I have to admit, I didn’t see this one coming; the Cleveland Indians have signed Michael Bourn, according to Jon Heyman. On top of that, it makes the overall result of the 2013 Indians’ offseason more confusing.
The Indians were not great last year, losing 94 games and landing in fourth place in the AL Central. That was bad enough to get them a top ten draft pick, which means that they instead lost their competitive balance pick (71st overall). That’s one good thing about this signing, but it still looks strange coming from a fourth place team. The AL Central is a weaker than most divisions, so maybe they could make a run at it with all of their moves.
If nothing else, they got Bourn at a good price, coming in at $48 million over four years with another $12 million vesting option year added on. Bourn should be more than worth the price tag; this runs through his age 30 through age 33 or 34 seasons, but even as he starts to lose a step to age, he should be worth the price.
To use one metric, thanks to his above-average defense in center and his great baserunning, Fangraphs has estimated his Wins Above Replacement over the past four seasons as (going backward) 6.4, 4.1, 4.7, and 4.9. Even if his 2013 mark is a fluke outlier going forward, the current estimate for 1 Win on the free agent market is $5 million. 2009-2011 Bourn more than justifies that, especially once inflation due to the new television contracts really begins to sink in.
If he keeps his newfound power from last year (9 home runs and a .117 Isolated Slugging mark, both above his career averages of 4 and .093), then the deal will only look better. His high strikeout rates (22% of his plate appearances last year, 20.2% for his career) might not be the best trend, but as long as he holds his speed (which will hopefully be for the next three years at least), he should keep enough value to justify his contract.
What does this mean for the Indians in 2013 though? I’m not totally sure. I would still say the Tigers are the clear division favorites, with 88 wins last year and the addition of Torii Hunter and a full year of Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. But the rest of the division isn’t nearly as deep as the East or West, meaning it’s probably more open. The White Sox did well last year, and the Indians and Royals have both taken steps to upgrade (for 2013, at least, in the Royals’ case). The AL Central might have an interesting race for second, but it would probably take a little luck to get one of those teams to the Tigers’ level.
Let’s just focus on the Indians for the moment, though. This offseason, their moves have consisted of:
Trade Shin-Soo Choo for Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer
Sign Michael Bourn
Sign Nick Swisher
Sign Brett Myers
Sign Mark Reynolds
Minor League deals to Matt Capps, Ben Francisco, Jason Giambi, Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ryan Rayburn
So, they have an entirely new outfield and at least 40% of a new rotation, maybe more. Bourn and Swisher are both solid signings. I liked the Choo trade; Bauer has great long term potential. I was a little more more hesitant about everything else until I looked at just how bad the Indians were at first base and in the rotation last season. Casey Kotchman hit an abysmal .229/.280/.333 (73 OPS+), and couldn’t even play his usual above-average defense. Even if Reynolds repeats last year’s career lows (.221/335/.429, 107 OPS+), he’ll be an improvement.
In the rotation, Zach McAllister led all of their pitcher starters in ERA, at 4.24. Fielding Independent Pitching held a similarly bleak assessment; Justin Masterson led all of their starters at 4.16. Even if Bauer and Myers (and Matsuzaka or Kazmir) can provide even league-average innings, it’ll be an improvement over last year’s third, fourth, and fifth starters.
Just to attach some numbers to it, let’s use Wins Above Replacement again. Last year, Indians outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters posted Win totals as follows:
Michael Brantley: 2.7 WAR
Shin-Soo Choo: 2.6 WAR
Non-Choo/Brantley Outfielders: -1.1 WAR
Hafner and the Designated Hitters (not a rock band, despite the name): 0.4 WAR
Casey Kotchman: -1.5 WAR
I’ve already used “abysmal” to describe Kotchman’s performance last year, but I’m struggling to come up with words conveying a similar level of awfulness for that group. Brantley and Choo were respectable, but that’s about it. Brantly, the only hold-over, will be 26 next year, and could possibly match his output or even improve. The new faces present even more hope (last three years WAR totals listed):
Bourn: 6.4, 4.1, 4.7
Swisher: 3.9, 3.8, 4.1
Stubbs: 1.3, 2.6, 4.0
Reynolds: 0.5, 0.3, 2.5 (Reynolds is really bad at defense)
Even making some rather average back-of-the-envelope estimates for those five (say, Brantley-3; Bourn-4; Swisher-3.5; Stubbs-2; Reynolds-0.5) could bring in something like 10 extra wins. That’s...not quite enough to get them to .500. But then there’s the rotation. Again, last year:
Justin Masterson: 2.3 WAR
Zach McAllister: 1.3 WAR
Everybody Else: 1.1
The rotation doesn’t have such clear-cut improvements in the offseason additions as the lineup. But Masterson is young, and was great in 2011 (3.21 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 4.7 WAR). McAllister is young and could improve. Trevor Bauer comes with ace potential. Brett Myers pitches, which is more than you can say for anyone else the “Everybody Else” group. Dice-K and Kazmir...could pitch at some point in time. That might also be more than you can for that group. That could mean something like another 5 to 7 Wins added to their 2013 total. That wouldn’t get them to 90 wins, but it would put them above .500.
From there, maybe they could do it. Maybe Bauer and Masterson do even better than expected, and one or both of them become and ace. Maybe Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall take a major leaps forward in play. Maybe Asdrubal Cabrera or Carlos Santana has an MVP-level year. Maybe Michael Bourn’s 2012 can be repeated. Maybe Ubaldo Jimenez remembers how to be not-awful. Either way, we’re now looking at an upper-80s win total, which was enough to win the Central last year.
Right now, I would say the Indians are in the dogfight of second-through-fourth place in the AL Central. But there’s definitely enough there now for them to be a dark horse team in 2013.