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Looking back at the Indians’ 2012 offseason

Somehow, five years later, the Indians have recovered from two of the worst contracts in franchise history.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Cleveland Indians Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The 2012 season was a total disaster for the Cleveland Indians. It came before the rise of Corey Kluber and the rest of the pitching staff, when Francisco Lindor was a baby-faced 18-year-old in High-A. The Jason Kipnis-led Indians went 68-94 that year, tied for the second fewest wins they have had in any season this century.

Zach McAllister led the starting rotation with a 4.24 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez was paid $4.2 million to give up 33 home runs. A particularly awful second half led to Manny Acta’s firing. The glow of the CC-Hafner-Sizmore years was long gone. The Indians were a franchise in trouble.

There were some bright spots, like Kipnis himself having a solid 3.4 fWAR season and Carlos Santana emerging as a walk machine, but there was obviously a lot missing; a lot that needed to change. Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro, and company went to work in the offseason with several big changes in mind.

The retooling started with hiring Terry Francona, which turned out to be a great decision, and remains so five-plus years later. But they also signed Nick Swisher to a 4-year, $56 deal, acquired Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers in trades, signed Jason Giambi to a one-year deal, and exactly five years ago today, February 15, 2013, they signed Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million contract. They also traded away Shin-Soo Choo one year before he would depart for free agency in return for Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, Drew Stubbs, and Matt Albers. It was also the offseason that the Indians smartly signed Scott Kazmir to a minor-league deal and turned him into a solid contributor to a magical run to the postseason. And finally, it was also the offseason that Mickey Callaway made the jump from the minors to the Indians’ pitching coach.

That’s a lot to digest, and it’s even harder to comprehend that the same offseason that brought us the disaster that was Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher also brought several key components to the 2016 World Series run and the success the current Indians are enjoying. It was far from all bad. You could even say the Indians came out with a net positive, purely from an on-the-field standpoint. If some things had gone a bit differently in late 2016, it would be considered a smashing success.

Lest anyone doubt the analytic prowess of Let’s Go Tribe most recent Mr. Site Manager, Jason Lukehart wrote about the bizarre offseason in October 2013 and how it helped the Indians make an improbable run to the postseason that year. He saw the decline in Bourn coming from a mile away.

He was one of the most valuable players in baseball in 2012, but he hasn’t been anything like that in 2013. His hitting, fielding, and base running have all shown decline. Some believe that’s due in large part to the change in leagues, adjusting to new ballpark and pitcher. Me? I’ve got some serious concerns about his production going forward.

The Indians signed on the dotted line to pay Bourn and Swisher a combined $104 million over four seasons. Even with Swisher’s above-average 2.1 fWAR season in 2013, the two combined to contribute just 1.2 wins in an abbreviated two and a half seasons in Cleveland. Some smart finagling by the Indians front office allowed them to free up short-term money in 2016 in exchange for having to pay Chris Johnson’s $27.5 million salary through the 2018 season when they dealt Swisher and Bourn to the Atlanta Braves in 2015. But the damage was already done to 2014 and 2015. By the end of his time in Cleveland, Swisher’s flashy personality went from a fun quirk to an outright annoyance, to the point that his teammates weren’t exactly upset to hear that he was traded to the Braves midway through the season. Many fans feared it would make the Indians gunshy about big deals in the future, which , of course, wasn’t true. The Indians proved it by inking Edwin Encarnacion to the biggest deal in franchise history last offseason.

There is also a lot to be said that all the moves prior to 2013 helped them make such a fun run to the playoffs that year. Mark Reynolds’ overall tenure in Cleveland was short and a major disappointment, but his 132 wRC+ through April and May led the Indians. Scott Kazmir had a 4.56 throughout the season, but that dropped to 1.63 in the final month, when the Indians had to win their way into the postseason. Nick Swisher turned out to be a total waste of money, but his offense played a huge part in the Indians’ magical September.

Jason Giambi did this:

Point being, a lot of magical things came together that year, and a lot of them came from players acquired just months earlier.

Combine that with the fact that Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw both would go on to play pivotal roles in the Tribe’s current successes, Terry Francona would remain of the best managers in the league to this day, and Mickey Callaway would craft the best rotation in MLB history — suddenly the 2012 offseason doesn’t look so bad.

It looks kind of great, in fact.