Indians Lookback: Nick Swisher, Governor of the Failed State of Bro-hio
By 2012, the Cleveland Indians had hit a low point.
The team finished that year with a record of 68-94 and a -178 run differential. Said result also brought an end to Manny Acta’s brief, yet wholly unsuccessful time as manager.
Overall, it marked the fourth straight season Cleveland failed to finish any closer than 15.0 games out of first in the AL Central.
Something needed to change. The franchise was floundering. Fans had lost patience after watching the Indians spend the last few years grabbing headlines for nothing but trading talent and losing.
The first step in resolving these woes? Bring in a manager who immediately changes the culture the second he arrives.
It’s safe to say the hiring of Terry Francona effectively checked that box.
Step two? Follow that hire with a free agency splash.
Cleveland needed to make a move which further rejuvenated the team. Something that would re-energize supporters who had become apathetic, that would prove the days of zombie baseball were over.
Rejuvenate? Re-energize? The opposite of zombie baseball?
Even with the benefit of hindsight, a player like Nick Swisher still feels tailor-made to fit that bill.
In Swisher, the Indians saw the perfect candidate to bring excitement back to the franchise. An Ohio native who paired steady plate production with the energy of a 12-year-old on a Pixy Stix bender.
When he was introduced, said enthusiasm was infectious. Eventually, it was viewed as grating, both in the stands and within the clubhouse.
It took just a handful of seasons for Swisher to shift from a welcome change to a sign things needed to change again. The Indians couldn’t wait to bring him aboard in 2013. Not even a full two seasons later, thanks mostly to circumstances out of Swisher’s control, they couldn’t wait to relocate the man who proudly hailed from “Bro-hio.”
Within that winter’s free agent class, Swisher was labeled as a solid pick-up, a player who showed consistent production while remaining consistently healthy. He boasted a good slash line (.256/.361/.467), above average power (.211 ISO) and a patient plate approach (13.3% walk rate), all while logging at least 148 games in each of his previous seven seasons.
Overall, while he wasn’t the best available player, Swisher would be a fine addition to anyone’s clubhouse.
The Indians viewed him as more than that, a point they hammered home in their pitch meeting.
The Ohio State University alumnus was given star treatment upon his arrival to Progressive Field. Swisher was met with recorded video messages from Buckeye coaches Urban Meyer and Thad Matta. Jim Tressel was a surprise guest at the lunch Cleveland hosted for him.
Aggressive? You could make that argument. Still, when your most recent season features impressive feats like winning only five games in the span of a month, you put a little extra effort into changing things up.
The aggression paid off. Swisher signed a four-year, $56 million deal with Cleveland. It was, at the time, the most lucrative free agency signing in team history.
The move -- and the ensuing the signing of free agent outfielder Michael Bourn -- also represented a much-needed refresh for the franchise.
The Indians had spent the past few seasons looking catatonic. In order to ensure Francona’s time as manager got off on the right foot, they needed someone to pump new life into the clubhouse.
It was a role Swisher happily embraced, and one which was badly needed considering Cleveland’s uneven start to the 2013 campaign.
The team finished April below .500. A successful month of May (18-12) was followed by an eight-game losing streak in the first week of June.
In Swisher, though, the team had someone whose relentless positivity could continually rally the troops. A roster severely lacking postseason experience could now lean on someone who’d been there before, who would help navigate through the kind of funks which had sunk previous seasons.
For the fans, Swisher represented what was a rarity at the time -- a high-profile athlete who was incessantly excited to be playing in Cleveland.
Swisher’s 2013 plate performance tended to be inconsistent. Overall, his debut season with the Indians included dips in both production (113 wRC+) and value (2.1 fWAR).
Still, thanks to a September which featured monthly highs in home runs (seven) and RBIs (17), Swisher helped Cleveland clinch its first postseason appearance in six years.
Said appearance was brief. The Indians were shut out by Tampa Bay in the wild card play-in game, a result which temporarily popped Swisher’s balloon of excitement.
“I was really down,” Swisher admitted at Tribe Fest the following winter. “We’d worked so hard to get to that game. I was really bummed out.”
“The crazy thing is these people would come up to me and say, 'Hey, thank you so much for such an amazing season because there are going to be so many great things to come.'"
It didn’t work out that way. For the Indians or Swisher.
Cleveland spent 2014 struggling to keep up with the Detroit Tigers. A strong August helped make things interesting, but the Tribe finished third in the Central, unable to build off the momentum from the previous season.
Of note, only four of Cleveland’s 18 August wins occurred with Swisher in the lineup.
By that point, knee pain which followed him all season long had become too much to play through. His production had cratered. Outside his needing season-ending surgery on both knees, the most memorable moment of Swisher’s 2014 campaign was a spat with franchise legend Kenny Lofton over the validity of Cleveland’s previous postseason appearance.
One would think this string of bad luck would put another dent in Swisher’s enthusiasm. To his credit, he prevented that from being the case. Even when on the mend, Swisher continued traveling with the team when he could, refusing to abandon his role as clubhouse motivator.
There was just one problem -- the team’s reaction to it had completely changed.
Swisher’s unending zeal, once a breath of fresh air, had gone stale. Teammates were no longer buying into it, especially when the player pumping everyone’s tires was balancing offensive struggles with an inability to stay healthy, all while raking in an eight-figure salary.
By August of the 2015 season, setbacks in his recovery had limited Swisher to just 30 games, and he was eventually sent packing. Both he and Bourn were sent to Atlanta in exchange for Chris Johnson, in what was essentially a swap of unwanted contracts. As Zack Meisel of NEOMG noted at the time, “not all teammates shed a tear when Swisher packed up his belongings and jetted to Georgia.”
It’s easy to look back on Swisher’s brief stint with the Indians in a negative light. Mention his name among fans and you’re sure to be met with groans.
Likewise, it’s not hard to understand why teammates eventually grew tired of Swisher’s happy-go-lucky routine.
The Indians struggled in the two years after their 2013 postseason cameo. Losses tend to sour a clubhouse, creating a situation where players need somewhere to aim their frustrations.
What better target than the guy who’s constantly smiling while pulling in $15 million a year to recover from knee surgery?
In reality, though, nothing about Swisher ever really changed. Nothing he could control, that is.
Swisher was just as energetic then as he was during his introductory presser. He never deflated, his attempts to continually inspire the team never wavered. The situation around him -- the injuries, the quick fall from contention -- just changed the way this was received.
Regardless, the Swisher signing represents a time the Tribe went for broke and busted.
You could honestly argue the fallout from the whole ordeal still lingers within the organization. The Indians have only made one significant offseason signing since (Edwin Encarnacion), otherwise staying gun-shy in the winter.
Sure, you could claim that’s just a trademark of Cleveland’s ownership. Still, the Indians remain reluctant when it comes to free agency splashes, and the speed at which Swisher transitioned from clubhouse need to someone players needed out of the clubhouse sure feels like a key reason for that.