Michael Bourn made only two errors in centerfield for the Braves last season. (John Bazemore/AP)
By Ted Keith
The Indians knew they were losing a former All-Star outfielder this offseason. So they went out and have now gotten two for the price of one, and in the process opened a new era for a team that has made just one postseason appearance in the past 11 years.
On Monday night, in a move first reported by CBSSports.com, Cleveland added the best position player remaining on the free-agent market, agreeing to a four-year, $48 million contract with Michael Bourn. An All-Star with Atlanta last season, the 30-year-old Bourn gives the Indians the leadoff hitter (an average of 51 steals the past five seasons) and centerfielder (rated the best in the majors by Ultimate Zone Rating last year, according to FanGraphs) extraordinaire they’ve needed since injuries robbed the recently departed Grady Sizemore of a promising career. Bourn also pairs with fellow signee Nick Swisher to give the Tribe one of the best -- and most surprising -- offseason hauls in the majors, one that could even propel them to the fringe of the wild-card race in 2013.
Guess which teams spent more than $100 million this offseason? The Tigers (projected rank of 2013 MLB payroll, according to Yahoo! Sports: sixth), Angels (fourth), Dodgers (first) and . . . Indians? Yep, Cleveland, which had a $78 million payroll last year, has now cracked the nine-figure mark for their winter spending spree after adding Bourn with the Hot Stove’s seventh-richest contract to go with the previously signed Swisher (five-years, $56 million) and Mark Reynolds (one year, $6 million).
Had those been the Indians’ only three moves of note they could be easily dismissed as a foolish get-rich-quick scheme unlikely to vault a team that finished with the next-to-last record in the American League in 2012 into the postseason just one year later.
Instead, Cleveland also traded for top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer and yet another strong defensive outfielder in Drew Stubbs in a three-way trade with the Diamondbacks and Reds, respectively, signed veteran pitcher Brett Myers to bolster their rotation and hired manager Terry Francona in hopes he can do something he did twice for the Red Sox: lead a team to a long-awaited World Series title.
Considering Cleveland lost 94 games a year ago, the franchise’s first championship since 1948 is still likely a long way off, especially given the Tigers’ status as AL Central frontrunners and a deep field of AL contenders that includes the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles in the East and the A’s, Rangers and Angels in the AL West.
For once, though, Cleveland was able to be aggressive in the open market, taking advantage of baseball’s increasing revenue streams as well as the fact that both Swisher and Bourn had to settle for deals far below what they had reportedly been seeking when the offseason began. As a result, the Tribe landed Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds for 10 seasons combined and less money ($112 million) than what the Angels gave to Josh Hamilton ($125 million) for half that much time.
In addition, the Indians were able to add Bourn without losing a draft pick; because they have the No. 5 selection in the June draft, it will be protected. That will allowing them to enhance their farm system which, despite their recent forays onto the open market, will likely have to be the biggest source of talent if Cleveland is to recapture its glory years from the late 1990s, when homegrown stars like Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez fueled a run of six AL Central titles in seven seasons.
While making three All-Star teams in his first four full seasons, Sizemore seemed like the kind of franchise player whom the organization could build on, and depend upon, for years to come. He averaged 6.0 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com, from 2005-08. Repeated knee injuries ended that dream and caused the Indians to go in search of his replacement, which has now led them to Bourn, who, coincidentally, posted a 6.0 bWAR in 2012, albeit at an older age than Sizemore had been. Whether Bourn can also do what Sizemore did by being the catalyst of a Cleveland playoff team remains to be seen, but if nothing else, Indians fans will now be able to look at their centerfielder and wonder not about what might have been, but what might yet be.