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Signing Swisher means Indians must contend NOW

Signing Swisher means Indians must contend NOW
December 23, 2012
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It is very easy to get excited about Nick Swisher coming to Cleveland, but since he is unlikely to hold his value for the long-term, the team better contend for the playoffs in 2013.

Swisher, 32, is the middle-of-the-order bat Cleveland desperately needs. He has hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight seasons, owns a 118 OPS+ and .256/.361/.467 line for his career, and averages over 3.0 fWAR per full season, easily making him one of the most valuable players in baseball since 2005.

Yet this move does not come without risks. Giving 32-year-old players four year contracts at $14 million per year (with a vesting option for a fifth year) is dicey, especially on at end of the deal. Teams expect to take a loss on the back-end of free agent contracts, hoping that the benefits at the beginning offset those losses, but that is harder to swallow in a small-market like Cleveland.

Plus, if Swisher ages like player who have similar resumes through age-31, Cleveland will have a fairly ugly albatross contract on its hands from 2015 onward. Comparable players include Eric KarrosRaul Mondesi, and Pat Burrell, three players who basically fell off a cliff after age-32 (stats per season):

Karros: five seasons, 15 home runs, 93 OPS+, -0.3 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR

Mondesi: three seasons, 10 home runs, 99 OPS+, 0.6 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR

Burrell: three seasons, 14 home runs, 103 OPS+, 0.5 bWAR, 0.9 fWAR

The best case scenario for Swisher and Cleveland looks like Jermaine Dye's career. Dye did not fall of the proverbial cliff, but he did see his effectiveness wane, especially in the field, dragging down his WAR:

Dye: four seasons: 33 home runs, 122 OPS+, 1.1 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR

If Swisher ages like Dye, with his bat holding value, then he can be hidden at DH (something the White Sox could not do, as they had Jim Thome as their full-time DH). Cleveland might be able to extract decent value out of the contract in 2015-2016, but it is not something to count on as a guarantee.

As for 2013, Swisher's consistency should indicate that he is very good in the short-term. This means that the team needs to utilize his skills immediately and start contending next year.

After finishing with a 68-94 record, it may seem ridiculous to think that Cleveland could make the playoffs in 2013. The Orioles' magical run in 2012 following a 69-93 record, however, means that a massive turnaround can happen. A few breaks going against the Tigers could bring them down, leaving the weakest division in baseball up for grabs.

In the end, I do not think the success or failure of the Swisher signing will fall on Swisher himself. If the team is competitive and/or makes the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, provided Swisher plays well, then the signing will be seen as a success. Being competitive, though, will not come down to what Swisher does or does not do. It will come down to internal improvements like:

Whether or not Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis take the next step to All-Star level;

Whether or not Justin MastersonUbaldo Jimenez, and Trevor Bauer pitch like front-of-the-rotation starters instead of back-end flotsam; and

Whether or not Lonnie Chisenhall and Drew Stubbs can handle being the everyday starter at their positions.

This move really is a game-changer for Cleveland, as the team finally signed a top free agent to top money. It is also very likely to flat-out suck at the end, like Travis Hafner's contract did in 2011 and 2012. These are the things we know, but past that, things are murky.

If the team grows up in a big way in 2013, then Swisher in 2016 will not hurt as much. By then, top prospects like Francisco Lindor and Dorssys Paulino should be breaking in at the big league level and the fruits of recent drafts should be starting to show.

But in the short-term, Chris Antonetti has basically gone all-in, betting that the team can win now too. There is no way to know if this is the right time to push all the chips in the middle, but the team will be much better in 2013. Whether it is good enough to contend for the playoffs, though, comes down to more than Nick Swisher.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.

User Comments

Jim Piascik
December 26, 2012 - 3:07 PM EST
Hey guys, sorry for not responding earlier. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Writing this, I knew it was likely going to be the pessimistic take on the situation. I am admittedly pretty down on signing FAs and the like, especially in a small market like CLE's case.

FA contracts are likely to give equal value or tend toward the player, especially in cases like Swisher. As a small market, CLE is typically looking to extract excess value from most of its contracts. It can't always work like that, for for the most part, that's the goal.

As I see it, a team like CLE signs FAs when the farm has failed to produce adequate major leaguers. The failed drafts of the mid to late-2000s has left the upper minors bare, thus why there is even space for Swisher.

But it would be much better to never have to sign FAs. That means the farm is working right and the payroll is being controlled. I would never sign real FAs if I could help it, just like the Rays (who have not given more than 3 years to a FA since 2007, if I'm working MLB Trade Rumors correctly).


1. Swisher helps now. No doubt.
2. No one knows how he'll age. I'm down on him 3-4 years down the road, others aren't. There's no way to be certain.
3. The FO is serious now. I'm not one for moral victories, but this is a sign to the fanbase that CLE means business. Things are getting exciting.

And thanks for reading and commenting guys. I really do love going back and forth with you all.
Joe Werner (
December 24, 2012 - 8:45 AM EST
Please don’t mistake this for being argumentative/trolling, that’s not my intention. I’m merely trying to provide a counter argument against your analysis.

As far as the larger point you were trying to make -- that corner bats don’t age particularly well. I noticed ESPN’s Keith Law, whom I admire quite a bit, made a very similar statement in his analysis. I just tend to disagree. In my opinion, it’s more of a blanket statement, not a definitive one.

So, do middle infielders, catchers, and center fielders age better than corner players? I have not seen anything that supports this, though it may exist. But, typically, up the middle bats are not nearly as a strong as corner ones, which may make it look like corner bats decline more because their peaks are typically higher.

Also, going back to the original comps, Burrell’s total offensive production, using Weighted Runs Created Plus, was 20% better than the league average through age 31. From age 32 until the time he retired it was 5% better than the league average.

As for Dye, before the age of 31, his production was only 4% better than the league average, but from age 32 through the end of his career, his offensive production 22% better than the league average.

As I’ve mentioned in my first comment, it’s the defensive side that skews the overall numbers, not their bats. And, again, both Dye and Burrell were horrifically bad defensive players before age 31 that happened to decline even further after 32. Nick Swisher is, in fact, an average to slightly above-average defender up through age 31.

So, I just disagree that Swisher declines are rapidly as you suspect.

And as I’ve mentioned in my own analysis (shameless plug, I know), Swisher’s total value could slightly exceed $90 million. And through the end of the contract, Swisher should basically regress into a league average starter.

Analysis here:

December 24, 2012 - 6:07 AM EST
Good move to sign Swisher. I think he brings a stable bat to our young lineup. To think what we replaced Choo with is utterly amazing. In actuallity is was Choo for Swisher, Bauer, Stubbs, and 2 good relief pitchers. I'd make that trade everyday of the week and twice on Sunday! I see some defensive comparisons to Jermaine Dye. Dye was never a gold glover to begin with, but after breaking his leg, he never was anything close to the player he was pryor to.
December 24, 2012 - 3:42 AM EST
Yeah, what joe werner said.

Swisher $$$ probly buy a journeyman, mediocre pitcher. Looks like only way to pick up pitching is to pitch Asdrubal in a trade. I'd be happy to see tribe keep cabrera unless tribe is overwhelmed with an offer
December 23, 2012 - 11:59 PM EST
I have to disagree with Jim on the premise that the Indians need to win in 2013 with Swisher. I know the stats say otherwise, but sometimes we get way too stat heavy and don't go by the feel of the game. The other names of comparable players through Age 31 like Swisher are Joe Carter and Dwight Evans, two players who were arguably BETTER after age 31. So for every ying there is always a yang when it comes to stats. That's why we love them!

Anyway, I don't see another outfielder coming. The focus is very likely on at least a middle of the rotation starter or going out and getting two back of the rotation guys.
December 23, 2012 - 10:14 PM EST

I think this signing was as much about the Dolans' response to the withering complaints of Indian fans as it was about actually contending. The Dolans have essentially told fans to either put up (in terms of season tickets) or shut up. I also think this has a stock metaphor built into it. The Dolans have bought a stock they felt may increase the value of their portfolio. They can evaluate their investment each year and decide to divest themselves of it if needed. Therefore, the "end of the contract" issue you have addressed need not be nearly as static as you have stated.
December 23, 2012 - 9:42 PM EST
i personally do not thing that masty 2012 is the actual masty like i said in a previous posting maybe a cross between 2011 and 2012 which is an above average major league starting pitcher. I think carlos carrasco is of like quality based on his previous ranking with an injured elbow that he said goes back to his teens, the first half of 2011 he was pretty good. Zack Mac should be a year older and if he can have a quality start 70% of the time as could ubaldo that isnt a bad 1 thru 4 to have.
anything better from them is a bonus. the law of large numbers says there is a likelihood that someone could immerge as a credible back end of the rotation. As for lindor and paulino i see no reason why keeping them at one level an entire year if they pull a jose ramirez type year one or both could move quick and you can always move michael brantley
for a significant player similar to what Bohrn brought as a similar type of player. maybe not quite as that level but a good one so nick gives us options to improve other areas in the future. i am not particular crazy about DH by committee few teams have tried it and succeeded most good teams have at least semi regular DH. Just my opinion.
Jim Piascik
December 23, 2012 - 6:42 PM EST
Joe, Karros and Mondesi came up as I was looking at players who hit ~200 home runs with ~118 OPS+ from ages 24-31. I was curious to see how consistent, but not elite home run hitters aged. Either way, corner guys don't seem to age particularly well, which was the larger point I was going for.

Seth and Carl, I agree that the signing is a good one for the team. But it is a high price for a small market team. They could've used some of the money in the rotation, split it up to fill more holes. Plus if it ends up like Hafner at the end, that's going to suck like it did last year.

But it is exciting and should mean some more moves are on the way. Nothing like this, but now the rotation needs fixed. This means the FO wants to win now and I expect them to keep the offseason momentum going.
December 23, 2012 - 5:45 PM EST
There is risk with all Free Agent signings and we can debate whether this was a good signing or bad. We will not really know until it plays out. However considering how down the fans are on the TRIBE , especially FO and Ownership, this helps send a message that there is hope. We still must get some SP. Maybe Chris Perez to Dodgers, now that Hanrahan has been traded to Redsox. I still would like two SPs. A trade and a signing.
December 23, 2012 - 5:23 PM EST
It's nowhere near the win-now deal trading for Ubaldo was. It's not like Swisher's blocking anyone; they don't have any internal options in outfield for the foreseeable future. If they're not spending this money on Swisher, then who are you spending it on? What is the opportunity cost? The Indians need an outfielder now, they need one next year, they need one the year after that. Is there going to be a better, less risky alternative than Swisher in that time frame? Is there someone they need to extend, who they will now be unable to? The only opportunity cost, is the opportunity for Dolan to line his pockets with an extra $14 million.

Swisher could fall of a cliff, but you can say that with any free agent ... there's probably less of a chance of that with Swisher than Josh Hamilton. There's good reason to think he can still be a solid player for the next 4 years, and put up around 10 WAR. The vesting option that makes it 5/70 sounds a little dicey, but with 4/56, that last year he's probably not worth $14 million, but if his 2013 production is similar to his 2009-2012 production, then there is surplus value now.
Joe Werner (
December 23, 2012 - 5:20 PM EST
While Jermaine Dye and Pat Burrell are comparables for Swisher, at least to some degree, the other two are, simply, not similar at all.

Nick Swisher, through the age of 31, has hit .256/.361/.467, with above-average power (.211 ISO), an elite eye at the plate (13.3% BB-rate), modest strikeout rate (21.3%) and has been a slightly above-average defender in right field (average at first). And no speed. Altogether, he totaled 17.9 bWAR.

Eric Karros, through the age of 31, hit .273/.329/.470, while displaying similar power (.179 ISO), an average eye at 7.6% -- nearly half that of Swisher’s – far better strikeout numbers (16%) and was a below average defender at first. And no speed. He totaled 9.4 bWAR.

Mondesi, through age 31, hit .276/.331/.491, with similar power (.215ISO), average-ish walk rate (7.2%), better K-rate (17%) and a slightly below-average defender. But Mondesi had far better speed (207 stolen bases vs. 12).

Neither Karros nor Mondesi are listed among the top ten comps for Swisher through age 31. They do have a similar OPS+. But basing a tremendous point of the article based on these two players is unfortunate, at best.

As for Dye, you noted that his OPS+ was 122, or approximately 20% above the league average (I'm using Weighted Runs Created Plus). His main problem, according to UZR/150, was that he was more than 90 runs below the league average defender. And while that’s a tremendously steep decline, he was still -31 runs below average through ages 29-31. He went from horrible to atrocious.

Swisher, on the other hand, through ages 29-31 was +13.1.

And Burrell was a horrifically bad defender between 29-31 as well (-57.8 runs).

So, given everything – Swisher’s ability to draw walks, hit for power and play average defense through age 31 – there’s really no reason at all to suspect him to decline as sharply as the players you listed.

Instead, he's likely to decline as the accepted player developmental curve suggests.
Jim Piascik
December 23, 2012 - 4:49 PM EST
The 2016 number was a rough future number. More that those two should be up by then, hopefully earlier.

But I agree that if the team goes into the season with the starting pitching as it is right now, it is in the "Pray it works" stage. Bauer is a great pickup, but there's no guarantee he can be an effective top-of-the-rotation starter in 2013. He's young. They need to do something with the rotation if they want to win now.
League Park
December 23, 2012 - 4:19 PM EST
Lindor & Paulino need to be here before 2016. Forget about a year each at A, AA, AAA for them. Look at the starting pitching. Not even close to being a contender.
Jim Piascik
December 23, 2012 - 4:15 PM EST
Jerry, at this point, yeah, I can't see them going into the season only with the SP they have now. I think they'll find someone else to help fill out the rotation.

Eric, it is a great moral boost, but that only goes so far with me. Moral doesn't count in the win-loss column. Haha. I think that Swisher is likely to earn this deal, but not supply any surplus value. It's a fair deal, but it also is a win-now deal. They need to go out and win now.
December 23, 2012 - 3:42 PM EST
As much as a "risk" you think this could be. It is still a tremendous moral boost to the Tribe players and their fans. Now les get some more pitching.
jerry dybzinski
December 23, 2012 - 3:37 PM EST
Still think Tribe needs another veteran oufielder. I can easily see Swisher DH and play some first base (his future position) maybe by next year. Add another RH bat in Hairston and rotate him between RF and DH. Also need veteran starter. Hard to see Loshe because of Boras and Marcum because of injury issues. Trade with Dodgers who have surplus pitching and get a Capuano or someone else. Then I will feel better about contending.

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