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Bourn and late signings at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

Bourn and late signings at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario
February 5, 2014
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We're less than a week away from the most phenomenal phrase known to Major League fans finally taking place: "Pitchers and Catchers are set to report today." While the Browns have long since been put out of their collective misery and the Cavs, who are currently down by 29 to the Lakers with nine minutes left in the first half, appear set to lay out a whole new definitition of implosion, the Indians are set to swoop in and save the day. Sure, we're going to be treated to some scenes of group stretching and soft-toss, and we're going to be perusing off-season weight gains, winter league wonder and quirky spring training shenanigans, but anything will be better than watching the hole that is Cleveland Sports has become outside of Progressive Field.

That's right sports' fans, the Indians appear to be heading to Goodyear with a team that has a similar look and feel to their 2013 team. You know, the one that made the playoffs. No, the Lake Erie Warriors didn't make any major moves this offseason, but of course, it was in this column last year at this time that I reported with certainty that “Bourn wasn’t coming to Cleveland unless there was some sort of insane collusion amongst teams to ensure the Indians get him. In the end, there’s no real need, and likely, no real money.”

Five days later, Bourn was sitting at a podium at Progressive Field announcing his signing. While there wasn’t any Major League collusion, the structure of baseball’s Qualifying Offers and the refusal of teams to give up their slotted first round money in the draft allowed the Indians to sign Bourn to what amounted to a massive bargain in comparison to market value. This was re-asserted in December in a Trend Spotting here at IBI that supported that his contract remains a bargain in comparison to today’s market, even though the Indians could have likely allotted the money to different areas of the team.

The move cemented the Indians as a team that was using all of its resources to improve, and really supported the hiring of Terry Francona as the team’s centerpiece moving forward.

While we can argue the validity of the Indians’ signings last season using our rearviewmirror, it’s hard to argue the net results. To coin a couple of songs from Pearl Jam, the team went from a 68-win ‘Nothing Man’ to a 92-win “Better Man.” While the numbers of the signings that came after January may have not been as stellar as fans and Tribe brass predicted, the sudden drive to improve in the offseason, combined with a monumental effort from collective offense and the starting rotation drove the team through a final month that will be hard to match by any team, let alone this Indians team.

…but I keep coming back to that Bourn move.

There had been public speculation all offseason long that the Indians could be players for Bourn, and in the end, that turned out to be true. Not only was he willing to come to Cleveland, but the Indians were willing to give him a substantial amount of money. Yes, it was under market value (still is, relative to other centerfielders in the league considered “elite”), but for the Indians it was far beyond what many thought they would pay for any free agent, let alone a second major free agent signing.

Which brings me to my question of the day: Could Michael Bourn the Indians major signing for the 2014 season?

There are a lot of semantics when it comes to the Indians and their financial situation, and it winds its way through a poor fanbase, around their sad-sack TV deal (in comparison to other markets) and gets lodged in their recent history of failing to lure in prominent free agents without having to overspend to the point of financial ruin.

Some will sell that they did overspend on Bourn but in the grand scheme of Major League Baseball, that’s simply not the case. It can be argued, but not fully backed until Bourn quantifies his 2013 struggles with another season of regression. If he rebuilds his on-the-field performance, the Indians immediately gain immense value.

Oh sure, some will never, ever get past the amount of times Michael Bourn strikes out, and while it’s true it’s a detriment if he’s not getting on base at a high clip, there’s a possibility that he turns things around. Of course, most projections have Bourn continuing his downward trend. Of course, there are other factors involved, as it appears as though Bourn may have been playing through injury after a fast start.

It’s still interesting looking at how the Indians acquired Bourn, and even Swisher, to some extent.

The Indians were playing a bit of a buffer with regards to both players. Both free agents were finding their way through the first year minefield of Qualifying Offers, and found the market to be far slimmer than initially thought. As I mentioned before, many teams didn’t want to lose the slot-money associated with losing their first-round pick, so they just didn’t make offers. The teams that didn’t have to worry about losing that money because of their poor records often didn’t have the money to spend, or weren’t in the market for a thirty-ish centerfielder, or a tweener power-hitter who is closing in on his post-prime years.

It left the free agents in an interesting position. Could they find a team that would offer them substantial years, if not the total value that they wanted, or would they have to take a smaller one-year contract that would allow them to play for big dough.

With Swisher, the Indians likely paid a little more than they should have, but it was a landmark signing. In bringing in the Rah-Rah-Brohio Boy, the Indians made a splash, showed free agents they would spend money if they had it, and brought in an in-your-face-clubhouse presence that often rubbed veteran teammates the wrong way, but would fit perfectly with the Tribe.

With Bourn, it was a perfect storm of a signing, and one that I find far more interesting today, as we close in on the end of the offseason. Bourn wanted multiple years, didn’t want to miss spring training, and likely didn’t want to have to go through this again this offseason. Atlanta was already off the table because they had already brought in B.J. Upton with a five-year, $75.25 million dollar deal.

Think about that for a minute. They are paying B.J. Upton, on average, $15 million a year.

Now Upton certain provides a different skillset than Bourn, but I just wanted to remind you all that Upton hit .184 last season, with a .557 OPS. They likely could have waited and signed Bourn for much less. You can shred Bourn all you want, but he was definitively an above-replacement level player last year in a down season. Upton was not.

I wonder what the projections looked like going into 2013 for both?

Enter the Indians, who had to find that friction point that would convince the centerfielder to come to Cleveland, while not making him look towards a one-year “balloon” contract somewhere else. They clearly had to make concessions, but in the end, Bourn, whose career WAR was near identical to Upton’s in nearly the same amount of time up to that point, and the Indians were able to find a match.

It was a big deal, even though you have many that didn’t like the deal. Yes, it was an overabundance of similar resources after the Indians acquired Drew Stubbs, but coming off of a year in which Aaron “Freakin’” Cunningham became a regular visitor in left, along with a potpourri of other garbage can fodder, it was a good problem to have.

Of course, a four-year contract has more life than one season.

That’s really the question for the Indians’ centerfielder as we close in on the 2014 season. While many are pounding the pulpit for a Bourn trade, he could prove to be the Indians’ biggest “signing” in 2014 if he rebounds. Sure, Bourn will be pulling in $13.5 million this season, and he’s coming off his worst season to date, but it is possible it’s not a trend.

At least that’s what the Indians are counting on.

Can Bourn become the run-producing lead-off hitter that he’s been in the past? Chances are pretty good that age will prevent that from happeneing. Can Bourn find some sort of middle ground though if he remains healthy for the entire season?

I think so. It may not be in the lead-off role, but will see where the road takes him. What’s clear is that if he rebounds in 2014, the Indians will be far better for it.

While Bourn’s play is certainly key to any improvement that the Indians could make in 2014, what’s more curious to me is if the Indians could pull off another late move in 2014.

Much of this centers around Ubaldo Jimenez, who wouldn’t cost the Indians first round compensation, because he played for the Indians last season. I’m not here to debate the yes’s or the no’s, just to present that he’s a legit option.

He’s not the only one though, but he is close.

I’m intrigued with A.J. Burnett, only because he’s a certain one or two-year deal, and while he could come in at more than $10-12 million, although I’m not sure exactly where his deal will land. I do think Burnett is the latest cog in the starting pitching machine, but the Indians haven’t been linked to him at all.

I’m also interested in Paul Maholm and Bronson Arroyo to some extent, but do worry about a transition to the American League. There’s been some discussion about Arroyo and Josh Tomlin being equivalent. Now, I’m not big Arroyo fan, but I just can’t touch that. I just can’t. I will say that I would only sign either starter if the price tag was right, and was a bargain.

Are the Indians likely to make a move in the next week? Of course not, but I did say the same thing last year.

What’s more likely for the Indians is that they hold whatever money they have left over for the time being and take a ‘wait-and-see’ policy with their current roster. Will their starting rotation hold up enough to make signing or trading for a starter long-term unnecessary? Will Bourn rebound offensively to give the Indians the spark at the top of the order (or somewhere else). Can the offense build a steady stream off offense instead of quick and massive bursts?

Can the Indians improve in 2014?

It’s distinctly possible that the Indians do improve. If the Tribe can manage to stay in the hunt through July, this could be the year that the Tribe makes a move at the trade deadline. They do have commodities, both at the upper levels of the minors, and perhaps at the major league level.

While the Indians have been hesitant in the past to make moves, they should have some ready-to-play major league candidates that could dislodge some big league collateral. Might Jose Ramirez and/or Francisco Lindormake Asdrubal Cabrera expendable, even in a stretch run? Might a resurgent Asdrubal Cabrera make Ramirez and/or Joe Wendle expendable as a part of a bigger trade? You could even make a case that Michael Bourn could become expendable if the right mix of players continue to excel, or rebound to past numbers.

There's also a chance that Lindor, JRam and perhaps Cody Anderson could find their way to Cleveland in an instrumental capacity come August or sooner, and the Indians may be counting on their top prospects to be their "impact signings or trades" in 2014.

I guess my point here is that the Indians have many questions to answer in 2014, but if they manage to put things together as they did last year through the first three months of the season, the Indians still have the ability to improve their team going forward.

And yeah, there’s always that slim chance that they have one last offseason or spring training surprise.


Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at

User Comments

February 6, 2014 - 10:43 PM EST
I agree with Willie. Now's the time to be aggressive. Of course I can say that because I don't play the game of trying to guess whether or not the Tribe has any money to spend.

Who knows? I just come at it from the perspective of what I think they (given the fact that they are a small market team) should do. If there are below-market deals out there that are reasonable (and really, we don't know in fact if there are), then they, as a team with holes and a shot at the ultimate goal, should be in on them.
February 6, 2014 - 8:27 PM EST
The maven,

I think that was the route the Tribe took. It seems like less of a risk to sign long term deals with hitters. I'm not sure if it is, I've seen no study or anything, but for a small mkt club like the Tribe, I'd suggest they know something on the risks of long term deals with pitchers and hitters.

I've suggested before I think the Indians could offer a low mkt deal for Morales. I consider him on par with Omar Infante who signed for 4/32, I think that would be a fair offer. That said, after seeing the Tribe sign LaHair, Giambi and Cooper, it seems unlikely they'd make that move.

I'd suggest Stephen Drew too. He'd fix third base for a few yrs, or at least give the Indians more options. I think the Tribe could then shop ACab, or Chisenhall for young controllable SP.

IMO, now would be a good time for the Tribe to throw out some below mkt offers. At least one or two, but I'd be really aggressive if the next few days. Spring Training is ready to get going, and we want you... (Fill in the blank) to be part of our future.

Just to throw some numbers out there, I'd make some offers like...

Jimenez 3/$33 plus $6M in incentives based on IP, ERA, K
Burnett 2/$22
Maholm 1/$6 plus $8M team option
Morales 3/24 plus $3M in incentives or maybe 4/$32
Drew 3/24 plus $3M in incentives or maybe 4/$32
February 6, 2014 - 8:09 PM EST
Joe C.,

I think we could see Santana and Jimenez sign for very similar amounts. Are they equals? That's debatable, I'd rather resign Jimenez bc I see more upside, but if Santana were to sign "cheap" in the 3/30 - 3/39 range I think it could be palatable. It really depends on the clubs involved, IMO. Some teams are more risk adverse, so they may feel Santana is the safer bet.
February 6, 2014 - 3:52 PM EST

Yep, saw your post about Morales about the same time I was thinking of the possibility(great minds think alike right?).I know the Tribe brass has always liked him.

I think Santana's medicals(elbow) are scaring off would be suitors.

I'd prefer to get a below market value hitter now versus a pitcher.
If they need pitching help they could always trade Chisenchump after the season starts.It's more economical and less risky.
February 6, 2014 - 3:41 PM EST
If the price comes down far enough I would pursue AJ Burnett. Less volatility than Jimenez or Santana. If the Blue Jays sign Jimenez should the Indians try to trade for Morrow or AJ Happ?
Joe Chengery
February 6, 2014 - 12:55 PM EST
Is Santana an equal or better pitcher? In my mind, no- he's been more erratic than Ubaldo and not nearly as dominant, outside of most of last year and very early in his career with the Angels (and not as long as Ubaldo was with the Rockies).: If the contracts those two sign are anywhere near the same ballpark in terms of value and length, I'd rather have Ubaldo, and those numbers you quote for Santana sound similar to the rumors of the amounts Ubaldo could be looking at. If that's the case, sign Ubaldo, and no draft pick/draft pool lost. :-)
February 6, 2014 - 8:53 AM EST
The maven,

I've mentioned the possibility before, I think it's probably not happening, but should be an option for the Tribe. I really didn't see the LaHair signing coming, should make the DH / bench slot an interesting competition. That said, there could be some other signings in the works we didn't see coming.

The Tribes first rd pk will slot in the early 20's, and the comp pk for Jimenez should fall in the he early 30's. Point is there will only be about a 10 slot difference in pks if the Tribe basically, decided to let Jimenez walk and then sign one of Santana, Morales or even Drew.

Here's the thought they virtually offset the lost pk with the comp pk. If Jimenez signs first, before Santana the Tribe could make a similar offer to Santana (3/30-3/39). The potential of getting Santana at a similar or even lesser contract than Jimenez could be appealing.

As for going after Morales or even Drew, the appealng part for the Tribe could be offering a low mkt deal. I'd suggest offering 3/24-4/32 might get a deal done.

It seems much more likely the Tribe will continue to shop for a bargain or two, that is not linked to draft pk comp. Arroyo, Burnett, Maholm, KRod, Rodney could all be options at this point. I'd suggest maybe a cpl guys recovering from injury...Capuano, Hanrahan, ABailey, Richard.
February 6, 2014 - 12:58 AM EST
I'm hopeful that the high number of quality free agents still available will drive down Jimenez's price. Santana, Jimenez, Arroyo, Burnett, Maholm, Rodney, K Rod, Cruz, Morales, and Stephen Drew is a great FA class for this time of year.

Anytime you let an ace leave at below market value, you're doing something wrong. There is no excuse for not resigning Ubaldo if he ends up with a Garza or Nolasco type deal. Ubaldo may be risky, but let's not forget his upside, the guy was the best pitcher in the AL for the final 4/5 of the season. There are few pitchers who can dominate like Ubaldo, and I think it would be a huge mistake to let him walk.

February 6, 2014 - 12:09 AM EST
Nice Themaven.

Hadn't thought of that, but it does make some sense. Hard to picture anything like that happening before Santana shows he can handle 3B though. Up until recently for the life of me I could not imagine any way that Carlos wins the job in ST, but who knows, maybe that's possible? It's gonna be tough for Kendrys to land a three-year deal imo. So maybe we could get him (a la Reynolds last year) for one or two years. That would be even better.
February 6, 2014 - 12:00 AM EST
Re: "the Indians know what they have...think it's a winner...and don't have to make a move (at least in their minds)"

My point in the previous post is that its interesting that having gone through basically the entire off-season and now being on the verge of going into spring training, none of Shapiro, Antonetti or Francona have said anything so definitive as that, at least that I've read.

So, its pure conjecture on your part. And that's totally fine, but it just means that the opposite could be just as true, i.e. that they don't think they're done, they do want to make another move, and are working on that move right now. Maybe. Maybe not.
February 5, 2014 - 10:22 PM EST
I could see a similar move this season.

Say Jimenez signs with Toronto,the Indians armed with the sandwich pick and the money that comes with it, part with their own first rounder to sign Kendrys Morales for three years/25 million or so total.

This dovetails with the Santana at third experiment as well.

Admittedly, it's a long shot and reduces the team's flexibility,but that would be a nice and relatively cheap bat to put into the line up.
February 5, 2014 - 8:56 PM EST
Here's what I think:

The Indians know what they have...think it's a winner...and don't have to make a move (at least in their minds). I think they see a pitcher developing out of Marcum, Carrasco and Tomlin, and think that Marcum will sign another deal (like Dice K, as he gets healthy)...

I think they then think Marcum and Bauer and Anderson later...can supplement their rotation, and I think they are flipping out over Lindor, and are higher on JRam than anyone here gives them credit for.

I think Aguilar gives them support at the corner outfield slots...and ultimately...

I think they see upside in their lineup.

It may be folly...but I think they are playing from a position of power (whether it be in their own minds, or reality), and feel that they can make moves on the fly if they have to.

If Ubaldo fits whatever specs they have set, they'll sign him...or someone else...if they become available.

We'll see.

I've said a spring training trade is viable for awhile now. I"m not necessarily saying it will happen, but they have options to do it., should they decide to.

I do question their legitimacy past an early playoff series, but we'll see. There's a lot of time between now and opening day...and beyond...
February 5, 2014 - 8:42 PM EST
Thanks Jim. Good piece.

I like your revisit of last year and the description of how the Bourn signing came out of nowhere. I remember that. I also love it when people say things like, "we don't have the money" if they know.

Even though I obviously don't see everything, I haven't heard anyone with the Tribe say "we're done dealing," or do a Donald Rumsfeld on us with something like a, "we go to war with the army we have," statement yet...

So, that makes me think that they aren't 100% sure about that. Maybe they are trying to put together a trade for Masterson? or Cabrera? or sign a starter? I hope so...8--)
February 5, 2014 - 8:26 PM EST
I like to think that the only likely signing would be Ubaldo and he is such a dilemma. He can be so overpowering at times and yet sometimes too many times he starts to nibble on the edges, instead of reaching back and blowing the hitter away. allstart break 2010 until all-star break 2013 tempers my feelings about Ubaldo, however god he was good after the all star break laST season, so maybe i am the outlander in this case and should be more confident that he has had in the 09 and 10 back to back good seasons and he is right dab in the middle of his 28 to 32 yr old prime so maybe it is doable. He cannot blame the indians for offering him a QO that was smart business decision and if he gets less than the offer was he didnt find suitors in the other 29 teams to give him the 14 million QO he cannot expect the indians to do it.

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