Last year at this time, the Cleveland Indians were the basement-dwellers of the American League Central. They were 49-58, 14 games back in the division, and coming off a 2-1 series loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Although they would make a surprise push in late August and into September, whatever playoff aspirations the Tribe had at this point were mostly gone. So, naturally, they began looking ahead.
Two of the most disappointing players on the roster, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, were owed a combined $29 million in 2016, with vesting options potentially making them owed a combined $26 million in 2017 if they each had significant playing time. The Indians managed to find a team willing to take on their contracts, but it came with a price.
Thank you for being a friend, Atlanta
The Atlanta Braves came to the rescue, taking Swisher and Bourn off their hands in exchange for Chris Johnson and an extra $10 million to even things out. None of the players would last long on their new teams, all cut by the time 2016 rolled around and paid huge sums of money to not take up roster spots. I wrote about the great baseball decision the Tribe made in cutting Johnson last January.
The gist of the Indians' reasoning was that they opened up some cash for the short term while putting some money on the books in the long term. They essentially swapped $26 million in 2016 salary for Johnson and his $7.5 million ($17.5 million if you account for the extra cash sent over in the deal), as well $9 million in 2017 and a $1 million buyout in 2018. Paying a player for two seasons of nothing isn't fun, but it hurts less than paying two players for nearly double the amount for one.
Like kids in a candy store
In the offseason, Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, and the rest of the Indians front office turned around and used some of that newfound money to go out and sign Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli to one-year deals worth $5.250 million and $7 million, respectively. Both players have played huge parts in the Indians' 2016 success.
Davis has been a part of the team's surprisingly-not-terrible outfield, slashing .260/.321/.412 (98 wRC+) while playing solid LF/CF defense and providing an element of speed that the team has not seen Grady Sizemore stole 38 bases in 2008. In 91 games with the Tribe, Davis has already been worth 2.0 FanGraphs WAR. In two-and-a-half seasons combined, Swisher and Bourn were worth 1.7 fWAR.
Similarly, Mike Napoli is on pace to put an end to the #RightHandedPowerBat 30 dingerz meme once and for all, just two home runs shy of hitting 30 out of the baseball parks from the right side of the plate. All the bombs Napoli hits -- all the times he almost hits John Adams and his drum or the scoreboard -- do not even account for the clubhouse presence the 34-year-old veteran has brought to the team. Nor does it account for the galvanizing effect and goodwill of the "Party at Napoli's" trend that started when one guy brought a sign to a baseball game because Napoli is a player known to get a little wild during celebrations.
The Indians do still owe Johnson $9 million in 2017, but that did not stop them from telling teams they had money to play around with at the trade deadline and going out to acquire Andrew Miller, who is owed $18 million over the next two seasons.
The Swisher and Bourn contracts were a mistake, but the Indians have effectively corrected it
It's hard to say these moves were able to be made exclusively because Bourn and Swisher's contracts were no longer on the books, but an educated guess would say that they played a factor. Without the trades, the Indians would either be left with Swisher and Bourn taking roster spots away from someone like Tyler Naquin, who has been the team's best hitter, or they would be cut and the Indians would owe a whole lot more money this season to a pair of players not on their team.
It is clear now, looking back, that signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to deals prior to the 2013 season was a mistake. The Indians bought high on Bourn, and Swisher's knees were apparently ticking time bombs. Regardless, the Indians made a smart baseball decision a year ago in an attempt to rectify their past mistakes and, depending on how far the Indians take things this season, it could pay off for many more years to come. This seems like a good of a reason as any to celebrate.