Happy Swishmas, everyone! The Indians rang in the New Year by making the most expensive free agent signing in the history of the club official, introducing former Buckeye Nick Swisher at a press conference at Progressive Field this past Thursday. Free agent starter Brett Myers was officially signed on Friday to considerably less fanfare, and GM Chris Antonetti’s offseason shopping list has most of its items crossed off. Young, high upside pitching? Check (Trevor Bauer). Veteran starter? Check (Brett Myers). Righthanded power bat at 1B? Check (Mark Reynolds). Power OF bat? Check (Nick Swisher). Throw in guys with upside potential like Drew Stubbs and Scott Kazmir and consider that proven winner Terry Francona is onboard to shepherd the flock for the next four years, you just can’t help but feel like the Indians are having one of the best offseasons in baseball to this point. While they’re not going to be able to hang with a team like the Angels or Dodgers, who went out and signed the most expensive hitter and pitcher on the free agent market, Antonetti clearly identified and attacked specific weaknesses on the club’s 40-man roster. For a team and a fanbase that has become accustomed to quiet offseasons, the winter of 2012-13 has been a revelation. The team that wins the winter rarely ends up winning the World Series, but compared to the deafening silence of the recent past, this year has been an awfully enjoyable experience.
The Swisher signing has been extensively covered by pretty much everyone who writes about the Indians by now, but my favorite piece was (unsurprisingly) penned by Anthony Castrovice for MLB.com. Castro focuses on more than just the contract value and the numbers on the field, and discusses what the signing means for the Indians moving forward. Swisher seemed genuinely excited to be back “home” in Cleveland during his press conference, showing off his trademark energy and enthusiastic personality. While some have criticized the contract as too long and for much money, the club had a ton of money coming off the books with the Hafner, Sizemore and Lowe contracts expiring, and also freed up a nice chunk of change with the Choo trade based on what he would have received in arbitration. Add to that additional revenue from the sale of STO to Fox Sports Ohio and the Indians went into this offseason in the rare position of having a real surplus of dollars to spend in the free agent market. Remember too that the overall MLB TV deal is going to start giving each club another $25 million in revenue, and in a year or two that Swisher deal could very well look like a bargain.
Irrespective of the final dollar amounts, what can we reasonable expect out of Swisher on the field going forward? Francona has already indicated that the switch-hitting outfielder will hit somewhere in the middle of the lineup, which is a no-brainer when you look at the current roster composition. When you look at Swisher’s career, it’s easy to see why the Indians decided that he was worth the contract they offered him; Swisher has appeared in 148 or more games for the last 7 straight seasons, and he posted an OPS+ of 120 or more in each of those seasons save one. He’s hit more than 20 home runs in every season going back to 2005. Since his rookie of the year season back in 2005, Swisher’s average season line is an impressive .256/.361/.468 with 26 HR, 83 RBI and a 118 OPS+. He stays healthy and in the lineup, and he’s a remarkable consistent hitter who will be a better defensive RF than the man he’s replacing. He can also play 1B, which will make him much more likely to hold value through the back end of the contract even if he can’t hold onto his defensive chops in the OF. Is there still risk involved? Of course there is. But when you look at the history of the player, the influx of money from the TV deals and the glaring need that Swisher fills in the middle of the lineup and in the outfield, it’s easy to see why the Indians inked the Ohio native to the deal that they did.
After the Indians acquired Trevor Bauer to strengthen their rotation for the next half-decade or so, there remained a glaring need in the near term for at least one (preferably two or three) effective arms. To that end the Indians signed veteran starter Brett Myers to a one-year contract worth $7 million with a club option for a second year with a raise to $8 million if the Indians decide to pick it up. To make room on the 40-man for Myers, the Indians (again) exposed Russ Canzler to waivers, and he was again picked up by an AL East team, this time the Yankees. So for those of you keeping score at home, Canzler has gone from the Indians to the Blue Jays back to the Indians and now to the Yankees in less than 14 days. Anyway, Myers will be returning to the rotation after spending all of last season in the bullpen for both the Astros and White Sox. Normally, that would invite questions about the durability of a player, but if you look at Myers’ career he’s consistently been an innings-eater, having thrown over 175 innings in every season he was in the rotation other than 2009. He put up a 3.79 ERA in 439 2/3 innings for Houston in 2010-2011, so it’s not like he’s years removed from being an effective starter. His move to the bullpen was based more on Houston’s specific team needs than anything else.
Expect Myers to slot into the middle of the rotation where he can throw 180-220 innings and give the Indians lineup a chance to win a bunch of ballgames. Myers velocity dropped from the mid-90’s in his prime to the high 80’s in 2011, and to his credit Myers re-invented himself as a pitcher. He relies much more on location that pure stuff now, and uses his four-pitch mix to set up and outsmart hitters rather than trying to blow them away. Better pitchers than Myers have succumbed to a loss in stuff and been forced into an early retirement, but Myers responded to an absurdly high 17.8% of his flyballs finding the seats in 2009 to a downright outstanding rate of 6.6% in 2010. If Myers can continue to locate his pitches and get hitters to beat the ball into the ground (GO/AO ratio of 1.35 last year) he can be an effective #3/4 guy and even a veteran presence that can mentor a guy like Trevor Bauer. Bauer famously got in trouble at the MLB level last season by trying to strike out too many hitters and not trusting his stuff to get outs on balls in play. Myers just happens to be a guy who used to strike everyone out and now gets outs on balls in play. Sounds like a match made in Heaven to me. Myers does have some personal issues in his past, from confrontations with teammates to the much more serious charges of domestic abuse involving his wife. But any worries about Myers negatively affecting the clubhouse have to be at least partially mitigated by the presence of bench coach Brad Mills. Mills was Myers’ manager in Houston, and if there were serious issues in the Astros clubhouse created by Myers, I’d have to think Mills would have stepped up to Francona and management to advise them against throwing $7 million at the guy. There are other pitchers out there that would have been worth that kind of money (Marcum) so it’s not as if Myers was the only option available to the Indians and they had to sign him, warts and all. So until proven otherwise, I’m going to give Myers the benefit of the doubt for his tenure in Cleveland, and hope he provides veteran leadership to a staff that sorely lacked that component last season.
So this all begs the question…what exactly are the Indians trying to do? GM Chris Antonetti has come out to say that Myers is likely the last significant free agent in the budget this offseason, so other than the usual slew of minor league contracts with invitations to Spring Training we’re not likely to see any additions to the 40-man via free agency. Early in this offseason, I advocated trading Choo, Chris Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera in an attempt to jump-start the inevitable rebuilding process, and listening to offers on Vinnie F. Pestano and Justin Masterson as well. The club did of course deal Choo for Trevor Bauer and others, but rather than continue to demolish/rebuild via trade, Antonetti used a significant chunk of change to bring in a FA replacement for Choo and a badly needed arm. So are the Indians done significantly altering the roster for one offseason? If so, it feels a little like the club has reached the dreaded “in between” talent level; not quite good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to just let the kids play and trade for prospects. Pauly C. sent me an e-mail this past Thursday comparing the Indians offseason this year to Oakland’s last season; trading away established players for youngsters while simultaneously signing veterans to replace the players they were trading away. The day after I got that e-mail from Paul, Baseball Prospectus published their transaction report on the Myers signing that included this little tidbit:
Cleveland’s offseason strategy is beginning to resemble Oakland’s from last winter. The key difference is Oakland’s pitching quality and depth. The Indians are hoping Justin Masterson or Ubaldo Jimenez can lead the way, while some combination of Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber shore up the back end. Yes, Trevor Bauer is around, and yes, Cleveland could add a veteran like Shaun Marcum. For now it’s hard to gamble on either scenario. Likewise, you shouldn’t bet on Cleveland winning the division. This Indians bunch should win more games than they did last year (68), however, and fans have to be pleased to see some offseason additions.
The main takeaway here is that while the offseason has been a solid one that has addressed two of the Indians main needs, the team is far from complete. ESPN’s Buster Olney went through his offseason top-10 series, looking at the top 10 infield, outfield, lineup, rotation and bullpens around baseball. The Indians were completely absent from Olney’s series. Even the vaunted bullpen mafia, led by all-star closer Chris Perez and lights-out setup man Vinnie Pestano, failed to rate even honorable mention status. As currently constructed, this team is better than last year. But that doesn’t mean they’re destined for the playoffs. Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer are the only blue-chip prospects in the system. So while the rebuild of the roster was given a great jump-start these past few weeks, it’s far from complete. Antonetti should still be looking to move Asdrubal Cabrera for young pitching. He should still be considering every offer that comes across the table for Chris Perez, whether that offer is made during the offseason or closer to the 2013 trading deadline. The team can still rebuild while making marginal improvements to the roster from season to season, but they cannot get stuck in the purgatory of winning between 75-85 games a year, every year. The Swisher signing will sell some tickets regardless of what happens the rest of this offseason. But the team can’t build for the long haul without acquiring more young, cost controlled talent, particularly on the mound. The 5th overall pick in this June’s draft will help, but that pick will need to be augmented by prospects from outside the organization as well. The best route to acquire those prospects is still dealing Cabrera and Perez.
MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff put up an excellent piece on Indians relief prospect Trey Haley earlier this week. Pleskoff is a former scout who has turned to writing, and is a great follow on twitter. I’m not sure if Pleskoff was ever an Indians fan, but he seems to tweet about Indians prospects fairly frequently and always gives his thoughts on moves the club makes. Pleskoff responds to almost every question he’s asked on twitter, so if you don’t already follow him I highly recommend it. It’s great to have the impartial opinion of a guy who’s made a living out of assessing talent on the baseball diamond. Pleskoff is high on Haley, as the former 2nd round pick out of a Nacogdoches, TX high school has an arm capable of touching triple digits out of the bullpen. He compliments the plus-plus velocity with a hammer 12/6 curveball and a developing slider and occasionally throws a changeup. Pleskoff called Haley’s arm one of the best that he witnessed in the Arizona Fall League, and thinks that while he has the raw talent to start that he’d work best as a closer in The Show. There are only two things that concern me about Haley, and they go hand in hand. He’s had a little trouble staying healthy (sports hernia last year) and has had some command issues. If he can stay healthy and on the mound though, his command should come around as there are no mechanical issues that will keep him from throwing consistent strikes. Haley was my #19 prospect last year, and will be at least a few spots higher than that in this spring’s countdown.
It’s not exactly Indians related, but Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus put together a very entertaining article where he mined some of the deep, dark corners of the Internet for a ridiculous trade offer from every team’s fanbase for the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton. There are some pretty entertaining offers in there, especially the Yankees and Red Sox fans that suggest including draft picks in the deals. I won’t spoil it for you, but a fan of one MLB team is not interested in Stanton because, wait for it, he hits righthanded. It’s alarming to see how many fans have no idea how to even spell the names of some of their top prospects and apparently have no access to google or baseball reference to determine the correct spelling. At the very least it’s a fun and entertaining look at some of the less educated baseball fans around the league. If nothing else it’s good for a laugh on a cold Lazy Sunday with less than two months till Spring Training…