April 24, 2014

Nick Swisher: A Risk Worth Taking

There are plenty of reasons to be bearish on the Nick Swisher signing that locks him in for at least four years and $56 million, and I think some of the unbridled enthusiasm1 out there might need a wee-bit of tempering before we get too far ahead of ourselves.

For one, he could get hurt.  Just because he has a track record of impeccable health—Swisher has played at least 148 games in every season since 2006—doesn’t mean that he’s immune to broken bones or pulled muscles or damaged knees.  Perhaps he’s just been lucky.  Perhaps he’s due.

There’s also the inherent performance decline associated with players in their middle 30s, especially corner guys whose primary skills comprise power and patience.  In other words, guys like Swisher do not tend to age gracefully, and we could end up with a $14 million per year part-time player in 2016 ala Travis Hafner.

Speaking of Pronk, there’s the precedent of history to consider: the last time the Indians signed a player to a four year fifty-some-odd-million-dollar deal, they ended up with the broken down remnants of Travis Hafner and absolutely no payroll or roster flexibility to show for it.  That move paralyzed the organization for half a decade, and we’re just now out from underneath the crushing weight of it.  At the very least, you’d like to think that…well….there’s an old saying in Tennessee….

It’s also worth noting that, because of how terrible the team was last year, the simple addition of the three or four wins that Swisher may be worth won’t represent a jump to playoff contention or even a .500 record for that matter.  I understand Keith Law’s suggestion that even if the value of the contract makes sense in a vacuum, Cleveland seems an odd team since the marginal value of the wins that Swisher will add isn’t nearly as high as it might be for a team who finished 2012 closer to contention.  In other words, you might break the bank to go from 86 wins to 90.  But it’s hardly worth it to go from 94 losses to 90. 2

Finally, there’s the simple fact that ALL free agency deals come with extremely limited upside.  The very most we can hope from this deal (and all such deals) is that the player is worth the money he’ll be paid.  There is basically a zero percent chance that Swisher provides significantly more value than what the team is paying for.  If, for instance, free agent wins are going for about $5 million per win on the market, Swisher would basically have to be a carbon copy of himself for the next four years to “earn” the deal.  It’s very possible that he won’t be that player though, and almost all of that possibility consists of underperforming the deal rather than overperforming it.  Best case scenario: the team gets its money’s worth.  Which I would translate as “limited upside”.

So yeah, like I say, there are plenty of reasons to look at this deal and poke holes in the logic that led to its consummation.

But as I’ve been mulling it over in my head I keep coming back to the same answer: this was a good baseball move, a good business move, and one the front office really needed to make.  I’m onboard, despite all the risk associated with the deal.

First, let’s just acknowledge the glaring need we had and how perfectly Nick Swisher appears to address it.  After trading Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds, the Indians had Drew Stubbs for center, Michael Brantley in left, and….Thomas Neal in right?  Ezequiel Carrera?  I don’t even know who.  Anyway, Swisher will fit there just fine.  He plays a slightly above-average right field, gets on base and hits for power.  In fact, he bears some similarities to Choo—slightly lower OBP ability but a bit more power.  In many ways, he perfectly fills the Korean-sized void left behind in right field.

So that’s good.  If we lost three wins by losing Choo, we added them back with Swisher, and then hopefully added a couple more with Stubbs and Bauer.  We’re net positive here, and that’s not even including the bullpen arms we added or swapping out Casey Kotchman for Mark Reynolds.

Furthermore, while I’m not a big fan of making roster moves for PR’s sake, it’s hard to deny that this team has a PR problem right now, and that this signing might send a small message that the front office and ownership are working to solve that problem.3

Nonetheless, I still think we need to think more about Keith Law’s point regarding the Indians’ position within the division and their place on the win curve.  After all, the Indians don’t need a couple more wins to get to the playoffs; they need a couple dozen more wins.  So it does seem a little silly for them to make such a huge splash on the free agent market for what might amount to going from fourth place in the division to third.  I’m sympathetic to this argument and it’s the one that gave me the biggest pause when considering the deal.

But I guess I just don’t buy that the Indians were as bad as they played last year.  Make no mistake: they played atrocious, unwatchable, disgraceful baseball in 2012—the sort I’d be hesitant to unleash upon my worst enemies.  We’ve been down this road before, so I’ll be brief:

  • The team’s opening day starter had an ERA of 4.93. That was the second best ERA among starters, who combined for a team ERA of 5.25 and a record of 48-76.
  • Only five position players were worth at least one win above replacement-level.  That means the equivalent of eight full-time players managed to play at or below the level of your everyday Columbus Clipper.
  • The team’s W-L record was actually better than simple runs scored and allowed would have suggested.  They ended the season as a 68-94 team, but their run-differential suggested a 64-98 team.

So yeah. They were bad.  But I just don’t believe they’ll be that bad again.  I don’t think that Jason Kipnis is really .257/.335/.379 hitter.  I don’t believe that Carlos Santana will continue to hit .278 on balls in play.  I think that Lonnie Chisenhall will be better than Jack Hannahan.  I think that Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez literally CANNOT pitch worse than they did last year.  I believe that Carlos Carrasco might add significant value to the rotation, to say nothing of Trevor Bauer.  I think that what happened in left field last year will not be allowed to be repeated.  I think the team is still going to add another mid-rotation starter like Chris Capuano or Shaun Marcum, who’ll make them better still.

In other words, I think I have enough reasons to throw out last year’s results as an ugly, forgettable outlier.  Some people may call this an optimist’s rationalization, and maybe it is.  But if you believe that the 2013 version of these guys will largely resemble the 2012 version, then you were really advocating for a full-rebuild—a tear down rather than free agency additions.  And to be honest, I wasn’t hearing a whole lot of that talk out there this off-season.

So it seems that the Swisher signing is risky in a few different ways.  There’s the obvious risk associated with injury and decline—the risk that Swisher will simply not be worth the money the team has agreed to pay him over the next four years.

But to me, the bigger risk here has nothing to do with Nick Swisher.  It’s a risk that the rest of the team will be good enough to make his contributions matter.  It’s a risk that Jason Kipnis is the real deal and that Carlos Santana is more than just potential and that Ubaldo Jimenez has good days in front of him and that Lonnie Who Loved Baseball is more than just a prospect and that Trevor Bauer really just needed a change of scenery.  The front office has decided to take this risk, and so did Nick Swisher.

I think it’s a good bet to make. But then again, I’m biased: I want so badly for it to pay out.

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Footnotes:

  1. h/t Billy Mumfrey []
  2. This is, of course, not even considering that Swisher will not be taking the spot of a replacement player; he’ll be taking over for Shin-Soo Choo, arguably the team’s most valuable player of the last five years and likely worth three or four wins himself. []
  3. I still think winning solves PR problems, not more PR, but that’s just, like, my opinion man []

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Good points and I suppose I am also prone to optimism. I think that Tito Francona could possibly make a huge difference as well. If he can get the Tribe to play hard in the doldrums of summer we can stop losing streaks and keep the players fired up

  • Dee P

    When comparing Swisher to Choo I think one HUGE point goes unnoticed a lot and is above just analyzing stats. Swisher is a switch-hitter – Choo is lefty only. In late game situations when a clutch hit is needed, Choo could be easily neutralized with a LH reliever. This largely prevented him, at least in my eyes, from truly being our best hitter. He was not a clutch hitter, and it is mainly because of that weakness. With Swisher, teams cannot Lefty-Righty him in clutch situations, and he will have more of an impact on games this way. So while the WARs maybe equal….Swisher is more valuable by far by simply bringing that aspect to the game.

  • Dee P

    and I forgot – Swisher brings the multi-position aspect too. He can play 1B which provides us more flexibility with our lineups/matchups than Choo did by only being able to play RF and CF.

    1. Switch hitter

    2. Position flexibility

    3. Better power

    Swisher > Choo….and it isn’t close in my mind.

  • WFNYJon

    These are fair points. But Choo is younger, (viewed as) a better fielder, a better baserunner, can/will play CF, better arm.

    He’s also going to get a Jayson Werth sized contract. For better or worse, the market values Choo much more highly than Swisher.

  • BenRM

    When is the last time we actually got a free agent we wanted? I’m happy.

  • @TheDeePagel

    Does it make sense that Choo is more valuable to the Reds, and Swisher is more valuable to the Tribe? Or is that stupid thinking?

  • @TheDeePagel

    3 weeks ago with Mark Reynolds.

    No but all joking aside – you’re right.

  • Harv 21

    Here’s how I look at it: Swisher’s consistency, his position, his personality and his long-term commitment sure beat the recent usual. The usual has been a former good player felled by age, injury or recent suckitude who is willing to try us on a short contract and maybe earn a big last contract elsewhere, or someone else’s failed prospect.

    Maybe he regrets his timidity about Willingham last year, maybe landing Francona is giving him more confidence, maybe the extra annual $20-30M annually to the Dolans from the new national television contract permits him a freer hand. But the only way Antonetti can make this team palatable (forget playoffs) is to fix the amateur draft debacle and take the kind of moderate risks that Swisher and Bauer represent.

  • WFNYJon

    I see where you’re going with this but I think that it makes more sense to say that Swisher’s four-year deal may be more valuable to the Indians than Choo’s impending 7 year deal.

    In other words, when you include the contract (which you really have to) you can make the argument that Swisher makes more sense than Choo for the Indians. In fact, that’s kind of what the front office just did.

    But no. In a vacuum, Choo is probably the (slightly) better player, both now and in the future.

  • @TheDeePagel

    You’re right. But the Tribe fan in me hopes you are dead wrong.

  • Kildawg

    I see more stability for 2013 than 2012. LF is actually set (Brantley), we have a good OF offensively and defensively, more power-type hitters Chisenhall and Reynolds replace the light-hitting Hannahan and Kotchman (without much defensive drop-off), proven utility IF in Aviles, SP might be better with Bauer and Carrasco, with learning year from McAllister, and the bullpen is even more loaded.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I used to think Choo was a pretty decent outfielder made good by his big arm, but watching him on a regular basis last season changed my mind. He takes awful routes to the ball, initially takes a step in the wrong direction too often, and isn’t particularly fast at making a decision right off the crack of the bat. I think he’s going to be a spectacular disaster in center field for the Reds. Yes, the Reds will play him there, but teams could have played Manny Ramirez in center field if they wanted to… it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to do so :)

  • WFNYJon

    Yeah, lemme be clear: Choo is not a great fielder (nor a particularly good one), and he’ll probably be the worst defensive CF in baseball next year. So on that, we agree.

    I’m just saying Choo’s reputation defensively is better than Swisher’s, and that if you had the choice between a RF who could play some CF or a RF who could play some 1B you’d take the former. That’s what he’ll be valued as, and it’s just one reason he’s going to get a huge FA deal next year.

    Also, if you want a commiserating partner on Choo’s bad defense, look no further than TD. He’s been lamenting his defense for more than a year now.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I think just about everybody would agree with that, but I’m still not convinced he’s even better than Swisher as an outfielder (other than the arm). So I will go to TD to get what I need… I like to fill my life with yes-men.

  • BenRM

    True – Reynolds was a happy pickup as well.

  • mgbode

    we didn’t fill out OF hole with a player who is going to spend the year on the DL. at least we don’t already think he will.
    yes, he’s overpaid with this deal, he has risk of his stats falling off a cliff or becoming injury prone in his mid-30s (like the rest of us).
    but, man does it feel good to know our OF is set, we added a middle of the lineup hitter and that if we get another SP and maybe a little lucky on bounceback seasons from Ubaldo and Masterson we might be able to do something interesting.
    still haven’t had the offseason of Detroit or KC, but hopefully we were ahead of KC (and Chicago) before this offseaon. that’s the hope with the moves we made (i don’t think anyone could think we are actually ahead of Detroit)

  • @TheDeePagel

    If anybody is “due” for an injury it’s Detroit’s Cabrera, Fielder, and Verlander. I’ll take the division any way I can get it. If that’s bad sportsmanship…….hmmm…..well?

  • playing left out

    this is a good sign by the Tribe but they overpaid which will always have to happen to lure quality players. switch hitter with power he’ll fit nicely in the 3 hole. however, he doesn’t have the protection of the yankees lineup so his numbers should go down quite a bit and health might become a concern. its reasonable that this could blow up and turn into another hafner contract. now that they replaced the halfner/sizemore contracts lets see them actually spend above and beyond and pick up another hitter or a sp. the price for starting pitching though is a joke. liriano $14 mil for 2 yrs is frightening

  • mgbode

    I am not going to complain if we win