When the Indians added Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in free agency, it was supposed to energize the fans and signal the start of a new era. And it probably did help with the latter, if not the former.
However, while neither Swisher nor Bourn went bust in year one in Cleveland, the performances of both left something to be desired. That continued on Wednesday, as both veterans went 0-for-4 in the 3-0 loss to the Rays that resulted in a quick postseason exit for the Indians.
The postseason struggles were nothing new for Swisher, who was routinely attacked for it in New York. Tonight’s 0-for left him with a .165 average and just eight RBI in 158 postseason at-bats. Bourn was playing in his first career postseason game.
Of course, it’s hardly fair to say Swisher and Bourn were signed to carry the Indians, even if their average salaries of $14 million and $12 million, respectively, dwarf those of anyone else on the team (after those $56 million and $48 million deals, the next biggest contract on the Indians is Asdrubal Cabrera’s two-year, $16.5 million pact). They were signed to supplement Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis, not overshadow them. And they did that in the regular season, even if they were modest disappointments. Swisher hit a respectable .246/.341/.423 with 22 homers, but his total of 63 RBI was troubling for someone who spent half of the year batting cleanup. Bourn went from hitting .274/.348/.391 with 42 steals for the Braves in 2012 to batting .263/.316/.360 with 23 steals this year.
As the Indians head into 2014, Swisher will probably remain the best interview, but the team will be built around Santana and Kipnis. Cabrera could well be traded, even though top prospect Francisco Lindor probably isn’t ready to take over at shortstop quite yet. Closer Chris Perez, the fourth highest-paid player, seems sure to exit as well. The Tribe won’t necessarily need Swisher and Bourn to star to remain contenders, but they do have to hope any continued decline is a slow process.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.