Slow Off-season Shouldn’t Discourage Fans
The off-season is drawing to a close with spring training just a few days away. Many of the Indians’ players and coaches are already on their way to Arizona, but the Tribe has yet to make any major moves and, as the days go by, it seems less and less likely that any will occur before the season begins.
For Cleveland sports fans who feel that the Indians have given them little to be excited about in 2014, there is some hope that this lack of activity might not be such a bad thing.
Let’s recap the notable moves that the Tribe made last winter:
- Two major signings tied to draft pick compensation, in Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher
- A few other free agent acquisitions, such as Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers
- A handful of minor-league contracts to players like Scott Kazmir, Jason Giambi and Ryan Raburn
- A blockbuster three-team exchange for Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer
- A much lesser-touted deal that brought in Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes
Now, which of those moves turned out to be the most beneficial in the 2013 season?
Reynolds, who was lauded for his powerful swing throughout the early part of the season, turned out to be one of the year’s biggest busts. Before his release in August, he hit just .155 with two home runs throughout June and July. Myers was a disaster from start to finish, giving up 10 home runs in 21 innings to start the season, and then landing on the disabled list for the remainder of his time with the Tribe. Even Bourn and Swisher struggled, playing below the level that they had throughout their career.
The biggest trade the Indians made was similarly disappointing. Stubbs had only three fewer strikeouts – 141 of them – than his total walks and hits combined. Bauer spent almost the entire season in Columbus, working on retooling his delivery, excluding four major-league starts where he looked nothing like the elite prospect the Tribe had traded for. In those outings, he walked 16 batters and gave up 15 hits in just 17 innings.
Meanwhile, it was a collection of role players who picked up the slack and pushed the Indians to clinch a spot in the Wild Card game.
Giambi became Cleveland’s hero with a collection of memorable moments. A pair of walk-off home runs, including one to save the day after Chris Perez blew a save, endeared him to fans and teammates alike. Despite finishing the season with an OPS of just .653, he managed to play an important role in the team’s success.
Raburn turned his career around and earned a two year extension worth $4.85 million, with an excellent season that was vastly different from his abysmal performance with the Tigers in 2012. After a hot spring training, he continued to play well throughout the year, hitting .277/.357/.543 in 277 plate appearances, including 16 home runs. As a bench player, his versatility in the field was a huge help as well.
Aviles and Gomes might have been the most underrated acquisition of the year. Aviles, another versatile defender, had some memorable moments of his own – including a grad slam off Tigers’ closer Joaquin Benoit to defeat their rival in Detroit.
Gomes slipped onto the roster as a backup catcher, but quickly proved he deserved to be considered for the starting job. Not only did he hit well — .272/.357/.543, with 11 home runs – he demonstrated good instincts behind the plate and formed great relationships with the pitching staff. Gomes had so much success that the Indians have already made it clear that he will be the full-time catcher in 2014.
Kazmir was an even bigger surprise — turning a minor league deal with the Indians last season into a two year, $22 million deal with the Oakland Athletics this winter. He went from pitching in independent baseball to being a coveted starter, after posting a 3.51 FIP last season through 158 innings, and was a key part of the Indians’ success.
It’s not always the biggest names and brightest stars that drive a team to victory, both in the regular season and beyond. That’s not to say that players like Swisher, Bourn and Bauer don’t have plenty of time to prove that they are much more valuable than what they showed last season. Bauer has a good chance to return to his former place at the head of every top-prospect list, and Swisher and Bourn have both had an entire winter to rehab from the injuries that plagued them through most of the year.
Some fans also scoffed at the fact that the team passed on big names like Matt Garza at the trade deadline, and settled instead for acquiring only a struggling reliever. Marc Rzepczynski turned out to be a valuable member of the bullpen, and will return in 2014 to help fill some of the holes created by free agency.
While it might seem like the Tribe’s front office and ownership are not concerned with winning, or that they are letting a chance to “win now” slip by in order to save a few pennies, it’s important to keep in mind that many of the deals they made last year will carry over to this season as well. Swisher and Bourn will be back, as will players like Raburn and Aviles, who were largely overlooked last winter.
What the Indians have done this year is acquire another collection of players that will have a chance to prove their value in spring training. While some of them are destined for Columbus, others like David Aardsma, Elliot Johnson or Shaun Marcum could find themselves as this year’s success story. Maybe Marcum, who has struggled with injuries in recent seasons, will be what Kazmir was to the team last season, or someone like Jeff Francoeur could revitalize their career in Cleveland. Even the signings that seem the most insignificant can turn into the most beneficial moves of the winter.