Tribe on the Warpath?

Spring Training opens for most teams this week, and as those camps open most of the free agent wheeling and dealing is complete.   Josh Hamilton signed for over $100M in Southern California, BJ Upton signed in Atlanta (and though not a free agent move, his brother joined him there a few weeks later).  The complete list of free agent moves is here – what perhaps is most interesting is that two of the first four names on the list, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, will be taking their talents to Cleveland to play for Terry Francona and the Indians.

While posting on Indians free agent activity is not something I spend a lot of time doing, this off-season is nothing short of remarkable for Cleveland.  It is easy to look merely at the signings, but before we do, I want to recap the 2012 season.  The Indians faded down the stretch in the 2011 season and probably went into 2012 with overly optimistic expectations;  however, the 68 win season would have disappointed even the most jaded fan.   This offseason has been a busy one for Cleveland even outside the free agent arena – with only a year remaining on his contract (and questions about his ability to stay healthy, play defense and hit left handed pitching), the Indians shipped Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds in a deal that netted them both Drew Stubbs and much heralded, but confounding Trevor Bauer.   Questions aside, Choo still managed to hit 16 HRs, steal 21 bags and produce 2.6 WAR, and that production though declining would be missed by any team, much less one approaching 100 losses.

By any measure, the Indians were the 2nd worst offensive team in the AL last year.  Attempting to address that issue, the Indians traded Choo (in essence for Stubbs and Bauer), and released Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan and Travis Hafner.  The table below summarizes the contribution of that esteemed group:

Name G PA wOBA WAR
Shin-Soo Choo 155 686 0.359 2.6
Travis Hafner 66 263 0.342 0.6
Shelley Duncan 81 264 0.295 -0.2
Johnny Damon 64 224 0.271 -0.1
Casey Kotchman 142 500 0.271 -1.5
508 1937 1.1

In 2000 plate appearances, they realized approximately 1 win over replacement level (or –1.5 over 1300 plate appearances if we exclude Choo).  How does 2013 look?  As mentioned above, the Indians signed Nick Swisher early in the free agent season, and yesterday bookended that signing by reaching a 4 year/$48M agreement with Michael Bourn.   The Choo/Bauer deal netted them Drew Stubbs, an in a less heralded move the Tribe signed Mark Reynolds, the free swinging DH type that Baltimore mistakenly ran out at 1B and 3B too often last year.  Again looking at 2012 production, here is what the new Indians produced:

Name G PA wOBA WAR
Mark Reynolds 135 538 0.335 0.5
Michael Bourn 155 703 0.326 6.4
Nick Swisher 148 624 0.363 3.9
Drew Stubbs 136 544 0.271 1.3
574 2409 12.1

Of course this is not rocket science – the Indians have spent some money, and spent it wisely on Bourn and Swisher.  But I think amidst the hoopla surrounding free agent signings we have lost sight of how little production the Indians received from those that are being replaced.  At this stage in their careers, Reynolds and Hafner aren’t wildly dissimilar hitters (though Reynolds is younger and healthier).  Nick Swisher is a better hitter than Choo, though a team that minimizes Choo’s appearances against LHP may minimize his limitations.  But Bourn and Stubbs (along with Michael Brantley) will allow Swisher to play some 1B (moving Reynolds to DH) and that will happily replace the 1000 ABs the Indians handed Duncan, Damon and Kotchman, which netted a wOBA around .280 and nearly –2.0 WAR.  Keeping Reynolds from doing any damage with his glove also doesn’t hurt.

All in all, there is reason to believe the Indians added 8-12 wins merely with these transactions, which would mean they improve from a 68 win team to .500 (with a little luck).  Their starting pitching still is banking on hope and prayer more than anything else, and their best pitcher (Justin Masterson) could barely crack the Tigers rotation (if at all) – so the playoffs still look like a longshot.  However, the Indians has a quietly impressive offseason, and given their young players (Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis) are cost controlled for years to come, this team could be dangerous if they can find some stability in the starting rotation over the next 2-3 years — or with a little 2013 luck ala the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, perhaps even this season.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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