GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Nick Swisher went into his locker and withdrew the evidence that something indeed had taken place here, already, hours into a camp that was to be notable for change if not necessarily improvement.
The difference is wispy, like the vapor that puffed from their mouths here on a chilled Tuesday morning. Like the difference in feeling optimism rather than choosing it. Like their chances in the AL Central over the past five years.
The Cleveland Indians had pursued a perky little offseason. They'd hired a decorated manager whose book, "Francona: The Red Sox Years," is in Amazon's top 100. They'd splurged for the largest free-agent contract in club history, which, granted, hasn't distinguished itself in the way of large free-agent contracts. Then they'd gotten lucky, the way so many flyover organizations must, and that sent Swisher searching for a celebratory gesture.
"See, bro!?" he shouted, because he almost always shouts. "I've already got the first-baseman's glove ready, man!"
It was black with green lettering and very new, as inflexible as an Indians fan's dread. But the mitt's presence, and the occasion of it, was for Michael Bourn, a center fielder of some standing who'd just agreed to the largest free-agent contract in club history since late December.
Bourn is expected to travel Thursday from Houston to the Phoenix area, where he'll take his physical, sign his contract and roll into camp as the leadoff man, center fielder, and reason Swisher will be working those first-base reps (along with the reason you could be hearing Drew Stubbs trade rumors in the coming weeks).
Awaiting the physical and its results, the Indians hadn't yet announced the Bourn acquisition as of Tuesday afternoon. But, Terry Francona did sit down with good few of his position players Tuesday morning so he could clarify their roles. Michael Brantley was told he would play left field. Stubbs was told to report to right. Swisher was told to break in that fresh mitt. And Mark Reynolds was told he'd get most of his at-bats as designated hitter.
"Saying that," Francona said, a smile tugging at his face, "you know, we still have a hole in center field."
Yes, Bourn is coming.
"The Bourn identity!" Swisher shouted. "He's in the house! The Bourn identity!"
Not yet. But soon.
He's likely to be introduced at a Friday news conference, bringing an end to a long-ish free agency that included long conversations with the Texas Rangers, who like their young center fielders too much to have gone four or five years on Bourn, and longer conversations with the New York Mets, who bid competitively with the Indians, but wouldn't add the fifth-year vesting option. The Indians did, bringing the potential value of the contract to $60 million over five years. Bourn is guaranteed $48 million over four.
Sometimes, when you're a club that has knocked around at 94 losses, when trades don't pan out and the draft simply won't get you capable fast enough, the only way out is money and you can only hope you don't get swamped by one of the wealthier franchises. Bourn was available well into February because the Minnesota Twins traded two center fielders, one to the Washington Nationals and another to the Philadelphia Phillies, removing those clubs from Bourn's possibilities. His free agency was also tempered by the fact he'd cost many clubs a first-round draft pick.
So, along came the Indians, who appeared to be satisfied with an outfield stocked with first the trade for Stubbs (along with pitcher Trevor Bauer) and then the signing of Swisher. The conversations between the club and Bourn's agent, Scott Boras, date to the winter meetings at least. Those cooled after the Swisher signing, then restarted in January, and only recently heated to the point Bourn spoke by telephone with Francona, who impressed Bourn with his long-term vision for the Indians.
By Tuesday morning, the news of the Bourn signing had reached the Indians' clubhouse. Anyone who hadn't heard was notified by Swisher.
"It's a great move on all angles, I think," Swisher said. "I think everybody else would agree with me."
Only five months ago, reliever Chris Perez criticized team management for failing to spend for players or acquire better players in trades. His opinion got a lot of run in Cleveland, both because of his audacity and accuracy. Even Tuesday he celebrated the end of "a country-club atmosphere in here," an observation that is certain to generate some follow-up questions.
On the first day of spring training, however, a day that brought a pretty fair center fielder and leadoff hitter, Perez, like the rest of the Indians, was only pleased and only looking ahead. The wisps of doubt? Of hesitation? Of reality for a pitching staff that still needs plenty to go right? For the moment, gone.
"We have no excuses now as a team," Perez said, "at least in my opinion."
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