dodged and not dodged, as far as offseason signings go. The season isn’t even half over yet, so a lot could change. I think there are two things that are a bit more certain at this point – it’s a good thing the Indians missed out on Youkilis, since he’ll miss a sizable portion of the season to injury, and the Myers signing is a major bullet that they were unable to dodge. At least they don’t have to worry about his 2014 option vesting, so we should be thankful for small things at this point!