When the Indians traded Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves in August for first/third baseman Chris Johnson, they managed to get rid of their dead weight, while assuming Atlanta’s dead weight. It seemed like it could end up as a slight improvement for each team; the Indians were able to get some roster flexibility and save a little money, while the Braves were able to clear a larger contract off of their books by the time their new stadium is set to open in 2017. It wasn’t a perfect scenario for either team, but there was always the possibility that these players could see improvement in a different setting. There was always the possibility that Bourn would thrive in a return to the National League (he didn’t, so far), and that Swisher improved with a change of venue (he hasn’t, so far). Johnson had a good season as recently as 2013, so there was hope that perhaps he could bounce back from his poor 2014 and 2015 seasons. Johnson signed a $23.5 million, three-year deal prior to the 2014 season; he was set to make $7.5 million in 2016 and $9 million in 2017, with a $10 million option for 2018 (with a $1 million buyout).
Earlier in December, the Indians designated Chris Johnson for assignment to free up roster space (which would be necessary with the Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis signings). That meant another team could claim him off waivers (which means they would assume the remainder of his contract) or he could clear waivers and one of three things could happen – the Indians could trade him to another team, they could keep him and outright him off the 40-man roster, or just release him. If they release him, they’re on the hook for his contract and another team could sign him for the league minimum. When I saw that the Indians DFAed him, I didn’t expect any other team to take on that salary. However, I honestly didn’t expect the Indians to show a willingness to eat more than $15 million in salary (along with the money they already sent Atlanta to defray the cost of Swisher and Bourn). I figured this was a move to free up roster space, and that they’d keep Johnson in the organization, but not allow him to take up a roster spot.
However, the Indians actually ended up releasing Johnson, meaning that any team can now sign him. While I understand the logic behind this move, I’m still kind of surprised that the Tribe took this route (due to the amount of money he is owed). Johnson is a very poor third baseman from a defensive standpoint, so you don’t want to use him there. First base is already a bit crowded with Carlos Santana and the Mike Napoli signing…adding Johnson to the mix really makes things crowded. Even though he hit .321/.358/.457 with 12 home runs in 2013, he also had a .394 BABIP, meaning that he was incredibly lucky that season. In very limited action after the trade to Cleveland, Johnson hit .289/.312/.367 with 1 home run in 90 at-bats; prior to the trade he hit .235/.272/.320 with 2 home runs. This is a player whose best years were boosted by luck, and who exhibits very little power (especially for 1B/3B), and tends to struggle with his on base percentage. He’s also a defensive liability at third, and average to poor at first base. It’s not like he’s bringing a ton of positives to the table.
Swisher was set to make $15 million in 2016 and had a $14 million vesting option for 2017 that is based on his getting 550 plate appearances in 2016 and the passing of a physical. The Indians are reportedly paying $5 million toward Swisher’s salary in 2016. Bourn was set to make $14 million in 2016, and also has a 2017 option based on 550 plate appearances in 2016; the option is worth $12 million. The Indians are reportedly paying $5 million toward Bourn’s salary in 2016. So for this upcoming season, the Indians will essentially be paying $17.5 million toward players that are no longer on the team. Maybe they figured “hey, we’re already in for $10 million…what’s another $7.5 million?” It just seems that they have always been hesitant to eat salary and just release a player; they wouldn’t do it with Swisher and Bourn, no matter how ugly things got. (And that’s considering rumors that Swisher became kind of a pain in the clubhouse). The fact that Bourn and Swisher were creating a roster logjam, the fact that they were dead weight in the lineup and on the field, and the fact that at least one of the pair was a negative clubhouse influence *still* wasn’t enough to lead to their release. Yet the Indians cut Johnson loose well before pitchers and catchers even report to spring training.
Johnson didn’t get much playing time after his arrival in Cleveland, thanks to the fact that he was bitten by a spider (2015 Cleveland Indians, am I right?) and the bite became infected. I thought that the lack of playing time may at least earn him a second look in spring training before they released him (since they’re usually so overly cautious about these things). I’m not sure if this factored into their decision at all, but Johnson did have a reputation as a bad clubhouse presence in Atlanta. In September of 2013, he ended up in a heated shoving match with first base coach Terry Pendleton that supposedly was the start of Johnson poisoning the team’s atmosphere. There was another widely publicized incident in May of 2014 when Johnson had a tantrum after a strikeout and smashed a bat in the dugout. Catcher Gerald Laird and manager Fredi Gonzalez were hit by broken pieces of the bat, which is obviously a bad thing. It was just one more incident to add to the list of Johnson’s “attitude issues” while he was in Atlanta. There’s no reports of anything of that nature taking place in Cleveland, but the Indians may have been wary thanks to his reputation.
I’m not necessarily critical of this move; I think the Indians needed to suck it up and cut some of the dead weight from the roster. Sometimes you admit you make a mistake, cut your losses, and move forward from there. Keeping someone on the roster just because you don’t want to admit a mistake (i.e. that Swisher and Bourn were not working out) or because you don’t want to pay a player that’s no longer on the roster, means that you will just continue to punish yourself over and over again for your mistake. That money will still be on the books for a while, but at least you’re no longer stuck with the dead weight of a Swisher, Bourn, or Johnson. While I may have at least kept Johnson around until spring training, that likely would’ve just prolonged the inevitable. It’s best to move on from these three and start fresh in 2016.