The Indians and Braves pulled off a sort of bizarre trade Friday afternoon, with three of baseball's least-desirable contracts being moved. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are headed to Atlanta, while Chris Johnson is on his way to Cleveland.
Tribe fans are already familiar with Swisher and Bourn, who were signed to two of the biggest contracts the team has ever handed out, and helped the team make the postseason in 2013, but have been huge disappointments since then.
How about Chris Johnson?
His primary position is third base, a spot we all hope Giovonny Urshela will have covered for years to come. Johnson has also played some first base, and has spent a very, very small amount of time in the outfield.
Like Swisher and Bourn, Johnson has been a disappointment during 2014 and 2015. After a career year in 2013, when Johnson hit .321/358/.457, he stopped hitting in 2014, when his OPS fell from .816 to .653, and then he got even worse this season. His OPS right now is .592, and he missed nearly a month with a fractured hand.
All of that said, I love this deal for the Indians.
Johnson was never as good as Swisher and Bourn were in their best years, but Johnson is 30 years old, younger than Swisher (34) or Bourn (32), which ought to give him a somewhat better chance of getting back to something like league average. Even with his terrible overall batting line this season, Johnson has hit lefties well, with a .323/.344/.403 line. His OPS against southpaws last year was .988, and in 2013 it was .939. If he can play semi-capable outfield defense, he's got the bat to take over for Ryan Raburn role with the team next season, freeing up $3 million.
Speaking of money, Johnson is owed $7.5 million in 2016, $9 million in 2017, and a $1 million buyout in 2018, for a total of $17.5 million.
Swisher and Bourn are owed a combined $29 million in 2016, and will both become free agents after that (unless the Braves somehow let either of them reach 550 PA next year).
The Indians are also sending cash to Atlanta, reportedly ~$10 million, which would seem to cancel out most of the $11.5 million difference in what the players are guaranteed in 2016 and beyond. That's not quite right though, because Swisher and Bourn are also owed roughly $7.5 million more than Johnson for what's left of this season.
Subtract that total from the $10 million in cash that's being sent, and the Indians are on the hook for an additional $2.5 million this year. (Notably, that's less than half of what they saved in trading away Brandon Moss, David Murphy, and Marc Rzepczysnki last week.)
Meanwhile, they've saved $21.5 million in 2016 payroll, while adding $9 million in 2017 payroll and $1 million in 2018 payroll. Give or take the interest on money spent now vs. money spent later, and the Indians should still be coming out ~$9 million ahead in this trade, while picking up a player I think has slightly more value to them for next season. That's a win.
The 2016 savings are a huge deal, because as I wrote less than an hour before word of this deal started to emerge, the Indians were looking at having no more than (maybe) $12 million to spend this offseason. The team has a really good starting rotation, a solid bullpen, and some enviable pieces in the lineup. They aren't that far away from having a really impressive roster in 2016, a year when the AL Central should be somewhat down. $12 million wouldn't have been enough for any major upgrades, but they should now have at least $30 million to spend on 2016 salaries, and that is enough for major upgrades. Someone like Justin Upton could even be in play, if ownership is willing to gamble on the largest contract in franchise history.
This trade is a big win for the Tribe.