The Cleveland Indians shocked the baseball world by bringing in big names and spending some serious cash during the 2012-13 offseason. Having already landed two-time World Series champion Terry Francona as the club’s new manager, the Indians then signed former Yankee Nick Swisher in late December to a 4-year, $56-million contract. In February, the Tribe made perhaps their most surprising move of all by scooping up outfielder Michael Bourn as the offseason wound down.
The 30-year-old Bourn was inked to a 4-year, $48-million deal, despite the fact that he had hit just .274 during the previous season. The team was able to overlook this blip in statistical success and justify Bourn’s worthiness of the new contract by taking into account his superiority on the basepaths (he had averaged 51.4 stolen bases over the past five seasons) and in the field (Bourn received the Gold Glove Award in both 2009 and 2010).
His speed, more so than his merely average ability to reach base, made him the ideal leadoff man for the Indians heading into the season. After a rough first season for Bourn in Cleveland, though, fans could see a new player setting the table at the top of the Indians lineup in 2014.
Though the center fielder frequently battled injuries throughout the season, it would be safe to say that Bourn performed severely below the expectations of most fans and experts alike in 2013. His on-base percentage sat at .316, the second lowest mark of his seven-year big league career. That is a painstakingly low number for a leadoff man.
His relatively solid pre-All-Star break performance (.290 AVG./.331 OBP) was offset by his dismal play after the break (.232/.299). Bourn’s struggles at the plate were magnified by his failure in the clutch, hitting just .222 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
His speed and defensive ability took a step back this season, as well. Bourn was successful on just 23 of his 35 base-stealing attempts, and his .989 fielding percentage was the second lowest of his career. And who could forget this play that helped Bourn make an appearance on SportsCenter’s Not Top 10?
Final grade: C+
While Bourn descended out of the ranks of the game’s best all-around outfielders, fellow Indian Michael Brantley made his ascension into being one of the franchise’s most vital pieces. The Tribe’s left fielder has developed into a model of consistency since becoming an everyday starter for the club in 2010, helping him earn the nickname “Dr. Smooth” from fans and writers.
Brantley maintained a solid approach at the plate throughout much of the season, compiling a .284 average that sits right about on par with his .288 mark from last season. He collected a number of career-highs in 2013, including: home runs (10), RBI (73), stolen bases (17), and runs scored (66).
Even more impressive than his career bests was his composure at the dish in clutch situations, batting .364 with runners in scoring position and two outs – a mark that ranked him tenth in the league among those with more than 50 plate appearances in such scenarios.
After spending all of last season as the club’s center fielder, Brantley made the move back to left to accommodate for the arrivals of Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs. Statistically speaking, Brantley had by far the best defensive season of the three, finishing tied for first among qualifying left fielders in fielding percentage (1.000) and fourth in assists (11). He consistently displayed improved arm accuracy as well, as evidenced by his high assist total.
Final grade: A-
In a team full of comeback stories, arguably none had a bigger impact on the team’s overall performance than that of Ryan Raburn. After serving as a solid utility man for the Tigers for a number of years, Raburn’s offensive production took a sharp turn for the worse in 2012 when he collected just 35 hits in 205 at-bats (.171 AVG.). Early in the offseason, Detroit decided to part ways with its veteran utility man.
The Indians then signed Raburn to a minor-league deal in January and gave him an invitation to spring training. Upon playing well, he was then granted a spot on the big league roster for Opening Day. Raburn never looked back, as he carried his spring sucess into the regular season.
It seemed as if Francona utilized Raburn’s 32-year-old right-handed bat almost perfectly, as Raburn crushed 16 home runs in just 243 total at-bats. His average of 15.2 at-bats per home run ranked him near the top of the league behind just a few sluggers, including Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. His 4-home run explosion, along with his .591 average, during one particular week in late April/early May earned him American League Player of the Week honors.
Defensively, Raburn was never really a liability, though his defensive potential in right field compared to that of Drew Stubbs is a bit underwhelming. To be fair, Stubbs is one of the most athletic outfielders in the game, and Raburn made a flurry of excellent plays in right this season anyway. Also, Raburn was surprisingly more reliable defensively than Stubbs was this season.
During the late stages of a drubbing at the hands of Detroit during mid-season, Francona displayed a resounding sense of trust in his veteran utility man by sending Raburn to the mound for one inning of relief work. He impressively pitched a shutout inning, even striking out one batter on an 89-mph heater. I wouldn’t expect to see Raburn on the mound again anytime soon, but it was fun to watch, nonetheless.
The club locked up Raburn for another two years by signing him to a two-year contract extension in early August.
Final grade: A-
Acquired in a three-team offseason trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati (among others who were also shipped elsewhere), Stubbs was expected to complement Bourn and Brantley to form one of the league’s best defensive outfields. While his previous production at the plate left quite a bit to be desired, there was a perception that Stubbs – a former first-round pick who had the physical attributes of an All-Star caliber ballplayer – might be able to turn things around simply by being provided with a change of scenery.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Stubbs batted just .233, and his on-base percentage sat at just .301. The Indians were not able to take full advantage of his superior speed – which had resulted in 30+ steals in each of the past few seasons – as he stole just 17 bases. He continued his career trend of striking out a ton (141 K’s in 430 at-bats), though that was pretty much on par with the rest of the Indians roster this season.
The preseason notion that the club’s defensive outfield would serve as one of the league’s best proved to be a bit off-mark, as Stubbs – even more so than Bourn – struggled at times avoiding what seemed to be simple lapses of concentration in the outfield. He made six errors en route to amassing a career-low .965 fielding percentage.
Final grade: C-
Opening photo credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images