The Swish

[Author's Note: It appears that just about any article can be given a title that relates to a song in my iTunes library. Bonus points for choosing something from Craig Finn's ouerve on a slighly Minnesota-leaning blog?]

Big news, everybody. The Indians and Nick Swisher have ended their long courtship (seriously, it sounds as if Cleveland has been targeting him since September) and Swish will be making his home in Cleveland for the next four or five years, barring a trade. Reportedly, the deal is for four years and $56 million, with a sweet little vesting option for a fifth year, worth about another $14 million. A quick run of the calculation software tells us that we're looking at about a $14 million average annual value over the life of this deal.

In exchange for that moderate sum, the Indians are getting back one of the most reliable offensive players in baseball. You can count on Nick Swisher to provide your team with about 23-29 homers and a slash line somewhere near his career norm of .256/.361/.467. Nick doesn't miss many games, he takes walks, drives in runs, and adds virtually no value on the basepaths. Like clockwork, every year since 2005. While there are no sure things in baseball, betting that Nick Swisher will hit pretty much exactly like he did in 2012 is a pretty smart bet.

Therefore, Swisher should be a nice little replacement for the previous tenant of Cleveland's right field pastures — Shin-Soo Choo. Choo was recently dealt as part of a deal to bring back pitching wunderkind Trevor Bauer, and though he may be a better (and more underrated) hitter than Swisher, 

But who would you rather have on your team? Nick or Shin-Soo? For 2013, I'd probably rather have Shin-Soo, for the simple reason that he's likely to be a slightly better hitter. Look at these wRC+ scores over the past five years for Choo: 150, 134, 145, 105, 131. For Swisher, his past five wRC+ numbers are 93, 125, 135, 124, and 128. Four out of five of Choo's seasons are better than all but one of Swisher's. While Nick dances around 25-35% better with the stick than league average, Choo usually sits anywhere between 30-50% Choo's best seasons are better than Swisher's best. His worst seasons are better than Swisher's worst. Nick Swisher is also about two years older, so I'd guess that age is more on Choo's side than Swisher's.

 

But when you take the long-term view, or you look at roster composition issues, the question of Choo v. Swisher gets a little more murky. For both Choo and Swisher, they've had very productive offensive seasons in four out of the past five years. Choo had an off year in 2011, while Swisher's is further away from the present, back in 2008. Each player's most recent season is very similar — only three points of wRC+ separate the two. And what Swisher lacks in pure offensive capability, he makes up for in reliability and flexibility. Swisher has been a productive full-time major league hitter since 2005, and will be under contract with the Indians for at least three years longer than Choo would have been. He's a known quantity. Choo only costs about $5 million for 2012, but he's also a free agent after the season, and market prices for outfielders are rising. I wouldn't be shocked to see Shin-Soo earn more than $14 million per year on the open market next year.

Beyond that, there's value in Swisher's flexibility. He's kind of a weirdly fascinating addition for this team, primarily because they've got nothing of substantive worth going on at three positions: right field, first base and designated hitter. Naturally, Swisher could fill any of those three positions … though if you were to ask me, the best fit is right field, at least for now. Swisher is an okay defensive right fielder (Choo is looking a bit worse than average these days, especially according to UZR and DRS), and his bat plays better there than elsewhere. Best of all, while Choo is a left-handed hitter, Swisher is a switch-hitter, which allows the team to get the platoon advantage at need, and add the best hitter possible to fill other slots, regardless of handedness.

What this move does is it gives the Indians a chance to take a flier on players at 1B, RF, or DH, and then slide Swisher in wherever someone doesn't stick. The Indians don't actually have to restrict themselves to only looking for a 1B or DH. If the best player they can find is a right fielder, no problem! Swisher can stick at first. If the best investment is to go big on a bat-only type player (say Lucas Duda or Justin Smoak becomes available in a trade), grab 'em and leave Swish in right! I'm a big believer in positional (and roster) flexibility as an under-valued skill at the major-league level, and the more of it a team has, the more room there is to get a little extra value.

So, I think the Indians are in the running for the most interesting offseason of post-2012. They've added a high-upside starter who's ready to go (Trevor Bauer), a defensive ace with bat questions in center field (Drew Stubbs), and now Swisher. They've lost Shin-Soo Choo, who was likely on his way out after 2013 anyways, and Jason Donald, who likely doesn't matter in any major way. Oh, and they've also likely parted ways with former franchise standouts Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, but since neither player has made a huge impact since '08 and '06, respectively. On this level, it sounds like this team is getting better.

If you ask me, the Indians look like they made the following decision: trade a solid, above-average-hitting right fielder for an arm that the team couldn't acquire any other way. Then, to fill that void in the outfield, sign a player who could provide very similar production as the departing Choo. And though the team may have lost a little upside, they acquired (1) cost certainty in Swisher's four-year deal, (2) a little more flexibility, given Swisher's switch-hitting ways and ability to play first base, and (3) Trevor Bauer.

You know what? I think the Indians just pulled a fast one on the rest of the league. Despite losing a great-hitting right fielder in trade, the Indians managed to hold steady.

All stats come from FanGraphs.

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