The Atlanta Braves made another big trade in what has been ten months of near-constant player movement. They sent infielder Chris Johnson to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielder Michael Bourn and infielder/outfielder Nick Swisher. Atlanta also received about $15 million from Cleveland to help cover up for most of the differences in salaries.
This is a “change of scenery” trade for all involved. Chris Johnson seemed to wear out his welcome in Atlanta, even when challenging for the batting title in 2013. His anger after bad at-bats was at times uncontrollable and led to many confrontations, some of them in front of cameras in the Braves dugout. Despite that and sub-par defense at third base, the Braves decided to give him a long-term contract that would be guaranteed through the 2017 season.
That contract — at a time when the Braves were giving contracts to many of their young players — was seen by some as unnecessary for a player who didn’t have a long track record of good performances. I viewed it in much the same way, but tolerable in a market that was lean on available third baseman. Last year after the contract was signed Johnson quickly returned to his pre-Atlanta terribleness at the plate, continued to play poor defense, and didn’t seem to make any allies in the clubhouse.
The new Braves front office leadership made no secret of their months-long quest to trade Johnson, and in the lead-up to the July non-waiver trade deadline he made it known that he would be happy to move on. Both sides finally got their wish.
There were rumors of a Swisher for Johnson swap last month, and apparently the teams came really close to making it happen. The Indians decided to instead move two under-performing contracts.
Both Bourn and Swisher were signed to big free agent contracts prior to the 2013 season. Despite putting up decent numbers in their first year with The Tribe, each player succumbed to injury and decline in subsequent years. The Indians quickly soured on both guys and sought future payroll flexibility — this is where the money that changed hands comes into play.
Cleveland sent between $10 and $15 million to the Braves this year to cover future contract obligations — money that likely covers both players’ remaining contract obligations for this year. Next year Swisher is owed $15 million and Bourn $14 million. Each player has a vesting option for 2017 ($14M for Swish, $12M for Bourn) if they reach 550 plate appearances in 2016. Chris Johnson is owed $7.5M in 2016 and $9M in 2017 with a team option for 2018. From the Indians perspective they clear Bourn and Swisher off their books this year, and get much lower future payroll obligations. The Braves meanwhile, will pay more in 2016 for the two players they acquired, but as long as their options don’t vest, they will have no payroll obligations for 2017.
While Bourn and Swisher routinely averaged more than 550 plate appearances for most of their careers, injuries have limited them to less than that number the past two years. The Braves will likely make sure that neither guy gets to that number next year, even without the “help” of a DL stint. That will likely be accomplished due to the now-crowded nature of the positions each of them play.
Bourn is currently blocked in center field by Cameron Maybin. Swisher is blocked at first base by Freddie Freeman when he returns from the DL. As the roster currently stands, both players will compete for playing time in left field next year — but of course as we’ve seen for the past ten months the Braves roster will likely continue to change. The presence of Bourn will allow the Braves to sell high on Cameron Maybin. If he is traded, then Bourn serves as a place-holder and mentor for prospect Mallex Smith, currently at triple-A.
I actually really like this trade for Atlanta. They take on a lot of salary for 2016, but they have plenty of room to do so, and they add two great clubhouse guys — something that has been a focus of their recent rebuild. They also rid themselves of a guy they really didn’t want in Chris Johnson — the third Johnson they’ve traded in the past month.
Atlanta also gets two more veterans who they could potentially move at next year’s trade deadline, much like they did with Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe this year. At that point their salaries should not be an obstacle to any trade, and as long as the Braves keep their plate appearances low in the first half of the year, the acquiring team would get a useful rental player.
With the injuries both Bourn and Swisher have experienced the past two years, and the inevitable age-based decline, there’s no telling what kind of offensive production the Braves could get from these guys. It’s also hard to predict what effect a decline in playing time due to positional crowding could have on each player.
In the near term it seems that Bourn and Swisher will be a lot more fun to watch than Johnson has been. These two veterans could also infuse the team with a renewed energy, which seemed to be lost when the team traded Uribe last month.