Do you remember how excited Nick Swisher was at his introductory press conference with the Indians? Do you, loyal Tribe fan, remember how excited you were at the time, too? It was a Merry Swish-mas! The switch-hitting, living, breathing can of Red Bull had signed with Cleveland and we all suddenly lived in Bro-hio.
Do you recall his first day in Indians camp during Spring Training? He unpacked his stuff, singing his own made-up tune (“It’s Triiibe Time!”) while teammates chuckled and figured Swisher’s energy and enthusiasm would help cure any lingering effects of the 94-loss season in 2012. He roared through the clubhouse on Tito’s scooter, jabbed reporters in the shoulder after questions, handed out high fives daily. Swisher immediately changed the culture.
On Day 1, here was what one of his teammates said: “That’s definitely somebody you want to have on your team. For him to be the kind of leader, and vocal leader, that he is, that’s definitely going to be something we need.”
With Swisher, and Michael Bourn, now in Atlanta, try to remember.
Underneath the bitter pile of frustration and anger over diminished performance, unexpected injuries, roster limitations and a tightened payroll, try to remember the good vibes that existed when both Swisher and Bourn signed with the Indians. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone — in the media or among fans — who knocked the deals at the time. Both were top-flight free-agents, and they came to Cleveland?
These were veterans with track records and there was little to nothing that said they couldn’t be productive for the Tribe over the life of their respective four-year deals.
“The free agent stuff, sometimes it’s a little bit of a crapshoot,” Indians manager Terry Francona said earlier this week. “That was one of the things I think we had really hung our hat on, was the level of consistency both guys had had.”
MLB Trade Rumors — as reliable a resource as any for projections, speculation and rumor roundups — ranked Bourn as the third-best free-agent before the 2013 season. Swisher was ranked sixth that winter. The site noted that Bourn might be in line for “Torii Hunter money,” referring to the five-year, $90-million pact inked by Hunter in 2007. As for Swisher, no one expected a $100-million contract, but he was viewed as “a fine addition to any lineup.”
Prior to 2013, Swisher hit .256/.361/.468 with an average of 26 homers, 31 doubles, 83 walks and 83 RBIs in 149 games each season. He had just one stint on the disabled list — in 2005 for a shoulder issue. In that eight-year time period, he averaged 4.20 pitches per plate appearance (ninth-best in the Majors in that span). Only five players had seen more pitches than Swisher. Consistency, health and a good eye often mean a player will age fairly well.
Swisher got four years and $56 million. The largest free-agent deal in team history.
Before 2013, Bourn hit .280/.348/.378 with an average of four homers, 28 doubles, 10 triples, 45 RBIs, 61 walks, 93 runs and 54 stolen bases in 153 games in that four-year span. He stole 257 bases from 2008-12 (51 per year and the most in the Majors overall). From ’09-12, he ranked first in MLB in steals, fourth in triples, 10th in runs and 13th in hits. Even if Bourn, 30 years old at the time, wasn’t going to keep swiping 50 bases (or even 40) per year, expecting 30 per season wasn’t unrealistic.
Bourn got four years and $48 million. No pun intended, it was a steal. (OK, pun intended.)
“That was a big part of why he acquired him, was defense in center field and disrupting the game,” Francona said. “He just wasn’t able to disrupt the game like we’d hoped, as often as we’d hoped.”
The Indians couldn’t see the future. They couldn’t possibly predict that Swisher — mostly healthy for his entire career — would break down, hurt both knees and see the leg issues cost him two-years worth of expected production. The Indians couldn’t predict that Bourn would rupture a hamstring in the Wild Card-clinching game in 2013, creating an issue that lingered through 2014. They couldn’t know that, even when healthy in ’15, Bourn wouldn’t be the same player. They figured he might steal 46 bases in a season — not total over the 331 games he’d be in an Indians’ uniform.
In the clubhouse, Bourn had the bigger impact over the past three seasons. After tough defeats, as a veteran on a relatively young team, Bourn was often one of the only position players around when reporters walked into the room. He’d make himself available, taking the heat off some teammates. That kind of accountability goes a long way. And, from his comments, you could tell his diminished production ate at him. You can complain all you want about Bourn’s numbers, and have every right, but he cared and put in the work.
During the 2013 season, Swisher had a good impact on the clubhouse, too. His performance down the stretch played a key role in reaching the playoffs and his energy was unquestionably welcomed after the Tribe’s turbulent 2012 season. Once the injuries struck, and the performance dropped, though, Swisher’s all-out personality didn’t always work well behind the scenes. Some people within the organization don’t mind seeing him in a new uniform.
And, really, that’s kind of a shame. Given the way Swisher embraced the Indians organization and the fan base, and with the charity work he and his wife did both here and elsewhere, this could have been a perfect marriage under different circumstances. As I posted on Twitter after the trade went down, Swisher could’ve owned this town, rather than being run out of it.
“When we signed both guys,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, “we were hopeful that they would help expedite our return to competitiveness. And in the 2013 season, both guys were key contributors to us making the postseason. Unfortunately, since that time, things haven’t played out maybe the way anyone would’ve hoped, and so that got us to [this point].
“At this point, we had to not necessarily dwell on the past, but figure out the path forward. We felt this move made sense for us and allows us that flexibility that would be helpful for us as we build our teams.”
This team needed a culture change heading into 2013, and it needs one again heading into 2016.
Trading Swisher and Bourn was needed in order to begin that process.
But, try to remember what it was like when they signed.
Remember how many times Swisher used the word “excited” when he first donned a Cleveland uniform? True to his persona, Swisher still used that word as he emptied his locker on Friday.
“I’m just excited, packing up all my stuff,” Swisher said. “I’m really just excited to get back on the field and play again — just be myself. Everything that’s went down here in the last year-and-a-half has been tough. Not only for myself, but organizationally as well. I just wish these guys the best of luck in everything they do and I hope they do the same for me.”