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The $17.5 million connection between the Cleveland Indians and Chris Johnson, explained

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Why the Indians acquired Johnson in the first place, and why it was a smart idea to cut him.

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The Cleveland Indians may have released third baseman Chris Johnson weeks ago (and he may have already signed with another team), but the two will be financially linked for the next several years. What exactly the Indians owe Johnson and why they would cut someone who they owe so much money seems to be causing a lot of confusion.

I have not seen all this information put together neatly in one place yet, so here is my attempt at doing so.

Why did the Indians trade for Johnson in the first place?

Let’s start from the beginning. On August 7, shortly after the trade deadline, the Indians sent Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn packing to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Johnson. In addition, they also sent over $10 million.

Combined, Swisher and Bourn are owed $29 million in 2016. Each of them also have vesting options for 2017 that say, if they reach 550 plate appearances in 2016, they are guaranteed to make more money. For Swisher, his 2017 vesting option is $14 million, while Bourn’s is $12 million.

So, If Swisher does not accumulate 550 plate appearances in 2016, he will be a free agent in 2017 and the Braves will owe him nothing more. If he does reach 550 plate appearances in 2016 (and passes a physical following the season), he will be owed $14 million and be a free agent after the 2017 season. Same goes for Bourn.

Meanwhile, on the Indians side of the trade, they owe Chris Johnson $7.5 million in 2016, $9 million in 2017 and there is a $1 million buyout of his contract in 2018. Throw in the $10 million the Indians owe as part of the trade and the money breaks down like this:

  • Indians total owed in the deal: $27.5 million through 2018
  • Braves total owed in the deal: $29 million through 2016 (sans vesting options)

From the Braves perspective, they are going to do everything they can to avoid triggering Bourn and Swisher’s vesting options so that they will be free of their contracts and can make a big push for 2017. For the Indians, it makes much more sense for them to spread the owed money out to give themselves a little more financial wiggle room while they are in their window to win over the next couple of years. Everybody wins.

Why did the Indians release Johnson if they owe him all this money?

Releasing Chris Johnson outright is a terrible financial decision. The Indians still owe him that $17.5 million no matter what. The only way they would be off the hook for that amount would be if another team signed Johnson to a larger deal, which is obviously not going to happen given Johnson’s precipitous decline since signing the original deal in 2014. However, it is a fantastic baseball decision.

The Indians are going to owe that money regardless. So, instead of keeping Johnson on the roster and milking every bit of value they can out of him to recoup some of their loss, they are cutting ties with him to make room for someone more talented on the roster. It shows that the Indians are not afraid of facing their mistakes in order to win now. They realize that paying Johnson $17.5 million to waste a space on the roster is less valuable than being able to add another player who can contribute.

Again, it looks bad, but it is a great, farsighted move from the Indians front office. This is not a team penny-pinching what value they can out of their players. They are making a move to win baseball games. All the Indians need to "win" the transaction is another player (a player that would have been left off the roster if Johnson was still on it) to be worth more than Johnson would be in 2015. Being that Johnson was worth -0.3 fWAR last season (and a mere 0.2 fWAR the year before) that does not seem difficult.

Be upset that the Swisher and Bourn contracts both turned out to be busts if you want, but do not be mad that the Indians went about the most realistic route of fixing the problem as they could.

What do the Indians owe Johnson now?

Johnson is expected to sign a league-minimum deal with the Miami Marlins, which is around $500,000 per season. So, as expected, the Indians are still going to owe a huge chunk of Johnson’s contract; they are only off the hook for that $500,000 (or whatever the Marlins end up paying him), per season.