The Cleveland Indians made a bold, important trade Friday afternoon, sending veterans Nick Swisher & Michael Bourn–and their lucrative contracts–and a pile of cold hard cash to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Chris Johnson. This trade will have a major impact on the organization’s immediate and distant future, molding a new-look Tribe team. Let’s recap this trade and its vital impact on the organization, “Good Will Hunting” Style:
There is a famous scene in Good Will Hunting when psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) stares deep into Will Hunting’s (Matt Damon) eyes and says, “It’s not your fault, son…it’s not your fault” and repeats it several times, to let the message sink in. Damon sits, motionless, repeatedly and casually responding, “I know…I know…I know”…Then, after hearing it several more times, the reality of the statement truly sinks in and he breaks down; he bursts into tears, apologetically finally realizing the truth of the life-changing reality: It’s not his fault.
The Cleveland Indians front office must normally live with the reality that it’s not their fault that they must operate with a small-market budget when building their team’s payroll and compilation of talent. It’s not their fault that margin for error is very slim, because if just one or two free agent signings do not pan out well, that can be a setback with the success, development, and winning percentage of the Tribe.
With that in mind, the Indians made two seemingly huge signings in the winter preceding the 2013 MLB Season. Ownership showed a willingness to go out and spend significant money to acquire costly free agent talent to bolster a strong young core of players. In Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the Tribe acquired two veteran players who were seemingly entering the tail-end of their prime seasons, at ages 32 and 30, respectively. Both players came with solid track records, minimal injury histories, positive attitudes, and consistent production in their immediate years before coming to Cleveland. It looked like the Indians were bringing in solid veteran pieces to push their team back into playoff contention for the foreseeable future.
Here are the 3-year average seasons of this duo from 2010-2012, heading into their 2013 debuts in Cleveland:
*Swisher: .273 Avg, .366 On Base Percentage, 25 Homeruns, 89 RBI
*Bourn: .277 Avg, 42 Stolen Bases, 1 Gold Glove Award, 2nd in Defensive WAR among all NL Players
Now take a look at their average seasons with Cleveland in 2013 & 2014:
*Swisher: .227 Avg, .309 On Base Percentage, 15 Homeruns, 52 RBI
*Bourn: .260 Avg, 16 Stolen Bases, 0 Gold Glove Awards
Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti, and the Tribe Scouting Team had appeared to acquire two veteran building blocks back in 2013. Instead, these two high-priced veterans would underperform both offensively and defensively and suffer multiple injuries which further limited their production. They would become albatross contracts which were limiting the breakout potential of a talented young team with a small to mid-market payroll, incapable of taking on more salary.
You see, in Good Will Hunting, what Williams is actually trying to say is: ‘It’s not your fault that your life (and its hardships) turned out the way it did…but now you need to do something about it in order to better yourself’.
After trying to live by the “It’s not your fault” mentality with Swisher & Bourn’s struggles for the better part of two seasons, Indians management did something about it in order to better themselves, and the team on the field. Today, 2.5 years after inking two huge contracts, Indians management impressively traded away this ‘dead weight’, allowing the team to accomplish several key things:
1) An ability to take a look at young talent for the remainder of the 2015 season, without feeling the pressure to play Swisher & Bourn in the lineup on a daily basis in order to justify the large money being spent on their services, or lack thereof.
2) Payroll Flexibility heading into the offseason: Gone are the guaranteed $14 Million owed to Bourn in 2016 and another potential $12 Million in vesting option for 2017. Gone are the guaranteed $15 Million owed to Swisher in 2016 and potential $14 Million in vesting million for 2017. Gone is the 2016-arbitration-eligible (and underperforming) Brandon Moss. Will the Tribe spend $40 million this offseason to bolster their team? My prediction is: No way. Will Tribe management probably have the payroll flexibility to spend $15-$25 Million on one or two reputable offensive players in order to bolster their lineup? Yes, I do believe they will.
3) Rely on their Young Core for Future Success: The upper management, Francona, and players will no longer have to rely on Swisher and Bourn to stay healthy, provide veteran leadership, and attempt to produce and live up to their lucrative contracts. The Tribe has a solid young core in place in their starting rotation, bullpen, and daily lineup…this young core now clearly represents the player leadership and future of the team.
4) Comfort in Continuing to Rebuild: The largest of the ‘dead weight’ has been dropped, but don’t be surprised to see the Indians continue to rebuild. An off-season Carlos Santana trade wouldn’t surprise me in the least. As mentioned above, count on management to spend money to bolster the at-times anemic offense and help the solid pitching staff to get more run support.
The Tribe did acquire another supposed ‘dead contract in Chris Johnson and shell out a supposed $10 million to Atlanta as well, but it is worth the price to allow for a moderate rebuild and create payroll & roster flexibility, along with the freedom of no longer living with the large Swisher and Bourn contracts. Johnson is still relatively young (30) and did hit .321 as recently as 2013, so upside is most definitely evident.
In October, when the 2015 season comes to an end, management will once again be in the same situation they were in the Winter of 2012: A strong young core of players in place, coming off the disappointment of an underperforming season, with money to spend on free agent talent in the form of hitting.
This offseason, will the Tribe create another Good Will Hunting moment and have to live with the realities that ‘it’s not their fault’ they have a small-market payroll…or will fortune come their way in spending big money to bring in top-performing talent to propel their young team back to the playoffs? This time around, Tribe fans everywhere are hoping for the latter!