Ding Dong, The Wicked Warlocks Are Dead (or reduced by 50%)

My first reaction to hearing that the Indians had traded Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn was disbelief. Who’d be dumb enough to trade for both of them?

When I hear it was Atlanta– and Cleveland was getting Chris Johnson and paying the Braves $10 million– it made more sense.

1. This is the kind of decision Hart has been making since the Indians lost the 1997 World Series– the “Let’s hurry up and win!” approach.

Here’s how Hart sees it:

  • Johnson is 30 and he’s a pretty terrible player.
    • We don’t have the DH, he’s wretched at third, and not much better at first.
    • He’s been a regular for six seasons and had three good years (2010, 2012, 2013) with his bat.
    • He doesn’t have a consistent platoon split. The last two years, he’s beat up on lefties, but in 2010 and 2012, he hit righties better and in 2011 he hit .260 against lefties and .248 against righties. (There’s a reason for this; I’ll get to it later on.)
  • We owe him $19 million, and he’ll tie up a roster spot in both 2016 and 2017:
    • Roughly $2 million for the rest of 2015
    • $7.5 million in 2016
    • $9 million in 2017
    • A $1 million buyout in 2018 (unless he magically becomes worth $10 million between now and then).
  • Bourn is a former All-Star who is a National League player (he hates all the AL breaking stuff). He likes hot weather, he played well in Atlanta and he’s been playing better. If he doesn’t snap out of his funk, he’s at least a fourth outfielder.
  • Swisher is a former All-Star hobbled by injuries, who could come back if he can get healthy.
  • The former Indians will cost me $38.2 million ($9.2 million this year, and $29 million in 2016), but they’re off my roster after a year. (They have vesting options for 2017, but if they don’t play 550 AB in 2016, we owe them nothing.)
  • The Indians will kick in $10 million to reduce the gap from $19.2 million to 9.2 million

Bottom line: “I’m paying $9.2 million for the rights to two all-stars who aren’t that old (see note below). Plus, I might be able to flip one or both to people who want a veteran reclamation project. Worst-case scenario, I can cut them and I’m just out a little cash.”

Note: I know the “not that old” comment is ridiculous. But that’s what Hart thinks, He was never an analytics guy– he was a “roll the dice” GM. who thought like a scout, went with his gut and relied on his staff to do due diligence and crunch numbers.  He hasn’t had that type of support since leaving Cleveland. Which means:

  • He doesn’t care that Bourn (32 years, 224 days old) and Swisher (34 years, 256 days) are past the age where a comeback is likely.
  • He isn’t worried that both Bourn (88 games missed in 2013 and 2014) and Swisher (82) haven’t been healthy for two years.
  • He’s not noticing that neither guy has played well since 2012.

But here’s the real reason he made the deal. When an executive who is over the hill is faced with problems, he usually tries to relive his past glories. In John Hart’s blurry eyes, Swisher and Bourn are Dave Justice and Marquis Grissom. That they’re older and more shopworn and not nearly as good as the guys he traded Kenny Lofton for in 1997 doesn’t really matter.

That’s why the Rangers struggled– and the Braves will too.

2. This has the potential to be a great deal for the Indians for many reasons:

  • They’re paying Johnson a lot less than they did Swisher and Bourn.
  • He’s only using one roster spot, not two.
  • Johnson is a little younger (30 years, 312 days); he has been healthier, so he has a better chance to come back than they do (not a great one, but 15-20% is higher than 5-10%).
  • He can hit lefties.

Terry Francona can plug Johnson in as a platoon DH, look for a veteran lefty bat and get pretty good production. (Zach Walters would be an appropriate platoon partner for him, since they share the same DNA. Again, more later.)

There was no role you could create for Swisher. Bourn, while he was hitting .350 in the last month, was posting a .608 OPS against righties and a .606 OPS against lefties for the year. Not much of a role for that,

3. Johnson– unlike Bourn and Swisher– is easy to handle. He has zero mystique. He isn’t a former All-Star; he’s never gotten MVP votes. He’s never won a Silver Slugger or a Gold Glove.

Nobody thinks he can provide leadership. He made only one trip to the playoffs and was out in the first round. He’s not a leader– in fact, he’s an abrasive personality who has a negative impact on the clubhouse.

Because he isn’t a high-profile free agent– he’s a salary dump who’s had two straight rotten years– fans don’t care about him. If the Indians trade him, people will be thrilled.If they don’t play him, nobody will ask why,

Best of all, because the Indians didn’t sign Johnson, his agent can’t poison the water by claiming that the front office “promised” his client a role, only to reneg on it. If he doesn’t want to be a DH and has another one of his tantrums, they can just cut him.

All that said, this isn’t a good deal. Let’s make it very clear about Johnson:

1. He’s a sucky hitter. Johnson is one of those players in the tradition of Cory Snyder, Russ Branyan, Jeff Francoeur and many others guess hitters who have no strike zones and swing like lunberjacks:

  • He never takes pitches: He averages 3.76 per at-bat (the MLB average is 3.8) and it’s that high only because he fouls off a lot of balls.
  • He never walks. In 701 games played (more than four full seasons) and 2,646 plate appearances (again, over four years), he has 122 total walks. Hence, despite his .281 average, he has a .317 OB%.
  • He strikes out a lot. Once in every 4.8 at-bats, to be precise.

Here’s a fascinating statistic. because he is such a notorious first-pitch swinger, Johnson has, in his 2.646 plate appearances, reached a 3-0 count only 82 times.

It’s a little tough to find Indians with roughly the same amount of playing time, but Cleveland does have one. Jason Kipnis has 150 fewer plate appearances than Johnson.

Kipnis admits he doesn’t like to take pitches– he likes to try to make things happen. That’s why his career high in walks in 76 in 658 at-bats. He’ll never bring Jim Thome or Mike Hargrove to mind. But because Kipnis has enough sense not to swing if the pitcher can’t find the plate. he has 156 career at-bats— nearly twice as many as Johnson’s 82that reached a 3-0 count. Some more stats:

  • Kipnis has 262 at-bats where he worked the count to 3-1; Johnson has 129.
  • Kipnis has 409 at-bats that reached a 2-0 count; Johnson has 285.

Needless to say, Johnson’s strikeout to walk ratio is so high (5.33-1) that smart pitchers see no need to throw him strikes. And until now, Johnson has always been in the National League, where:

  • The culture is to challenge the hitter with fastballs– not nibble with breaking stuff.
  • Front offices in the NL tend to use analytics much less than the AL teams

When AL pitchers realize what a pigeon they have, Johnson will get a steady diet of slop on the corners. He might finish the season well (there isn’t much time left for word to get out), but he won’t hit well in 2016 or 2017.

2. Johnson can’t field. In his 623 games at third (about four seasons), the more conservative advanced fielding metric says he is -32 runs below an average third baseman. The other says he’s -63 runs below average.

By comparison, Giovanny Urshela, in only 51 games at third, is either 1 run above average or 9 runs above. That’s reason enough to not play Johnson at third. Since Urshela is 23 and is starting to get the hang of the majors, you’d be insane not to keep playing Urshela.

If you want to take playing time away from Carlos Santana at first, you can’t make a case for Johnson defensively. In 40 games at first (about 276 innings, or 30 full games) he’s about average at first.

He has never played in the outfield. Don’t even start.

3. He’s not consistent. Every trade account mentions he’s hitting .323 against lefties, but he hasn’t done that every year. Over his career, he’s been erratic– developing a platoon split only as his career has tanked. Here are his splits, with the better split in red.

v Righties v Lefties
Season Games Average OPS Average OPS
2009 11 .133 .267 .000 .125
2010 94 .316 .848 .286 .735
2011 107 .248 .681 .260 .635
2012 136 .295 .819 .245 .672
2013 142 .299 .772 .383 .939
2014 153 .231 .570 .395 .988
2015 58 .208 .565 .323 .747
Career 701 .269 .712 .313 .788

The notion  that you can just plug Johnson in against lefties and get MVP performance is iffy.

And if you’re thinking “Maybe the Indians can turn him around against righties”, then you definitely can’t count on his production against lefties staying high.

Outlook: Johnson offers the Indians no value, except in comparison to what Swisher and Bourn were going to do. He doesn’t cost as much money and he doesn’t take up as many roster spots (though he takes them up longer).

The Indians goal should be to repeat the process. Find another team willing to take Johnson’s two remaining years and $19 million (plus $5-6 million in cash) in return for some other 30-year-old stiff making (say) $10 million in 2016.

Johnson is nearly 31, so his body is only going to keep going downhill. If he were willing to accept coaching, you might be able to turn his bat around… but the thing about the Cory Snyder guys is that they never do. Ever. Even when their career is in jeopardy, they’re always saying “Just leave me alone and let me play my game.”

Are there any questions?

Who would you play in center?

It’s a tough question. Let’s handle it by process of elimination:

Michael Brantley: No way. He has a bad back, and running a lot won’t help it.

Brantley is another object lesson that the Indians never seem to be capable of learning: Skills that aren’t used decay. By moving Brantley to left, they put him in a position where he never needed to use his speed, rarely had to move around (letting his reaction time and agility slip) and didn’t need to throw.

They made their bed; they have to lie in it. Brantley is a leftfielder now.

Abraham Almonte. As Samuel L. Jackson would say, “Aw, Hell no!” As the Royals have shown, if you’re trying to build around a pitching staff, you need fielders who can get to balls. Almonte has been a terrible defensive centerfielder in the minors.

The only time he ever looked good was in Seattle, which has minor league parks with big outfields, where the ball doesn’t carry well (just like their major-league park).

At bat, he’s a singles hitter who draws an acceptable number of walks, but doesn’t have the power. If he could play center well, you could get by with that.

But since he lacks the glove, just move on.

Tyler Naquin: I wouldn’t do it… but since the Indians blew a #1 pick on him, I suppose there’s no way to avoid it.

Naquin is one of the many reasons that a good team would never hire Mark Shapiro. Shapiro believes that players who have power hurt your team because:

  • They strike out a lot
  • They’re slump-prone

Shapiro’s oft-expressed theory is that contact hitters with line-drive power tend to be more consistent players and if they hit enough doubles and triples, it’s nearly as good as a homer. His idea of a great outfielder is Ichiro or Tony Gwynn. So it’s no surprise that the Indians wanted a player who hit only 7 homers in 687 at-bats in college– even though he was using a metal bat.

Naquin is already 24 years and 109 days old, and he’s still trying to prove himself in AAA. He’s turned out exactly what his NCAA performance suggested– a player whose career average at every level is between .270 (low-A ball) and .306 (AA), but whose OPS is between .759-780.

I’m ignoring the 43 games in AAA, where he is below that norm, on the assumption he;s still getting acquainted.

There is absolutely no way a player who produces that in the low minors can help a team at left or right field., so the question is can he play center? So far, the answer has been yes.

But he isn’t going to be a good player. He’ll hit closer to .250 than .300; he’ll have an average OB% at best, so they can’t really lead him off. But the 27-30 doubles, 6 triples and 4 homers will mean he isn’t a middle-of-the order hitter.

He’ll end up batting seventh and when they rank the AL starters, he’ll be somewhere between 6-10.

Tyler Holt: It’s too late for Holt in Cleveland– they kept waiting for Bourn until Naquin is nearly ready. Holt knows it, so he’s been slogging along in AAA, waiting to get to anther club.

I like Holt as a player because, unlike Naquin (who does a lot of things, but doesn’t do any of them well, other than throw), Holt is good at a few things.

  • He draws a lot of walks (77, per 150 games) and does not strike out much (105)
  • He has learned to steal bases well.
  • He’s learned to bunt, go the other way and handle a hit-and-run.
  • His defense is good, though not great.

Holt is a player who could hit leadoff, reach base and either steal a base and get to third on a single. Not a great leadoff man, but a good one.

But he isn’t going to play, so I’ll get off it. A team that signed him would be surprised at what he could do. I think he might outdo Naquin.

Well, the point of this trade wasn’t to make the Indians better— it was to make them less worse. So bully for that


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