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Biggest free agent signings in Indians history

Some hits... some misses...

Harry How/Getty Images

The Indians ought to have a little money still to spend this offseason, should there be a player who interests them, but they're almost certainly not going to be signing anyone to what might be considered a major deal, like those given to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn two winters ago. Given the available players and the current makeup of the roster, I'm okay with that.

Since we're unlikely to have a new big purchase to debate, I thought I'd turn my eye back to previous splurges, to see how they worked out (or in the case of the players already mentioned above, have worked out so far). The list below does not include extensions or contracts given out to re-sign players, only to guys coming from other team. This list includes every contract worth more than $15 million total or (in one case) $10 million per year, plus the team's first big free agent contract, signed 38 years ago.


Michael Bourn: 4 years, $48 million (February 15, 2013)

Bourn was expected to sign for more than this, but the draft-pick compensation tied to him hurt his value. In the first two years of this deal, Bourn has played in 236 games and hit .260/.315/.360 (92 OPS+). That modest line isn't too far from what he was hitting before, but there's been a huge decline in Bourn's defense and base stealing. He's gone from being considered one of the best center fielders in baseball to below average defensively, and from averaging more than 50 steals a year to totaling only 33 of them for the Indians. He has 2.8 WAR*to date with Cleveland.

*All WAR figures cited in this post are the Baseball-Reference version.

Nick Swisher: 4 years, $56 million (January 3, 2013)

Swisher was coming off four consecutive seasons with an OPS+ of at least 120 and at least 23 home runs. In his first season with the Tribe, a strong finish put him not far from those figures (115 OPS+ and 22 home runs). He fell apart in 2014 though, missing more than 60 games due to injuries and posting one of the worst batting lines in baseball, and playing poor defense when put in the field. Through the first two years of this deal, he's batting .231/.316/.386 (99 OPS+), and has totalled 2.7 WAR

Kerry Wood: 2 years, $20.5 million (December 10, 2008)

Oof. Wood, whose injury history had turned him from a very starter into perhaps a very good reliever, was signed to be the Tribe's closer. (It was well understood that this was a risky move at the time.) He stayed reasonably healthy, but did not pitch well. He appeared in 81 games (with 28 saves), posting an ERA of 4.80 (ERA+ of 87). He totaled -0.2 WAR with the Indians, who traded him at the deadline in 2010 just to be free of some of the money they still owed him.

Juan Gonzalez: 1 year, $10 million (January 9, 2001)

Gonzalez famously turned down an 8-year, $140 million tract offer from Detroit prior to 2000, then had a down (and injury shortened) year and wound up settling for this deal when he hit free agency instead. He hit .325/.370/.590 (148 OPS+) with 35 home runs in his season with the Indians, worth 4.4 WAR, making him well worth the money.

Ellis Burks: 3 years, $19.5 million (November 19, 2000)

Burks was 36 was the Indians signed him, but coming off a huge year for San Francisco, and playing in a time when hitting well into one's late 30s was not uncommon. Burks didn't match his peak production, but did well for the Indians, hitting .287/.364/.520 (133 OPS+), while mostly serving as the team's DH. Injuries limited him to only 317 games over those three years, but he still totaled 7.5 WAR.

Chuck Finley: 3 years, $27 million (December 16, 1999)

Finley threw 437 innings for the Tribe in 74 starts. His ERA with the team was 4.59, which was good for a 102 ERA+ in those days. He had 5.8 WAR with the Indians, 4.5 of it in his first season with the team, before being below average the rest of the way. He was traded to St. Louis in July of 2002, with Coco Crisp coming back in the deal.

Roberto Alomar: 4 years, $30 million (December 1, 1998)

The Indians hit the jackpot with this one, as Alomar (already a 9-time All-Star) turned in the best three-year stretch of his career upon joining the team. He hit .323/.405/.515 (134 OPS+) for the Tribe, while also stealing 106 bases (in just 122 attempts) and winning three more Gold Gloves and finishing in the top four of the AL MVP voting twice. He was traded before the final year of the contract, for a package that didn't pan out. He totaled 20.3 WAR in his three years, and he placed 36th on our countdown of the greatest players in franchise history.

Kenny Lofton: 3 years, $24 million (December 8, 1997)

Lofton has been traded to Atlanta less than nine months earlier, but both sides were happy to reunite. Lofton was not quite as potent as he had been before, but was still very good. In the three years of this deal he hit .286/.381/.422 (104 OPS+) while stealing 109 bases (in 132 attempts) and playing good defense in center field. He was worth 14.9 WAR in those three years. (The Indians then exercised a team option for 2001, which proved to be a down year for Kenny).

Wayne Garland: 10 years, $2 million (November 19, 1976)

The first free agent contract the Indians gave out was (at the time) a whopper. Garland pitched 282.2 innings in his first year with the team, with a 3.60 ERA (110 ERA+), so they certainly got their money's worth that season, but Garland played only another four years after that, each of them hampered by injuries. He retired following the 1981 season, but the Tribe was only halfway through paying him. His full numbers for the life of the contract: 613.1 innings, a 4.50 ERA (89 ERA+), 3.3 WAR.


Looking at these deals, I see four big wins (Lofton, Alomar, Burks, Gonzalez), two big busts (Garland and Wood), one minor bust (Finley, though if you factor in that the Indians were able to acquire Crisp for him, it looks pretty good), and two that cannot officially be called yet (Swisher and Bourn), both of which seem likely to end up in the big bust department. Meanwhile, we're approaching 14 years since the club's last high-cost free agent success.