Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Was Moving Nick Swisher to First Base the Right Move?

When the Cleveland Indians signed Michael Bourn, my first thought was that Nick Swisher would be the designated hitter. When they instead announced that Swisher would be the first baseman and Mark Reynolds would be the DH, I looked at the defensive statistics and figured it made sense. Swisher does have a higher range factor and fewer errors. Besides, Swisher is here for four or five years and Reynolds will probably be gone after this year the way the payroll breaks down. It will be easier to find a new DH for 2014 than it would a new first baseman.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

But the thought kept running through my head, and now I once again think that moving Swisher to first might be the wrong move.

First, the defensive stats are not as conclusive as you may think. Swisher has not started more than 30 games in a season at first base since 2008. Besides the problems with small sample size, he is five years older than when he last played a significant number of games at first, so assuming he can be as good as he was back then is a shaky assumption. Reynolds, on the other hand, has been gradually transitioning from third base to first over the past three years. Anecdotally and statistically, he has gradually improved his fielding at first each year.

Furthermore, most of Reynolds’ time so far at first came last year, when he was not really healthy until August. He went on the disabled list in May with a pulled rib cage muscle, and had several other nagging injuries over the course of the year. The facts that he would be able to concentrate full-time on first base, and that he would hopefully be healthier than last year, makes up for Swisher’s heretofore defensive advantage in my mind.

Another reason to make Swisher the DH has to do with roster management. If Swisher is the DH, he could also be the fourth outfielder. Since all three outfielders are versatile, Swisher could play outfield once or twice a week and Bourn, Brantley, or Stubbs could slide to DH for a semi-off day. Given the platoon differentials of Brantley and Stubbs, a fourth outfielder stands to get significant playing time, and the switch-hitting Swisher would be ideal in that situation, with any of a number of players filling in at DH.

It is conceivable that Swisher can move from first base to the outfield on occasion and Reynolds can fill in at first, but it doesn’t seem likely or prudent for the Indians to do this. This will require the Indians to hold a roster spot for somebody who can play outfield for an extended period, which would seem to give an advantage to Ezequiel Carrera in the battle for a bench spot. Ryan Raburn can also play outfield, but it’s difficult to have faith in his bat or his outfield defense. Given that Mike Aviles and Lou Marson are assured two of the four bench spots and Terry Francona certainly seems inclined to keep Jason Giambi if at all possible, rostering Carrera would leave a lot of interesting players with no place to play except Columbus, including Raburn, Yan Gomes, Mike McDade, Cord Phelps, and Chris McGuiness. And in the case of McGuiness, the Indians risk being forced to return him to the Rangers if he does not make the Opening day roster.

Could one of these guys help the Indians more than Carrera? It’s hard to say, but if the roster was set up so the Indians could go with the hottest bat rather than being forced to fill a need, it may help them win a game at some point in the season. Roster management also has long-term implications: players who remain in Triple-A into their mid- or late twenties lose all of their trade value, and they eventually run out of options, forcing the Indians to give them up without receiving any value. Baseball history is full of instances where minor roster management issues turned into great careers for other teams. This is essentially what happened with Brandon Phillips, although at a younger age.

It may turn out that Swisher plays Gold Glove defense and that Carrera is more than adequate as the fourth outfielder. But that possibility isn’t enough to anoint Swisher the starting first baseman when Reynolds might be better suited for the job.

Who should be the Indians' starting first baseman?

  • Nick Swisher (76%, 41 Votes)
  • Mark Reynolds (24%, 13 Votes)

Total Voters: 54

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Tags: Cleveland Indians Ezequiel Carrera Mark Reynolds Nick Swisher

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