Will free agents Swisher and Bourn cure what ails Tribe?

Jason Miller

I gotta be honest. I don't have any idea what the Cleveland Indians are up to. Except that their signings this winter of Nick Swisher and now Michael Bourn suggest the club's new TV money simply left them with more money than they could otherwise have spent.

Because it's really hard to figure that either of those guys, let alone both of them, will still be playing well in three or four years, when their contracts are still quite active.

The Indians are one of those teams that I can't help pulling for, at least when they're not playing against the Royals. See, I've spent a little time with both Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro over the years. They've both been friendly and generous, and I admire their intellects and their integrity. Which has always made it slightly difficult to write about their team's failures. And there have been a lot of failures in recent years.

Recently in his newsletter -- a ridiculously good value, by the way; you can subscribe here -- Joe Sheehan traced those failures to four players: Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee. This is Joe's comment about Hafner:

In the summer of 2007, Travis Hafner was coming off a three-year stretch in which he'd been one of the best hitters alive: .308/.419/.611, with top-ten MVP finishes in 2005 and 2006. The Indians, identifying Hafner as a core player and wanting to avoid a confrontation in his walk year -- Hafner had a $4.75 million club option for 2008 -- signed Hafner to a four-year extension that locked him to the Indians through 2012. Hafner, whose "old player's skills" should have been evident, was in decline on the day he signed the deal. For the four years covered by the extension, for which Hafner was paid $49 million, he produced an acceptable .268/.361/.453 line, but played in just 93 games a year in that stretch.

Just a note about this, and without benefit of whatever I wrote at the time because I can't find it ... Hafner, as Joe notes, had been devastating in 2005 and '6. He signed his new contract, running through 2012, at the All-Star break in 2007. Hafner was not, at that moment, hitting particularly well: just .262/.397/.452, but you could argue that he'd just been unlucky, as the walks and power were still there.

Yes, walks and power (and running like a tree sloth) are old man's skills ... but Hafner wasn't an old man. He would spend the next five seasons getting hurt like an old man, and hitting like an old man, and you might argue it almost never makes sense to sign a one-dimensional player for big money through his Age 35 season, but the truth is that the Indians could have made out a lot better on that contract than they did, and if you're going to seriously fault them, you have to assume they could have known that Hafner would have spent much of those next five seasons on the Disabled List.

Maybe they could have. Only they can know.

I do remember that nobody figured Grady Sizemore's career would implode, and anyway the Indians' financial investment in Sizemore was relatively small.

The biggest "mistakes" the Indians have made are obvious: They traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee for Matt LaPorta, Zack Jackson, Michael Brantley, Rob Bryson, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, and Jason Knapp.

Look at those names: eight players, and only one (Brantley) has given the Indians much of anything at all.

But you know, you're not going to hit on all of them. Everybody remembers when the Indians traded Bartolo Colon for Sizemore and Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips, but that's one of the more lopsided trades of all time. When you make a deal like that, if one of the players becomes a big star you're probably ahead of the game.

If Hafner had stayed reasonably healthy and Sizemore had developed normally and the Indians had gotten just an average return on those two big trades, would they have enjoyed a winning season or three in the last five years? Absolutely; they went 81-81 in 2008 and 80-82 in 2011. But in the other three seasons they went 65-97, 69-93, and 68-94. Even if all those good things had happened, they don't contend for a division title even once. Not without some extra standings-improving moves, anyway.

The Indians' real problem is that they haven't developed anything like enough players.

In 2008, their five best prospects were Adam Miller, Chuck Lofgren, Beau Mills, Wes Hodges, and Aaron Laffey.

In 2009, their five best prospects were Carlos Santana, Matt LaPorta, Nick Weglarz (Nick Weglarz?), Adam Miller, and Beau Mills.

In 2010, their five best prospects were Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Nick Hagadone, Jason Knapp, and Michael Brantley.

In 2011, their five best prospects were Chisenhall, Alex White, Jason Kipnis, Drew Pomeranz, and Nick Weglarz (again?).

Let's Go Tribe with more Michael Bourn coverage

Santana's a real good player. Chisenhall's on his way. Alex White and Drew Pomeranz went to Colorado in the deal for Ubaldo Jimenez. Brantley's pretty good, and came of age in the Indians' system. But the Indians simply haven't drafted and developed enough good players, and it's difficult to understand why they haven't. Bad scouting? Bad drafting? Bad luck?

Are things getting any better? This winter, Baseball America and John Sickels both ranked the Indians' farm system 24th in the majors, just a bit higher than a year ago. They just haven't done what a franchise with their financial limitations needs to do. This year, the Indians are doing the same thing the Royals are doing: compensating for an inability to develop young pitchers by throwing around some money. Not a lot of money; just more than they've thrown around before. And it might work, in the short term ... except the Indians make things harder for the Royals, and vice versa. Now they're not just hoping the Tigers collapse and the White Sox drop off some; each club is also hoping its the only small-market club that plays well.

The model, as always, is the Tampa Bay Rays, with their canny trades and their productive farm system. Maybe spending money on hitters in their decline years will work. But like almost everything else the Indians have tried in the last four years, it probably won't.

I hope I'm wrong. But I'm probably not.

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