However exciting the signing of Nick Swisher may have been back in December of 2012, the deal is now almost universally considered to be a bust. In his first two seasons, Swisher has batted .231/.316/.386 in 242 games and in his most recent year, he broke his streak of nine straight seasons with at least 21 home runs and 63 RBI. In 2014, he was undoubtedly the worst player on the Indians with a -1.2 WAR while keeping the red hot Lonnie Chisenhall out of the line-up in April and May. With his season now ended thanks to double knee surgeries and his future in doubt, the Indians may be considering trying to offload Swisher’s hefty contract, whether by trading or simply cutting ties. They shouldn’t even think about it.
This may seem counter intuitive to every point made on Burning River Baseball for the past two years, but there are a plethora of reasons why Nick Swisher is most valuable as a member of the Cleveland Indians. To begin, while adult baseball fans often base their rooting interest on on-the-field performance, younger fans value other aspects of a player and Swisher has all these. He is the most positive and exciting player off the field and his charity work over the past two seasons is unsurpassed among Cleveland athletes.
The importance of winning the hearts of younger baseball fans should not be understated. While they may not have money themselves, single adult fans often buy tickets one or two at a time, a single child fan can result in entire families going to the ballpark. Those families are also more likely to buy souvenirs and food at the ballpark, leading to greater proceeds for the Indians and higher attendance numbers.
Of course, spending millions to make a similar amount isn’t a great business plan and the Indians are also in the business of winning baseball games, not just making money. There are only three real real options the Indians have here. First, they could release Swisher entirely, allowing him to sign with another team while the Indians would still be required to pay him the final two years of his contract. In this scenario, if Swisher returned to form and hit 20 home runs per year again with his cleaned out knees, he would be doing so for another team that was paying him the Major League minimum. Because of this risk, the Indians would be the least likely to go this route.
Another option would be to try and move Swisher. Most likely, this option would also involve the Indians eating most of his remaining salary and receiving little in return as other teams will also be unwilling to pay $15M per season for a negative WAR player. In fact, the only way the Indians could possibly come out on top of any trade would be if this notion is false and another team would be willing to take on at least half of his salary. Since this is incredibly unlikely, it is time for the Indians to start/continue thinking about how to use Swisher for the next two years.
The third option and the only reasonable one, is keeping Swisher for the remainder of his contract. Of course, they can already say that they will not be using his option for 2017. In order for the vesting option to activate, Swisher has to receive 550 plate appearances in 2016 and pass a physical, both things the Indians will make sure don’t happen. With this established, the Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona will have to decide on the best way to make use of their $30M (over 2015 and 2016), .208 hitter.
To start, it is widely known how injuries can have a major effect on a players production and Swisher has had more than his fair share of those. In addition to his shoulder problems that started in 2014, his double arthroscopic knee surgeries have shown that his knee problems that lead to both his DL stints this year were more serious than originally thought. To make matters worse, injuries to other outfielders caused Francona to use Swisher in the outfield multiple times prior to his being lost for the season. It was playing in the outfield in 2014 that inflamed his shoulder in the first place and the extra running may have quickened the deterioration of his knees as well this year.
Once he returns from the surgery, which requires some rehab, but is not serious, it is possible Swisher will play like the 34 year old version of the 2005 through 2012 Nick Swisher. Whether this is or isn’t the case, he will have to be used in a less physical role than in the past to reduce the chance of recurring injuries (unless the Indians want to injure him early and keep him out for the season for the insurance money). This means he could play some time at first base, but would be used mostly as a DH and playing outfield would be completely out of the question. With the exciting debuts of Tyler Holt and Zach Walters, it shouldn’t be hard to keep him out of the outfield, although Swisher may not like the change.
In addition to a diminished role in the field, it may also help if he had a diminished role overall. With his increasing age, it may be time for Swisher to enter into a similar role to what Jason Giambi did for the Indians in 2013. While he’ll be able to play more often than Giambi, the idea is similar. This season, when playing with a day off before a game, Swisher had a Player of the Game score of 2.17 per game (for reference, the best hitter of the year for the Indians has been Michael Brantley with 1.86 per game). In games with at least two games off prior, he has a score of 1.10, although there were few occurrences. Most importantly, when he played in games without a day off before, he had a score of just 0.70 per game. Of his nine great games this season (game scores above 3.00), four came in his 12 games after an off day with five coming in his 84 other games.
While this may not be completely significant, there is likely some truth here. Swisher’s best run of the season (including five of those great games) came from June 12th through July 18th after coming back from 16 days on the DL. This run also included the All-Star break and nine days off for Swisher overall (including days the team did not play) and he averaged 1.24 PoG points per game, better than any other group of games this year. During the early part of the season, Swisher played almost every single day (only nine days off in the first 56 days of the season, only three of which the team played on and only one of which was not due to injury) and averaged 0.88 PoG points per game.
Terry Francona loves his veteran players, but considering his own physical limitations one would think he would have more consideration for other’s abilities. If he uses Swisher in 2015 the same way he attempted to in 2013 and 2014, not only will he take away at bats from improving young players like Walters and Jesus Aguilar, but he will also run into the same injury problems he has had in the past two seasons. It is time the Indians admit that Swisher is what he is and pay him $15M per season to be a part time player and cheerleader. This is one case where less truly is more.