The Cleveland Indians were supposed to contend this year, but Friday's trade sending Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the Braves is about nothing more than a salary dump for them.
It’s not uncommon for baseball trades to be as much about the contracts involved as the players, but Friday's trade between the Braves and Indians is so entirely about the contracts that one suspects both teams would be perfectly content if the players involved never actually reported to their new teams. The deal finds Cleveland sending centerfielder Michael Bourn, outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher and roughly $10 million to Atlanta for third baseman Chris Johnson. The net effect is that the Braves are increasing salary for this season and what they expect to be another rebuilding year in 2016 while reducing salary for what they hope will be their bounce-back campaign of 2017, when they are planning to open their new suburban ballpark. The Indians, meanwhile, are reducing payroll in the near term as they continue to hope they can fulfill the overenthusiastic expectations that led to the team being a popular, if somewhat inexplicable, sleeper pick this past spring.
Here’s how that works: Johnson will get approximately $9.5 million between now and the end of next season, but he is due to make another $9 million in 2017 and has a $1 million buyout on his option for '18. In order to erase that $10 million from their 2017 tab, the Braves are taking on the $38.5 million Swisher and Bourn are due through the end of '16, after which both have vesting options pegged to plate appearances they’re extremely unlikely to get with Atlanta next season. With the roughly $10 million included in the trade, the Braves are thus taking on $28.5 million in salary and dumping $19.5 million, an increase of $9 million in total commitments for the ability to free up that $10 million in 2017.
That salary flexibility is about all Atlanta is getting in this deal. Swisher, considered one of the top free agents on the market after the 2012 season, had a respectable first season in Cleveland in '13 while helping the Indians reach the postseason, but he has been awful since. Plagued by knee problems, which resulted in his having surgery on both knees last August, he has appeared in just 127 games since the start of 2014 and hit a pathetic .206/.274/.323. That line translates to a 67 OPS+, the seventh-lowest mark among players with 500 or more total plate appearances over the last two seasons. Lacking any defensive value (Swisher has started more games at designated hitter than any other position over the last two years), Swisher has thus been rendered a sub-replacement-level player, registering -1.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference.com.
Swisher is still on the disabled list and nearly three weeks in to his rehab assignment, which is a good indication of Cleveland's lack of eagerness to make room for him on its roster. He is expected to be activated by the Braves on Saturday but, due to turn 35 in November, his days as a productive major league player are most likely behind him.
Bourn’s decline has been less dramatic, but it’s difficult to imagine him as anything more than a bench player for Atlanta. That Bourn didn’t sign with Cleveland until Feb. 15, 2013 was a sign of how dubious teams were about the free agent centerfielder’s ability to follow up his career-best '12 campaign heading into his age-30 season. They were quickly proven right. Bourn posted nearly identical batting lines in his first two years in Cleveland, hitting .260/.315/.360 in 2013 and ’14 combined for a 91 OPS+ while seeing his stolen base numbers nosedive from an average of 51 per season at an 81% success rate from 2008-12 to 15 and 65%, respectively, since then.
A chronic hamstring injury further limited Bourn's contributions in 2014, and while he has stayed healthy this year and experienced a small rebound on the bases with 13 steals, his limited power has evaporated (only one of his 71 hits this season has gone for more than two bases) resulting in a .246/.313/.294 line and a 70 OPS+. Bourn, who played 53 games for Atlanta in 2011 after being traded there at midseason, has managed to keep his head above replacement level thanks to his speed and defense, but that’s all he has to offer a team at this point, making him a fourth outfielder at best and one with little value as a platoon partner given his lack of a platoon split this season.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Braves release either or even both players before their contracts expire next season, so their 2017 options, which vest with 550 plate appearances next year, should be of little concern.
As for the Indians, Johnson, who turns 31 in October and is the youngest player in this deal, would seem to have more potential to revive his career in Cleveland. He should get plenty of playing time given that rookie Giovanny Urshela has posted a mere 74 OPS+ since being handed the third base job in earl June. Still, Johnson is a poor defensive third baseman whose bat has gone missing since he challenged for the National League batting title in 2013, prompting the arbitration-buyout contract the Braves just dumped on Cleveland.
Johnson has terrible plate discipline and modest and declining power, so when his luck on balls in play corrected itself after a .394 BABIP spike in 2013 helped him hit .321 overall, his value vanished. Over the past two seasons, he has hit .257/.288/.352 (79 OPS+), and been worth 2.1 wins less than a replacement level player per baseball-reference.com’s numbers.
Not only did Johnson lose his third base job this season, he had fallen so far on the depth chart that he was essentially Atlanta's third-string first baseman, drawing starts at that position only because first baseman Freddie Freeman was hurt and utilityman Kelly Johnson was traded, and even then Johnon had to fight off Joey Terdoslavich for playing time. A year after starting 149 games at third base for the Braves, Johnson had started just 20 there this season and would seem to have little to offer a Cleveland team that hoped to contend next year.
The trade, however, frees up $9 million and a roster spot for the 2016 Indians, and $10 million and a roster spot for the 2017 Braves, either of which is more valuable than any or all of the three players to switch teams in this deal.