"People call me all the time and say, 'Man, your players aren't signed yet.' Well, it doesn't really matter what time dinner is when you're the steak."
There was a time, and it wasn't too long ago, when centerfielder Michael Bourn was supposed to make $90 million on the open market. Probably best not to bring that up in his introductory press conference.
Bourn agreed to a four-year, $48 million deal with the Cleveland Indians on Monday night, signing for fewer years and far less money than he'd hoped when he hit free agency this December. It's been rough for the recent Atlanta Brave; though generally seen as the top commodity on the market at his position when bidding opened, he was also the only man at his position tied to draft pick compensation: to sign Bourn, a team would have to give up their first round pick (unless it was protected, in which case the team would surrender their second rounder).
That rider, combined with the draft pool rules in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement tying the slot value of a team's pick to the amount of money the team is allowed to spend on it without triggering draconian penalties including luxury tax or even loss of future picks, hurt Bourn's signability in a lot of places -- but the first team to ink a free-agent centerfielder to a long-term contract was Bourn's previous home of Atlanta, who wouldn't have had to surrender anything to extend him. They weren't worried about draft pick compensation; they just thought ex-Ray B.J. Upton was a better use of their money. And when the centerfield vacancy in Atlanta ended, so did the market for Michael Bourn.
The Philadelphia Phillies traded for Minnesota's Ben Revere, and then the Washington Nationals traded for Minnesota's Denard Span, taking two teams off the list of teams that required Bourn's services and might be able to meet his asking price. The Reds dealt Drew Stubbs in a three-way deal that brought Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati, but GM Walt Jocketty seems perfectly content to see if Choo or Jay Bruce can roam centerfield rather than spend even more money. Every other team that made some kind of sense -- Seattle, either Chicago club, maybe Texas -- balked at the idea of not only surrendering a pick in the first round for Bourn, but paying handsomely for the privilege.
Which brings us to Cleveland. The Indians were terrible last year; not so remarkably so that they were able to unseat the Houston Astros for the first overall pick, but bad enough that at number five, their first-rounder was protected from draft pick compensation. Cleveland took this, coupled with a fairly weak draft pool, as an opportunity to pounce. First, they dealt their right fielder and arguably most recognizable star, the aforementioned Shin-Soo Choo, to the Reds as part of a three-team deal that netted not only Stubbs, but top Arizona pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. To replace him, Indians GM Chris Antonetti signed ex-Yankee Nick Swisher, who had also been feeling the chilling effects of having draft pick compensation attached to his roster spot, to a reasonable four-year deal worth $56 million -- surrendering his team's second-round pick. Meanwhile, the team signed a bunch of flawed but feasibly useful vets like ex-Orioles "first baseman" Mark Reynolds and "starting pitcher" Brett Myers, who spent last season in Houston.
This, in and of itself, is a bit of a confusing offseason. The Indians were a bad team, they have no real rotation to speak of outside of Bauer (who is at best untested), and here they are signing Nick Swisher? What are they thinking? Well, they're probably thinking that Nick Swisher is only 32 years old and has quietly been one of the 20 best outfielders in baseball the past three seasons, and that he should still be as worthwhile a player in the back half of his four year deal as he is in the front half. They're thinking that the Diamondbacks were insane to give up on Trevor Bauer in the fashion that they did (especially if it only cost Cleveland a possibly-injured Didi Gregorius), and that there's still some promise in Zach McAllister and maybe even Ubaldo Jimenez.
But most importantly what they're thinking is that there are a number of quality free agents on the market that, under the rules imposed by the new CBA, are locked out of more attractive teams that would be able and willing to pay more for them than Cleveland could. The Indians realize that they can get great deals on established major leaguers still in their primes; all they have to do is surrender their draft picks. And in Cleveland's position, once you've surrendered one draft pick the smart move isn't to stop there. The smart move is to burn the entire draft down.
So they sign Michael Bourn for half the dollar value and two or three years less than he wanted, poaching him from the Mets, hung up as they were on their own first rounder, and they give up their pick in the second competitive balance round (held between the second and third normal rounds of drafting). Michael Bourn is almost guaranteed to be more valuable than any player Cleveland could have drafted in what is effectively the top of the third. Moreover he can contribute to the same Indians teams as his new teammate Nick Swisher, playing a position that allows Michael Brantley to move over to left and fill the gaping, gasping void it represented in last year's lineup. The Cleveland offense looks much better already.
With Bourn in center and Brantley in left, the plan appears to be to start Drew Stubbs, the former Reds centerfielder, in right field -- meaning Cleveland would have three guys with at least one season of centerfield at the major league level under their belt in their starting outfield, something that should help their struggling starting pitching a good deal. And if Stubbs can't hack it in right -- or more precisely, if the strikeout-prone outfielder hacks too much -- Nick Swisher can move from first base back out to his natural home on the field and Stubbs can be a supremely qualified fourth-outfielder.
But there's something that might help the Indians' pitching even more than an outfield with three centerfielders. While keeping their first rounder -- still the most valuable pick in any team's draft by far -- Cleveland has given up their second and comp round picks. So why not give up their third rounder and get the last guy on the market starving for a deal with a draft pick collar hanging around his throat? Why not sign Kyle Lohse?
At first blush, it doesn't look like a traditionally 'smart' way to build a team; the Indians are spending a lot of money spent now on a team whose component parts don't look like anything special. Outside of young shortstop Francisco Lindor, their farm system is nothing to dream on. But because they were willing to essentially punt on two of their top three picks, they have a pair of outfielders in their primes, signed to contracts below the value the market expected, contributing to their team now in a weak division -- and a team doesn't need to win a weak division to benefit from it in the wild-card race. There's no reason for them not to complete the hat-trick and sign Lohse, the last remaining free agent tied to draft pick compensation, to a reasonable deal far below the numbers his agent was bandying about when the offseason opened.
Kyle Lohse is also a Scott Boras client, by the way. Baseball's most feared agent won't be happy if another one of his guys has to take far less money than expected over fewer years than he'd like just to make it to spring training somewhat on time, but I think it'll be hard for the Indians or their fans to care too much about that. They're starting to like the taste of steak.