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.
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. [↩]
I still think winning solves PR problems, not more PR, but that’s just, like, my opinion man [↩]