It is extremely difficult to find anything negative to say about the Indians spending money. To see the Dolan family kick up the payroll like this is so exciting, we should all just throw a party and forget about it. But reality will always intrude. The fact is that any money the Indians spend is a precious commodity, so it is essential that it be spent wisely. To that end, here are some thoughts and reservations I have about the deal.
First, all indications are that Kyle Lohse could have been had for a similar deal. Regardless of how much hitting the Indians add, they will not be true contenders without improving the rotation. Neither Bourn nor Lohse seemed to have any offers on the table. The best way to look at this is that Lohse would have been more of an improvement over the starter he replaces than Bourn will be over the hitter he replaces.
Second, four years for a player who relies on his legs is a long time. Hopefully the Indians did not include a no-trade clause. Bourn is 30 and has no power; if he gets to the point where he is not a capable center fielder or leadoff hitter, there is no other way for the Indians to recoup the value of this contract other than to trade him. Since this deal is backloaded, it means that when Bourn and Swisher are at the end of their deals they could be a larger drain on the payroll than Travis Hafner ever was. It may be that there is so much cash flowing in by then because of the STO deal and the MLB TV deal that it won’t matter, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.
But perhaps most importantly, I would be surprised if the Indians have simply increased payroll; it seems likely that they will trim payroll somewhere else. The excess pieces that have been accumulated on the pitching staff would enable them to make a trade, but the only salaries large enough to approach balancing Bourn’s are Chris Perez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Justin Masterson. Masterson has the best chance of any Indians pitcher of becoming an ace, so trading him would be a mistake. Jimenez would most likely be traded in a salary dump once the season has begun and the Indians are certain they have five capable starters, provided he hasn’t experienced a resurrection in the early part of the season.
That leaves Perez. The Indians have enough bullpen depth to replace him in terms of raw numbers, but trading him requires that Vinnie Pestano become the closer and someone else steps up to fill Pestano’s shoes in the eighth inning. It is a gamble, but teams on tight payrolls need to gamble somewhere, and the ability to develop capable relievers is essential for a small market team.
As for where to go from here, I have seen conflicting reports about who stands to lose playing time to Bourn. I would rather see Drew Stubbs remain in the starting lineup. It is difficult to imagine Stubbs being a reserve given his salary, but he has skills that justify seeing what he can contribute. An outfield of Stubbs, Brantley, and Bourn would likely be the best in the American League, and the three could combine for a hundred stolen bases. I would lean toward a lineup with four “starting” outfielders, with Swisher DHing about half the time and Brantley, Bourn, and Stubbs spending enough time there to keep their legs fresh all year. When the Indians signed Reynolds they said his defense was a plus, so leave him there, with Aviles and Santana as backups.
Turning to the batting order, assuming Bourn is locked into the leadoff spot Brantley should hit second. There is a tendency these days to put a speed guy in the No. 8 hole, but Brantley gets on base more than Jason Kipnis, the other logical candidate. Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall in the Nos. 7 and 8 holes should be able to produce some runs. Stubbs, with his history of epic slumps, is best suited for the No. 9 hole, where his hot streaks will be a bonus but not essential to the everyday attack.
If nothing else, if the Indians are twenty games out in July, they have created the opportunity to make a bunch of trades and build their farm system. Brett Myers, Reynolds, Jimenez, Perez, and Cabrera will all be highly attractive to contenders. I don’t expect that to be an issue, though. If they want to contend, they will need one more shutdown starter, but still these moves have improved the Indians to the point where I expect them to be a .500 team and stay on the fringes of the race.