Last night, the Indians signed Michael Bourn to a four year, $48 million deal. It’s less than he was asking for, but still a pretty significant investment for a low power/high strikeout guy headed into his thirties. I’ve already written about my questions over how much of his value he’ll retain, both on offense and on defense, but 4/48 isn’t paying Bourn to retain most of his skills. At that price, the Indians just need him to be an average or slightly above average player for the life of the deal, which gives him a lot of room to decline and still be worth the contract.
As others have already written, this was a deal worth doing for the Indians, even if they aren’t necessarily expecting to keep up with the Tigers in 2013. Value is value, and adding good players to the organization at reasonable prices is something every team should be interested in doing. But, perhaps more than just Bourn’s role on the team, the more interesting story is how the acquisition of one of the game’s elite defensive players actually solves the void the Indians had at DH.
When the Indians signed Nick Swisher earlier in the winter, the presumption was that he would replace Shin-Soo Choo in right field. With Bourn now in the fold, however, Swisher’s positional flexibility looks to be a significant advantage for Terry Francona, as Swisher can now flex between first base and right field depending on the best fit for each day.
The platoon that we’re all used to is the left/right tandem, with two batters sharing a starting job based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. With Jason Giambi and Drew Stubbs, the Indians have the makings of a non-traditional DH platoon, with Swisher and Reynolds playing the field against RHPs to open up DH for Giambi and then Stubbs pushing Reynolds to DH and Swisher back to first base against LHPs. With Mike Aviles and Lonnie Chisenhall, they can also run a left/right platoon at third base as well, and the Indians anti-lefty line-up could actually be one of the best in baseball, especially when you factor in the defense that comes from having Brantley, Bourn, and Stubbs playing side-by-side-by-side.
But, opposing pitcher handedness isn’t the only variable off which a manager can choose to platoon. With a league best defensive outfield alignment in play when Stubbs is in the line-up, the Indians can now also choose their line-ups based on their own starting pitcher’s fly ball tendencies. Justin Masterson and Brett Myers will benefit less from having three center fielders behind him than Trevor Bauer or Zach McAllister, so on days when their ground ball starters take the hill, the Indians can now put an extra bat in the line-up. Meanwhile, the staff’s fly ball pitchers can be supported with perhaps the game’s best group of fly catchers, giving both better opportunities to succeed by pitching up in the zone.
The left/right platoon should take precedence over the ground ball/fly ball platoon, but there’s room to run both simultaneously within the same season. And the Indians, as an organization, have already shown that they’re willing to maximize the value that platooning offers. Last year, Cleveland’s hitters had the platoon advantage in 70% of their plate appearances, the highest mark in the league. The average team had the platoon advantage in just 55% of their plate appearances, and over 6,000 plate appearances, that works out to an extra 900 trips to the plate where the Indians had the left/right advantage. The Indians were also number one in platoon advantage plate appearances in 2011 as well.
Part of that is the product of having switch-hitters like Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, but the Indians have also been one of the most open organizations to job shares, and they’ve built a roster that should give Francona a lot of options to mix and match. They now have three switch-hitters in the middle of their order, and can complement those three with either five additional LH bats against a RHP or three additional right-handed bats against a LHP. And, depending on who starts for them each day, the line-up can also balance outfield defense versus the addition of a better hitter.
This isn’t the kind of thing that is going to vault the Indians to the top of their division, but it does give them the chance to maximize the value of most of the players on their roster. Having complementary pieces gives the Indians the ability to get the best from each of their players without exposing them to opportunities where they are more likely to fail, and their willingness to mix-and-match will give them the best chance to maximize value from a roster that comes up a bit short in the talent department.
Don’t look at Bourn as displacing Brantley or Stubbs. While it might not be intuitive, the Indians actually filled their DH hole by signing one of the game’s best defensive players. Having a flexible roster and a manager willing to move pieces around makes that possible.