Jim Bowden is a former General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds and later the Expos/Nationals and is now a radio host on SiriusXM’s MLB Inside Pitch show as well as a writer for ESPN.com Insider. He recently wrote a post entitled Five Offseason Moves That Will Backfire (insider required), on which he listed the Indians’ signing of Nick Swisher as No. 2 on the list.
In case you missed it, the Indians signed Swisher to a four-year, $56 million contract last month which pays him $11 million in 2013, $15 million in 2014, $15 million in 2015, and $15 million in 2016. There is also a $14 million vesting option for 2017 if he reaches 550 plate appearances and passes a physical after the 2016 season.
Bowden begins his argument with the fact that Swisher has never won a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger, only has a single appearance in an All-Star game, he’s a mediocre defender, and has an awful postseason track record. And, as they say in the infomercial world…”but wait there’s more!” He is also in his decline years (ages 32-36), which makes his four-year deal extremely risky, especially since he doesn’t profile as a traditional middle-of-the-order hitter. Bowden concludes that the Indians don’t deal Swisher after the second year of the contract it will come back and bite Chris Antonetti.
As Bowden stacks one negative attribute upon another it appears as if the Indians made a foolish mistake and will rue the day the name Swisher ever donned the back of a Tribe uniform. Fortunately, there is more to the story than just the negative attributes. Our own Brian Heise did an outstanding job of detailing The Off-Field Importance Of Nick Swisher . Brian discusses the marketability factor of a premier free agent and to understand the importance of this means accepting the fact that the fanbase in Cleveland has become apathetic toward the organization, an emotion worse than anger and more damaging.
What does this apathy look like? The Indians haven’t finished above ninth in attendance since 2002 and have not drawn two million fans through the gates since 2008.
The signing of Swisher does not immediately change the team’s attendance woes, but having a marketable player to sell the team to the community is an asset that ownership should be proud to have on their side. Swisher is not an aging Keith Hernandez, Boog Powell, or Frank Robinson. He is a Buckeye and a veteran baseball player with several good years left in him before he enters the twilight of his career.
Our own Jeff Mount looked at the benefits of increased attendance in his article titled Attendance Still The Main Factor In Indians Balance Sheet. Jeff suggests that for every 100,000 fans through the gates an extra $4 to $5 million of revenue is generated; just hitting the two million mark in attendance would thus provide Chris Antonetti between $16 million and $20 million in extra funds to spend on payroll.
If attendance is slow to come back, it will be fair to ask the question of how much today’s signing of Nick Swisher hamper future spending by the organization. This is one aspect of the signing seldom discussed, but one that probably played a large role in negotiations from the front office’s point of view. Unlike many other teams, the Indians do not have a core of young players who are looking to break the bank in arbitration or are nearing free agency.
There is no overlap in the young core of Indians players and Nick Swisher’s contract. Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, and Vinnie Pestano don’t reach free agency until after 2016, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall aren’t free agents until after 2017, and at the earliest Zach McAllister, Trevor Bauer, and Nick Hagadone can be free agents is after the 2018 season. It won’t be until the end of his deal that the Indians will have to worry about free agency for its remaining core players, and as of now not one player has qualified for Super Two status, nor do any profile as the type of player to earn big paydays in arbitration.
The Indians are quietly building a strong nucleus of young players who will grow together over the next five years. Rather than allowing the young players to face the growing pains alone and allowing the fan base to remain apathetic the front office signed a veteran leader who will help rejuvenate baseball in the city of Cleveland.
Bowden may be correct in his assertion that Swisher’s skills will deteriorate over the life of the contract. But if there ever were a window of opportunity to sign a player when the cash investment would have the least impact on an organization if it goes south and the biggest bang for the buck should contract value be realized, it was this offseason through the next four years. Chances are that Swisher’s overall performance will fall short of the full contract value but will be far north of a regrettable signing. The Indians needed a sparkplug to awaken the fanbase, they needed a marketable player that the city could latch on to, they needed a star. From a Cleveland point of view I can’t think of a better man to fill the role than Nick Swisher, and I don’t believe the Indians organization or fans will ever regret the signing.