The last three to four days were relatively active for the Indians, full of the spirit of giving and receiving. First, when the Mark Reynolds signing became official, the Tribe designated Russ Canzler for assignment to make room on the roster. Canzler was later claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays (giving – generous!). Then the Indians signed LHP Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal, hoping for a comeback much like his solid performance in winter ball this offseason. Finally, they announced today that they signed Nick Swisher to a four year/$56 million deal with a vesting option for a fifth year. Since this is a rather generous deal (particularly for the Indians) I think this could qualify as the spirit of both giving and receiving.
Let’s look at all of these moves in a bit more detail:
I saw that a lot of Indians fans were surprised by the fact that Canzler was DFAed to make room for Reynolds. They cite his respectable numbers at Triple-A Columbus last season (.265/.328/.487 with 22 home runs) and his okay numbers in September in Cleveland (.269/.299/.398 with 3 home runs) as reasons for his retention. I, however, am not that surprised or disappointed by this move. The fact that Tampa Bay gave up on Canzler has always made me a bit suspicious about his abilities and his ceiling as a major league player. The Rays typically don’t miss on players, and for them to surrender Canzler for cash when they could use a first baseman, never gave me much optimism where Canzler was concerned. He didn’t have to be a superstar though, he just had to be a serviceable player in Cleveland since the Indians have been thin at first base. He proved to be fairly streaky in Columbus though – he’d be on fire, then he’d enter a prolonged slump. His on base percentage numbers at the end of the year were pretty disappointing, but he was right-handed and he smashed left handed pitching during that month – .393/.414/.679 (he hit just .215/.250/.277 against right handed pitching). While he probably could have worked in a platoon situation, the Indians ended up claiming first baseman Mike McDade off waivers from Toronto earlier this fall. McDade is just 23 (Canzler was 26) and hit .285/.360/.445 with 17 home runs split between Toronto’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in 2012. He became a victim of their monster trade with the Marlins; someone needed to go to make room for all of the acquired players and McDade drew the short straw. As a switch hitter that’s younger than Canzler with comparable numbers, they must have felt that McDade was the better option and that both players were not needed. The Indians also claimed a Double-A first baseman from the Texas Rangers during the Rule 5 draft – Chris McGuiness. With McDade, McGuiness, Jesus Aguilar, Matt LaPorta, and now Mark Reynolds, one of these guys had to draw the short straw.
Scott Kazmir hasn’t played in the majors since he threw 1.2 innings for the Angels in 2011, and gave up five runs in that 1.2 innings. His stats had been steadily declining to that point, so it’s not as if this came out of left field (pun kind of intended). The soon-to-be 29-year-old played with the independent league Sugarland Skeeters in his hometown of Houston, Texas in 2012. If that team sounds familiar to you, it’s where Roger Clemens attempted his comeback toward the end of last season. Even though it looked like it may be the end for Kazmir – relegated to the independent leagues, velocity down to the mid-to upper 80s, he’s had a strong comeback pitching for Gigantes de Carolina in Puerto Rico this winter. His velocity is reportedly around 90-94, and in 22.2 innings pitched he’s 0-2 with a 4.37 ERA and 27 strikeouts. The increase in velocity is very encouraging, and it will be interesting to see if Kazmir can mount a comeback and earn a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training. I see absolutely no negatives to this move; it’s a low-risk minor league deal so if it doesn’t work out, it’s no big loss. The best case scenario is that the Indians could have a left-handed pitcher that could eat some innings that’s not named David Huff.
Last, but certainly not least, Nick Swisher finally accepted the Indians’ proposal and will come to Cleveland on a 4 year/$56 million contract with a vesting option for a fifth year. As Chris mentioned earlier, this is the largest deal the Indians have given a free agent in team history. I’m not sure how the Indians pulled this off – if they decided to listen to my suggestions for wooing him, if Swisher didn’t have any other competitive offers, or if the Tribe was just able to win him over with their scoreboard greetings and their romantic dinners. I must admit that I’m a bit surprised; I really expected Swisher to head elsewhere, having used the Indians’ offer to leverage a better deal from another team. It also seemed like the Indians were just trying a bit too hard, and nobody wants to date the guy/girl that looks desperate. It took me back to when I was in high school, when I politely rejected a guy that had asked me out. He wasn’t the type to take no for an answer, and he proceeded to call me approximately 7 or 8 times a day in an attempt to change my mind over the next month after the initial ask. He also had the relatively creepy habit of showing up to where ever I happened to be with my friends on a Friday or Saturday night – the mall, the movies, a restaurant, etc. I just couldn’t be mean to this guy, but there was absolutely NO WAY I was saying yes after all of this over-the-top weirdness. It got to a point where it surpassed annoying and became extremely creepy. My older cousin offered to step in and “take care of the problem” as he put it. While we were hanging out at a local restaurant one night, this guy magically showed up (for the 1,000th time) with his friends. My cousin (in his most menacing manner) stormed over to them and yelled “which one of you is Joe?” (the guy’s name) His friends immediately ratted him out and all simultaneously pointed to him as he slumped lower and tried to be invisible. My cousin got in his face and yelled, “you, you’re Joe?” The guy slowly nodded in a terrified sort of way. All of the sudden my cousin’s face broke out in a huge smile and he extended his hand (as if he wanted him to shake it) and brightly says “hi Joe, I’m slow!” and walks away (without the guy shaking his hand). This kid was so befuddled, so creeped out by the whole thing, that I never heard from him again. Maybe Nick Swisher didn’t have a cousin to mortify Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro? Or perhaps they stopped their pursuit just short of creepy? It could also be that they managed to charm him in a way that my high school suitor did not charm me.
Regardless of the circumstances, I am glad that Swisher agreed to come to Cleveland. I’m slightly worried about decline at the tail end of this deal, but sometimes you need to just swallow those concerns in order to get the production at the front end. There are a few things I like about Swisher, and I’m actually quite glad that he’ll be coming to Cleveland instead of Shane Victorino. He’s pretty versatile – he’s a switch hitter and can play outfield or first base (although he’ll be going into Shin-Soo Choo’s spot in right field). The Indians desperately lacked a power bat last offseason, and Swisher hit 24 home runs in 2012. I know that a lot has been said about the friendly dimensions of Yankee Stadium, but Swisher has hit more than 20 home runs in every full season of his major league career dating back to 2005 (he had just 71 plate appearances in 2004, his first year in the majors). He’s never had an OPS below .700, and even in seasons where his average has been iffy, his OBP has been relatively solid. There’s only one full season in the majors that he’s had a negative WAR, and that’s 2008. Last season it was 3.5, and it was 1.5 in 2011 and 3.4 in 2010. As I mentioned the other day in the Andre Ethier post, Swisher has great splits when it comes to right-handed and left-handed pitching. Swisher hit .272/.364/.473 with 24 home runs overall in 2012 and against lefties he hit .270/.380/.389 with 5 home runs (.769 OPS), and against righties he hit .273/.356/.517 with 19 home runs (.873 OPS). As I said before, while more of Swisher’s power comes from the left side of the plate against right-handed pitching, his average and OBP is very consistent regardless of which direction he is batting.
It’s been a productive month for the Indians on the free agent and trade market. After last offseason’s blockbuster moves of trading for Derek Lowe, and signing Casey Kotchman to a one-year, $3 million deal, this month looks like an insane amount of activity by comparison. Even though they surrendered Shin-Soo Choo, he wouldn’t be around for much longer anyway. They acquired a potential ace in Trevor Bauer, a power-hitting first baseman (that loves to strike out) in Mark Reynolds, and a switch-hitting, versatile outfielder in Nick Swisher. Toss in Drew Stubbs and Scott Kazmir, who may or may not make significant contributions and it’s still a much better situation heading in to spring training than we saw last season. When you consider the thin and competitive market this winter, and the fact the Indians are never able to spend much, I think all of these moves are the absolute best we could have hoped for. I should also send Victorino a little thank-you gift for choosing Boston; I’d rather see Swisher in right for the next four years instead of him.