Swisher, Francona faces of Tribe's makeover
Aggressive offseason has new-look club hoping to contend for AL Central title
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- All anyone needs to know about the dramatic changes in the Indians this offseason is that Nick Swisher and Terry Francona are now wearing the same uniform.
Formerly archrivals as members of the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, Swisher and Francona represent just two prongs of a serious Tribe makeover that includes former Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds and will place free-agent signing Michael Bourn in center field by the end of the week.
Bourn has agreed to a four-year contract that will guarantee him $48 million and could be worth $60 million, but the Indians don't plan on making a formal announcement about the deal until the speedy outfielder passes his physical later in the week. Francona said he chatted with players on Tuesday about their new roles now that Bourn is in the fold. The role shifts include Swisher moving to first base, Michael Brantley to left field, Drew Stubbs to right and Reynolds to DH, mostly.
"Saying that, we still have a hole in center field," Francona said. "But that will take care of itself. How's that?"
The pending Bourn deal notwithstanding, Swisher's contract, at four years and $56 million, is the largest the franchise has given to a free agent. And Francona was one big reason Swisher signed.
"Tito has always been one of my favorite guys," Swisher said about the former Red Sox manager, who took over the Indians after last year's 93-loss season, succeeding Manny Acta. "I just played golf with [Francona] the other day. He's easy for me to talk to."
The Red Sox won the World Series under Francona in 2004, ending an 86-year drought, then again in '07. After Boston stumbled in September 2011, missing the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, Francona resigned. Despite the way that season ended, Francona had a .574 winning percentage as the Red Sox's manager. At least in Cleveland, the World Series drought is only 64 years.
Swisher helped lead the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009; they have made the playoffs each year since then and reached the American League Championship Series twice. Swisher averaged 26 homers and 87 RBIs per season in his four years wearing pinstripes. After he declined a qualifying offer earlier this offseason, the Yankees never really engaged in serious negotiations when the switch-hitter became a free agent, he said.
"For whatever reason, we knew during the season we were going to have to look elsewhere for a new contract," Swisher said about parting ways with the Yankees. "It was a great four years there. Awesome! I really enjoyed it. What they're doing there doesn't matter to me anymore. I couldn't be more excited about playing here."
Swisher was born in Columbus, Ohio, grew up just across the Ohio state line in Parkersburg, W. Va., and played ball at Ohio State. So for him, this is a homecoming, of sorts. Swisher's dad, Steve, a former big league catcher who managed the then-29-year-old Francona at Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League in 1988. So there are long-standing ties.
"I was just a baby when I met Tito," said Swisher, who was 7 then and is 32 today. "That's how far we go back."
Francona also had a hand in wooing Reynolds, who was pursued by the Yankees to play third base back in December, when it became evident that Alex Rodriguez was going to miss a sizable portion of the 2013 season as he recovers from left hip surgery. With the Orioles, Reynolds destroyed Yankees pitching last season, collecting seven homers and 14 RBIs, most of which came as the two teams battled for the AL East title in September. The Yankees clinched on the next-to-last day of the regular season and vanquished Baltimore in a five-game AL Division Series.
Reynolds, who came up in the D-backs organization and still lives in the Phoenix area, said that attending Spring Training in Arizona was one of the reasons he didn't sign with a Yankees club that instead signed Kevin Youkilis. Reynolds signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Cleveland.
"Two years in Florida were enough," said Reynolds, whom the D-backs traded to Baltimore after the 2010 season.
And then again, there was Francona.
"A lot of it has to do with Tito," Reynolds said of the man who is nicknamed after his father, another former Major Leaguer. "Calling me and really telling me about his plan, his vision, he said when I signed, 'Trust me, we're not done.'" No kidding. We got Swish and Mikey Bourn and [Trevor] Bauer. We got some good pieces. I'm just real excited about what this team can accomplish."
For his part, Francona said he doesn't deserve all that much of the credit for the signings of Swisher and Reynolds.
"I've known Swish for a long time," Francona said. "But sitting here taking too much credit would be inappropriate. It wouldn't be correct. I'd say we've had a good team effort this winter."
In a turnaround aided by an influx of new revenue, the Indians have turned over nearly half of their 40-man roster since the end of last season. And that doesn't include Bourn and veterans Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who were both recently signed to Minor League contracts and invited to camp. Matsuzaka arrived on Tuesday.
In late December, the Indians sold their own regional sports network to FOX for a sum reported to be worth $230 million and an additional rights fee reportedly worth $400 million over the next 20 years. And that doesn't include the new national TV contract Major League Baseball signed last year with FOX and Turner Sports that will bring $12.4 billion into the collective coffers through 2021.
Add right-hander Brett Myers, whom the Indians signed to a one-year, $7 million contract, and it's no wonder they were able to sign four free agents this offseason for a total of $117 million, a heretofore unheard of amount of money for this franchise.
Francona, though, said spending wasn't a big part of the equation when he signed a four-year contract in October.
"I never even asked," Francona said. "I told [general manager] Chris [Antonetti] during the interview process that whatever path we took, I'd do my best to make us the best team. Through their hard work, things have progressed one after another. It's been a very exciting offseason."
Now, the Indians have to let it all play out. And everyone has to get used to Swisher and Francona wearing the same uniform.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.