The Cleveland Indians pulled off perhaps the biggest upset of the offseason Monday night when they agreed to sign free agent outfielder Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million deal. The Bourn signing probably signals the end of major transactions for the Tribe this winter, with the team’s guaranteed free agent spending now soaring to $117 million.
I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that this is a great move for the Indians—fan reaction has (predictably) been overwhelmingly positive. But beyond the pure excitement of bringing in yet another top-tier free agent, it’s worth delving into just how helpful this deal is for Cleveland.
Before we reach a fever pitch of enthusiasm, it’s worth considering that this signing isn’t a slam-dunk win. The biggest drawback for this deal is the same as why few had expected Cleveland to be in on the Bourn sweepstakes: we don’t really need him. Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher had two of the three outfield spots locked down, and even if Drew Stubbs wasn’t up to the task for the third spot surely some combination of Tim Fedroff, Yan Gomes, Ezequiel Carrera, Jeremy Hermida, Ben Francisco, and Ryan Raburn could handle it. An eight-digit annual salary is a lot to commit to a player who doesn’t fill an obvious area of need.
That said, there’s no question that the addition of Bourn makes this team better. Last year, FanGraphs had Bourn as worth over five full wins more than Stubbs, whom Bourn will presumably replace in the Tribe’s lineup. Granted, Stubbs had an unusually bad season while Bourn had a career year, but there is no doubt that either putting Bourn in center field instead of Stubbs or setting up a domino effect that ends with Stubbs staying in the lineup and Mark Reynolds moving to DH makes this a much, much better team.
Bourn’s strengths also line up well with the Indians’ needs. His biggest asset is his glove, and with a pitch-to-contact rotation that doesn’t burn worms as well as it used to outfield defense is especially important the Tribe. (Depending on how the exact alignment shakes out, Cleveland may have the best-fielding outfield in the game now.) He’s the presumptive leadoff hitter heading into 2013, which is helpful since there weren’t any slam-dunk choices for the top of the order. And he’s a fairly consistent player from year-to-year—his offensive numbers haven’t bounced around too much over the last few seasons, and as the saying goes, speed doesn’t slump.
Moreover, the Indians are actually getting very good value for Bourn. Plugging Bill James‘ 2013 projections into the Simple WAR Calculator (v. 2.1) yields a projected 4.9 wins above replacement; Steamer (4.7) and Oliver’s (5.1) projections yield roughly the same result. In this winter’s insane market, that’s worth about double the Tribe’s $12 million average annual investment. Even throwing in a half-win decay each year (given Bourn’s durability and lack of injury history we needn’t expect much more than that) his contract should still look good even four years down the road.
Which brings us to perhaps the most exciting part of the Bourn signing: the timing. Bourn is now locked up through 2016, possibly through 2017. Nick Swisher’s contract is the same length. Michael Brantley, Vinnie Pestano, and Carlos Carrasco‘s arbitration years will also take them through 2016. Carlos Santana is under team control through 2017, along with Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Zach McAllister. In other words, the core of this team will be together for at least four-to-five years—and by the end of that span they’ll hopefully be joined by guys like Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, Mitch Brown, and Tyler Naquin. This is a sign that the Indians plan to compete for the better part of the next decade. “Window of opportunity”? More like a portico.
The Indians don’t really need Michael Bourn to put a competitive team on the field in 2013, and $48 million is a huge chunk of change for a small-market team to commit to any one player. But potential extravagance aside (I quipped to a Yankees fan friend that I now know how he feels most offseasons) this is a great deal that helps to set the Tribe up for success for years to come. Kudos to Cleveland for taking a big swing and making contact.