When Nick Swisher signed with the Indians back in December, it was assumed he would be the team’s everyday starting right fielder. Swisher played 518 games at right in his four years with the New York Yankees, and did so capably with an average UZR slightly above 3.0. While not a Gold Glover in the field, his offensive production offsets whatever defensive shortcomings he may have and makes him very valuable to the team.
However, the Michael Bourn signing changed things for the Tribe. Bourn is a natural center fielder, and his presence necessitated that either Michael Brantley, Drew Stubbs, or Swisher be moved elsewhere. But instead of trading Stubbs (one of the better defensive outfielders in the league) or Brantley (truly underrated last season) the Indians chose to keep both and move Swisher to first base, where he has played 307 games during his career.
What exactly does this move mean for the Indians, defensively and offensively?
Mark Reynolds, who was the Indians’ first major signing this offseason, was originally signed to play first base. Reynolds played first and third for the Orioles last season, and was noticeably below average at both positions (though some were impressed by his glove at first). His UZR has been above zero only once in his career and he owns a career DRS of -65. Reynolds has always been valued for what he can do with his bat rather than his performance in the field; he will now be the team’s DH, where he can focus on contributing with his power. Swisher is by no means a great first baseman, but he projects to be better than Reynolds at the position.
The move to first also allows the Tribe to field their best possible defensive outfield. While the team could have played Swisher in right, Brantley on left, and Bourn in center, Swisher’s move to first allows Drew Stubbs to slide over to right field. Bourn was the top center fielder in baseball based on UZR, OOZ, and DRS last season, and should have won a Gold Glove award. Stubbs is too good defensively to be relegated to the fourth outfielder spot, and although he hasn’t played right field since Triple-A, he should make the move with no trouble.
In addition to allowing the Indians to field their best possible defensive lineup, the move will also allow the Indians to maximize the production and flexibility of their hitting. Before the Michael Bourn signing, the Indians would have been forced to utilize a revolving door of designated hitters, using players like Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, or Ezequiel Carrera at DH. But with Reynolds at DH and Swisher at first, the team will not be pushed into inserting these bench-level (or worse) players into their lineup on a daily basis.
Stubbs will also get a chance to prove his horrible 2012 season was a fluke. He hit .213 with an OBP of just .277, though he was able to steal 30 bases despite his troubles getting on base. Those numbers look fairly out of place compared to the rest of his career, so it is likely his numbers will regress back up to the mean. Stubbs may become a useful offensive player this year, so beyond his glove the Indians could benefit from having him in the lineup regularly.
Swisher is not an ideal first baseman defensively, but his move to the position allows the Indians to field their best possible players each day and gives them the best chance to win. No doubt Cleveland’s roster looks better with Swisher pencilled in at first.