In the organization’s biggest free agent acquisition since signing reliever Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20 million in the winter of 2008, the Cleveland Indians have come to terms with right fielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, for four years and $56 million, which, according to a source, has a fifth year vesting option that will “easily vest, making the potential value of the contract $70 million.”
Swisher has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, posting at least 3.8 wins above replacement (FanGraphs’ version) five of the last seven seasons. And the 32-year-old switch hitter is coming off of a typical Swisher-like season, hitting .272/.364/.473 while showing plus-patience at the plate (12.3% BB-rate), above-average power and a solid showing defensively.
And while I thought this was a long shot to happen, I have mixed feelings on how this impacts the organization both in the long- and short-terms.
The Good (In Order):
• The Contract Value: Back in late October, I predicted that Swisher would sign for something in the five-year, $75 million neighborhood. And assuming that the fifth year is vested easily, that’s just about what he’ll make. But let’s take it a step further.
Swisher’s averaged 4.0 wins above replacement over the last three seasons. Assuming he can maintain that total this season before declining to 3.5, 3.0, 3.0, and 2.5 wins over the life of the contract. The total value of his production should be just under $92 million. (Using 5.25 million per win with inflation added after 2013).
So, even if he loses an entire season due to injury or declines quicker than expected, the Indians should, at the very least, get what they paid for.
• Pitches Per Plate Appearance: This is going to fly under the radar by a lot of people, but by adding Swisher and Mark Reynolds, the team now has three of the top nine players to finish in pitchers per plate appearances in 2012 (Carlos Santana is the third).
And the premise is simple, really. The more pitches a hitter sees, the longer an inning extends. It also help to get into the opposing bullpen. And don’t underestimate this impact in three- or four-game series’. There are a lot of average- to below-average bullpens in baseball.
As a quick back-of-the-envelope estimate, assuming the three aforementioned players get four PAs per game, they should see just about 50 pitches per game. That’s an extraordinary amount for three hitters.
• The Aggressiveness of the Front Office: The Indians have been uncharacteristically aggressive this offseason. First, inking a big-name manager in Terry Francona. Then dealing Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds in a three-team mega-trade, which they won, easily. And now signing a premier free agent to a long term, moderately high-dollar amount.
Frankly, it’s nice to see the organization re-invest the money from expiring contracts — Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Fausto Carmona — as well the millions saved in the Choo trade, back into the team.
• Balance of the Lineup: The Indians notoriously started at times as many as seven left-handed bats last season: Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, Jack Hannahan, Michael Brantley, Johnny Damon, Choo, and Hafner.
Theoretically, it could have worked, if the team had any meaningful right-handed bats to help off the bench. They didn’t. But with the Drew Stubbs, Mark Reynolds and Swisher additions, the lineup is far more balanced.
Here’s a look at the projected starting lineup:
It’s a well-balanced attack, offering a solid amount of lefties and righties, as well as power and on-base skills. I know, I know: the strikeouts! I don’t give a damn about those personally. Strikeouts cost a team about .3 runs; fly ball outs cost .28 and groundball outs about .24. It’s not negligible, but it’s not enough to be concerned about.
• Positional Flexibility: One hole is still looming in the Indians’ lineup, either at first base, designated hitter, or right field. But adding Swisher doesn’t pigeon-hole the team into adding one particular position because of his ability to handle either right or first. They could potentially add several players via trade or free agency.
• The Grittiness: The analytical side will inevitably laugh at the baseball player side of me, but Swisher brings a certain mindset to the Indians, something similar to what Kevin Youkillis would have added: grittiness.
Swisher’s a gamer, a hard-nosed player. It’s an intangible that, admittedly, can’t be measured, but is certainly worth something.
The Bad (In Order):
• The Impact on the Contract on the Rest of the Roster: Cleveland is not a free-spender. Everyone knows that. So, is locking up a 32-year-old outfielder going to inhibit the team from signing, say, Jason Kipnis, Vinnie Pestano, or any other young player long term? I don’t have that answer, only the front office does. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.
But the real issue I have with this signing is, the team isn’t going to contend — legitimately — in 2013 and most likely 2014. Swisher will then be 34+ and command a considerable amount of money. How will that impact any potential front office moves?
• The Length of the Contract: I despise long term contract, especially for 32-year-old players with “old man skills.” And while I just pointed out that the organization should easily get their money’s worth in signing Swisher, there’s a certain amount of inherent, unaccountable risk in signing players well into their 30s. He could be an anomaly and decline quicker than expected. No one knows. And the Indians can’t afford to be caught on the wrong side of that argument. See: Travis Hafner.
• Loss of a Second Round Pick: The Indians now have to forfeit their second round pick — fifth in each round — in the 2013, which may or may not be meaningful considering how poorly the team has drafted over the last decade. On the positive side, the team picked up an additional supplemental pick following the second round because of the new Competitive Balance Lottery.
• Can the organization rebuild and contend at the same time?: I feel like we’ve been through this once before, right? The team tries to rebuild and add the right pieces to contend at the same time. Remember that ill-fated Matt Lawton contract, right after the team acquired him from the Mets for Roberto Alomar?
The Indians added a big name in Nick Swisher, a piece, though, that’s certainly not going to thrust the club into playoff contention. So it’s a bit of a curious addition. There’s a lot to like, and equally a lot to fear. And in the end, this just adds pressure on players like Lonnie Chisenhall, Drew Stubbs, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Justin Masterson to rebound from dismal seasons.
Now, if I could only convince the team to deal Chris Perez, whose value will never be higher, for another young bat. Sigh.
Nick Swisher Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.com