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Tribe Happenings: Swisher, Francona bring culture change

Tribe Happenings: Swisher, Francona bring culture change
January 6, 2013
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Indians find perfect fits with Swisher and Francona

If the Indians were looking for a way to inject some energy and leadership into a team that sorely needed it in the dugout and on the field, they found as good a fit as they could find this offseason with the hiring or new manager Terry Francona and the signing of outfielder Nick Swisher.

Maybe our standards have been lowered substantially over the years, but the Indians have not had this much passion and energy in a person – let alone two of them – in a long time. In one fell swoop this offseason the Indians have completely changed their organizational culture with the hiring of Francona and Swisher, and both should have a big impact on the team both on and off the field this season and seasons to come.

Francona has already had a big impact on the Indians as he brought a new energy and voice the organization sorely needed. For a long time, they had a risk adverse approach with constructing their roster and the manager fell in line with that approach, first Eric Wedge and then Manny Acta.  But Francona came in and challenged the organization that they could be more if they were willing to accept more risk, and his outspokenness along with his experience and success coming from a very successful tenure in Boston made the Indians listen.

After a very disappointing 2012 campaign where the team completely fell apart in the second half, the Indians were bound to make significant changes after the season with their organizational philosophies. It started with the hiring of Francona, and when he came on board he pretty much set their new ways in concrete and they have since been one of the most active teams not named the Toronto Blue Jays this offseason in the free agent and trade front.

With Francona at the helm the Indians have a true leader. A manager that players know is a proven winner and who will have their back. He is a manager they will play hard for and respect. This is almost the polar opposite of Manny Acta who had a passive approach, has never been a winner as a manager, and was not trusted by a lot of his players.

It takes a lot more than leadership and a good manager to win games at the Major League level as you need talent and players that can consistently perform. The Indians have some promising young players that have yet to reach their full potential, but they have lacked a leader in the lineup for the past few seasons. Former designated hitter Travis Hafner was about as close to a leader they had, but he missed a lot of time due to injuries, and while he is funny and gets along with his teammates, he was never really the clubhouse leader type and simply was the “leader” because of his long tenure with the team.

The Indians may now have that leader on the field with Swisher.

If you watched Swisher play the past several seasons for the Athletics, White Sox and Yankees, you know full well how much passion he plays with and the energy he brings to a team. Opposing players and fans despise him because of the way he plays, but he is a player that when he is on your team he is a guy that is easy to root for and is a fan favorite.

Swisher has never really had to take a big leadership role in the past because of the teams he was on, so now that he is the big fish with the Indians it will be interesting to see how he handles it. But if you caught any of the press conference on Thursday, you can see how much he loves to play the game, how much excitement he brings, and the enthusiasm and energy he has to be a leader.

While the offseason has been successful for the Indians in fulfilling their goals to build a strong foundation with which to build upon going forward with the roster and their new organizational philosophy, they still have a ways to go before they get to where they want to be. They still have question marks with the starting rotation, some concerns with the lineup, and have several young players that are still unreliable. But in time all of that will shake itself out. You have to start somewhere.

What they have done this offseason with the pickup of Francona and Swisher is establish a strong foundation with which to build upon going forward. Two core pieces with proven success that they can add and subtract from. To take it a step further, with the pickup of right-hander Trevor Bauer this offseason they may have found the foundation and leader of their pitching staff going forward as well. Not often do you see a team find three foundational pieces as well as leaders in three key areas of a team in one offseason.

Over the course of this coming season and in offseasons to come hopefully the Indians can continue to effectively add to what is in place and they have a little luck along the way. Luck is probably more involved in baseball than any other sport, and they always say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

The pickups of Francona and Swisher could go a long way at changing some of their luck.

Not much left to spend after Myers signing

The Indians officially announced the signing of Swisher on Thursday, and then on Friday they officially announced the signing of right-handed pitcher Brett Myers to a one year $7 million deal with an $8 million club option for 2014.

The signing of Myers brings in a proven, reliable starter for the Indians, something that was a major focus of theirs to bring in this offseason. He is not a sexy starter by any means and is not going to blow teams away, but he has proven to be durable, consistent, and steady over his 11-year career, eight of those as a starting pitcher.

Myers pitched all of last season in relief making a combined 70 appearances (3.31 ERA, 19 saves, 65.1 IP, 2.1 BB/9, 5.6 K/9). I won’t go into much more detail in this space about how the signing should help the Indians as I broke it down in my piece earlier in the week and the IBI’s Jeff Ellis did a very nice analysis piece yesterday on the signing. That said, this is about getting a proven innings eater, and in the seven years he has been a full-time starter he has averaged 201 innings a season.

Also, there should be no concerns about Myers’ ability to pitch 180-200 innings next season even though he pitched in the bullpen all of last season, but he has done this before going from the bullpen to starter. He pitched in the bullpen all of 2007 throwing just 68.1 innings and came back and started and threw 190.0 innings in 2008, and he also split time as a starter and reliever in 2009 throwing 70.2 innings and came back in 2010 and threw a career high 223.2 innings.

With the signing of Myers, the Indians 2013 payroll including all known player salaries, projected arbitration salaries, minimum salaries, and cash spent on buyouts (Hafner) and trades (Choo) is currently right around $75 million.  Last season the payroll was at $65 million, so they have already eclipsed it by at least $10 million. The question now is whether they have any room to add anymore payroll.

From what I am hearing, the Indians are right up against their payroll threshold for 2013 which is about $80 million. Depending on how all of those arbitration projections shake out, they have about $3-5 million that may still be available. They still have a need for a left-handed reliever, another bat, and could use another starting pitcher. As the offseason winds up over the next five weeks and teams go to spring training, some still unsigned players are going to be had for cheap. If the Indians find a “real good value” they could pounce and get a guy on a one year deal for $2-4 million - potentially two guys totaling $4-5 million - to fill some of their still unfilled needs.

It seems unlikely after the Myers signing that the Indians can sign right-handed pitcher Kyle Lohse, and right-hander Shaun Marcum and left-hander Joe Saunders may also be long shots now, but there are some interesting low cost options that could still fall into their lap. Two of those options could be right-hander Jair Jurrjens and left-hander Erik Bedard. The lefty relief options in free agency are slim, but there are a lot of bats out there that can be had on one year deals and for under $5 million which they could pick up to round out their lineup. Such options could include the likes of Delmon Young, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Carlos Lee, and many others.

The Indians may also just choose to go with the options they have already assembled for their lineup and pitching staff, flesh them out the first few months of the season, and then come June or July use some of the saved money from this offseason to pick up a need in a trade. Also, of course, the Indians will probably bring in another five or six players on minor league contracts with invites to spring training as depth options and lottery tickets for the 25-man roster.

The Indians heavy lifting may be done this offseason, but even though the budget has gotten much tighter they are still open to making improvements. We will see what else happens these remaining few weeks this offseason.

Fourth outfielder candidates

The Indians designated outfielder Thomas Neal for assignment on Thursday when they added Swisher to the roster. This was a long expected move as with the arrival of Swisher and the right-handed hitting Drew Stubbs in a trade a few weeks ago, an outfielder was going to go on the 40-man and Neal was the one that made the most sense.

Neal, 24, had a nice bounce back season last year hitting .314 with 12 homers, 51 RBI, and .867 OPS in 117 games for Double-A Akron, and it earned him a September callup to Cleveland where he made his Major League debut going 5-for-23 at the plate in nine games. He did not get a lot of playing time even though the Indians needed to get a look at him and they were in evaluation mode, which was an early clue that his days on the roster were numbered as a lower valued player.

Neal is currently still going through the waiver process, but even if he goes unclaimed he has the right as a second time outright to refuse an ssignment to the minors by the Indians and become a free agent. If he clears waivers, he is all but expected to elect free agency.

Ultimately, the Indians like the other two young outfield options on the 40-man roster in Tim Fedroff and Ezequiel Carrera because they better complement their Major League starting outfield. Michael Brantley, Stubbs and Swisher are expected to be the everyday outfielders, but they probably want a switch-hitting or left-handed hitting fourth outfield option to go along with Stubbs who they may choose to sit a good amount of time against right-handed pitching. The left-handed hitting Fedroff and Carrera are those two options - or a yet to be signed minor league free agent.

At the outset of spring training, Carrera probably is the odds on favorite to make the opening day roster as the fourth outfielder. Fedroff will be in the mix, but Carrera is a superior and more versatile defender, has more speed, and most of all has more experience. Fedroff has yet to play in a Major League game while Carrera has played in 116 games, so no matter what Fedroff does in the spring he will likely open the season in Triple-A Columbus and be an option later in the year.

But not only is Carrera a career .255 hitter in the big leagues, he is a proven hitter in the minors just like Fedroff. Carrera owns a career .291 average in the minors with a .748 OPS and 187 stolen bases in 660 games, while Fedroff is a career .296 hitter in the minors with a .790 OPS and 45 stolen bases. Both have had about the same level of success in the minors, but the Major League experience, speed, and defense strongly favors Carrera at the moment. Also, Carerra is out of options, so he has to make the roster or the Indians will have to designate him for assignment at the end of spring training. That, in the end, is probably the biggest factor in his favor.

The Indians could also go in a different direction with their fourth outfielder and have that person be a left-handed or switch-hitting power hitter. With Brantley and Stubbs able to play center field, the need for a versatile outfielder off the bench is not so great, so this is where a bat like Chris McGuiness, Mike McDade, and Yan Gomes could figure into things in left field.

Either way, both Carrera and Fedroff have firmly established themselves as solid fourth outfielder alternatives for the Indians, and with the influx or higher quality starting options at the Major League level, the Indians were forced to cut some of their depth options and Neal was that person.

Roster shenanigans

The Indians designated right-hander Jeanmar Gomez to clear room on the roster for the addition of the newly signed Myers. Actually, Gomez was removed to make room for first baseman/outfielder Russ Canzler who was claimed off waivers on Wednesday and then Canzler was removed for Myers, but I will get into that more in a minute.

Gomez turns 25-years old next month so he could still be a late bloomer, but was mostly inconsistent in his three years pitching for the Indians. He went back and forth between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland from 2010-2012, and in 42 appearances (38 starts) in the big leagues he went 14-16 with a 5.14 ERA (206.2 IP, 241 H, 28 HR, 71 BB, 112 K).

Gomez’s career 1.51 WHIP, 4.9 K/9 and 1.58 K/BB ratios are below average at the Major League level, and he was out of options so either had to make the opening day pitching staff or be designated for assignment at the end of spring training. He was a longshot to make the opening day pitching staff because of that inconsistency, and the lack of options meant the Indians had no flexibility with him, so those two reasons are why he was designated for assignment.

If Gomez clears waivers the Indians will outright him to Triple-A Columbus and control him for the 2013 season. As a first time outright, he would have no choice but to accept the assignment. The Indians are also exploring trade possibilities for him.

As for Canzler, he has had an interesting few weeks. First, the Indians designated him for assignment on December 21st after they signed and added first baseman Mark Reynolds to the roster. The Blue Jays claimed him, but then earlier this week they designated him for assignment and the Indians promptly claimed him on Wednesday and added him back to their 40-man roster; however, the Indians immediately placed him on waivers again as they designated him for assignment so they could add Myers to the roster. The Yankees have since claimed him on waivers.

Whew.

Okay, that’s a lot of transactions and talk for a guy that has marginal Major League value. A player that teams like because of his right-handed power and because he has some roster flexibility with options remaining where he can be stashed in Triple-A. He is not an everyday Major Leaguer, and his defensive issues really limit him as a bench option, but the right-handed pop is what is intriguing and why some teams think he could be useful as a Shelley Duncan-type of player.

As for the whole point of why the Indians reclaimed Canzler only to put him on waivers minutes later? The Indians were going to designate Gomez anyway for Myers, so they tried some of those old roster shenanigans to get a player with value as a depth guy through waivers. He was never reclaimed with the intent to bring him back into the fold, but instead to try and slip him through waivers.  Had it happened, they would have been able to outright him to the minors and controlled him for the 2013 season without him being on the 40-man roster.

Teams are always looking for minor league depth signings, and in a way, this would have constituted as a minor league signing for the Indians and as good a depth option on such a deal you could find. That’s why the move was made.

Attendance impact

I have received a few emails from fans and also read some of the recent comments on a few of the articles on the site saying that the Indians busy offseason topped off with the big signing of Swisher will lead to an attendance boost. I am not so sure about that.

We will see what happens with attendance going forward, but I do not expect anything the Indians have done this offseason to have much impact on their attendance. I have said it many times before, and that is it doesn’t matter how much the Indians spend on their payroll or how many marquee moves they make, the best way to improve their attendance is to win – and win consistently.

If anything what the Indians have done this offseason is not necessarily inspire people to buy tickets, but to keep them interested in the team and restore the faith of all those fence sitters. The diehards will always be there rain or shine, win or lose, and spend or not, but it is those casual fans that make up a vast majority of the ticket sales that they have to appeal to in order to improve their attendance. They have done well in stirring up interest in the team, but now they need to go out and start winning some games and show this new approach and group of talent can be exciting to follow. If all that happens, then the fans should come.

Of course, when I say the fans should come, I am not saying they will sell out Progressive Field every night. What happened in the 90s was a unique situation which can never really happen again with 40,000+ at a game a night, but there is no reason why the fans can’t support a team that is consistently in the mix each season with an average of 25,000 to 27,000 fans a game to put the Indians more at the Major League average for attendance. The extra revenues by getting to that attendance level could be enough to push payroll up $25-40 million in a season, and could be the difference between keeping and losing an All Star quality player.

Like I said, what the Indians have done this offseason is a start to rebuilding a poor attendance situation. Now they need to go out and win, and more importantly, the fans need to respond and support the team.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Bric
January 7, 2013 - 2:12 AM EST
Chris Perez, 2 prospects, but not Paulino, Cabrera & Brantley for Gian Carlo Stanton.
Bric
January 7, 2013 - 2:05 AM EST
1,000 extra fans = 40,000 or more dollars per game.
That is over $3 million per season.
7,000 extra fans therefore = over $20,000,000 added revenue, and that more than pays for Swisher, Reynolds, etc.
byron leftwich
January 6, 2013 - 8:02 PM EST
if we sign Young, Hafner, Thome, or Lee, kill me.
Tony
January 6, 2013 - 7:21 PM EST
Mike, only so much a team can do in one offseason. It wasn't all going to be rebuilt and done in one offseason, so there are going to be some holes left unaddressed going into the season that they see if they can fill internally and then address in June/July or next offseason. I think it is a good start, and for now, you are looking at small money deals for reclammation pitchers like Jurrjens/Bedard or minimal bats like Thome/Hafner. I agree full well that it would be great if they find another pitcher, but only so many bullets they can fire.

Roger, I have to disagree. If the Indians go out and win 85 games this season, even with some winning, contending, and spending, I don't see average per game attendance going higher than say 23-24K a game. Heck, even when they made the ALCS in 2007 they only averaged 28K a game and were 21st in attendance. It's just a reality that attendance will always be below average going forward. That said, winning for a sustained period of time and finding some players to develop a bond with the fanbase could help.....and get it consistently at that 26-28K per game amount. But will take time. This season they probably at best hit 23-24K.

Lisa, I agree on Carrera as he makes some bonehead plays at times. However, he is still clearly the best defensive option of the other outfielders in play for that final spot. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and if they find a bat via trade or one out there in FA still.
Carl
January 6, 2013 - 2:46 PM EST
I agree that attendance will probably only bump up a little from the offseason moves. The casual fans I have spoken to, really haven't paid a lot of attention to Indians moves. The Tribe has won the first half two years in a row . Need to make sure they keep in the game, win. I think a hot start by some of the new members of the Tribe, Swisher, Reynolds, Myers, Stubbs would generate some excitement for more fans. If the Tribe is winning around the All Star break , they need to make a real move. I would like to Jair Jurrgens, Javier Vasquez, Eric Bedard or Jeff Karstens to sign for some competition. You never can have too much pitching. Lets not rush Cararsso, or Bauer or put too much pressure on McAllister. I still think, if Cubs would pick up most of contract I would send a lower prospect for A Soriano. HRs do create excitement, especially for the casual fan.
gareth
January 6, 2013 - 2:31 PM EST
Hey iron mike. Money also grows on trees and there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Shy
January 6, 2013 - 12:24 PM EST
I think people will come out in droves ( what the heck are droves?) to see Trevor Bauer and some of the live arm young relievers My biggest concern is having Stubbs, Reynolds and Swisher somewhere in the middle of the lineup creating enough wind to light up the city of Toledo. Guys swinging and missing is a sure way to turn off fans, and these guys do it WAY TOO MUCH. I still call the stadium the Jake because I feel the stadium naming thing has become over-corporatized. That said I think K Mart may have a major league branding opportunity here.
Lisa
January 6, 2013 - 12:09 PM EST
I'm not too confident about Carrera's consistency on defense, after the game where he almost blew a save for Perez by letting a soft liner get by him - a play you would expect an older little league player to make, not difficult.
roger
January 6, 2013 - 10:06 AM EST
tony nice article and i agree with it however i honestly think that 27 to 30K average isnt out of the realm of probabily. there is a pent up demand for the silent fans who saw disinterest compared to say the tigers and the market similarities made it harder to fathom the apathy in comparison to illitch who of course has more money with the pizza and wife owning the motor city casino. However the only move i think they should make would be an inexpensive half time DH, and in previous blog i said Pronk due to logistics and his standing in the community. even a healthy (pipedream) grady however grady is too high strung to be DH but pronk has the ideal personality for it.. in a way it is a mindset and incentive lace the contract for pronk and he would accept it. It isnt like they are beating a path to his door to sign him anywhere else. Houston might be interested but they also may see how Lee works out as a DH. however I am perfectly happy to see the tribe go to goodyear with the roster and invitees as is now. Any addition is icing on the cake. The carrot cake might need a lil more cream cheese frosting but is excellent dessert as is right now. I know a lil to metaphorical but needless to say I am impressed as i have been since the 90's.
Iron Mike
January 6, 2013 - 9:30 AM EST
Tony, if the Indians stoop low to sign guys like Jurrgens and Bedard, two really bad starting pitchers, it is a real indicator just how bad their minor league system really is. What are they currently doing to fix it?? These two pitchers will not help us contend. Not one bit. More Jason Johnson and Scott Elarton? Make a deal for a impact starting pitcher. It will top off a great offseason.

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