Given the state of the free-agent market this winter, it's not surprising that Nick Swisher would get a four-year deal or an annual salary of $14 million, with a vesting option for a fifth season at the same rate. The surprise is that the contract came from a second-division club in Cleveland that operates with one of the game's lowest payrolls and doesn't appear to have significant hopes of playoff contention for at least two more years.
Swisher's approach at the plate and ability to hit from both sides of the plate has led to strong OBPs throughout his career, and that combined with above-average power and average defense in right have made him a valuable and perhaps even underrated player, especially since he arrived in the Bronx.
His plan at the plate is to get into fastball counts, and he's very good at laying off breaking stuff outside the zone, with high strikeout totals a small price to pay for everything else he delivers at the plate. Cleveland was short an outfielder after the Shin-Soo Choo trade -- and really had two center fielders in Drew Stubbs and Michael Brantley, but no true corner guys -- so absent the contract, Swisher's addition makes plenty of sense, since he fills a hole and isn't blocking any strong prospects in the near term. In fact, Cleveland's system is strong in the middle infield and improving on the mound, but the club lacks impact corner bats everywhere on the diamond, so I could even understand an argument for overpaying a little for one in free agency.
What I don't get is the logic of a below-.500 team giving a four-year contract to a corner outfielder who is entering his age-32 season. Cleveland lost 94 games in 2012 and had the second-worst run differential in the majors; prior to the Swisher signing, its only significant move of the offseason was trading Choo for Trevor Bauer, a great deal for the long term, but hardly enough to make the team a contender in 2013 or 2014.
Swisher has held his value fairly consistently through his prime years, but corner bats don't typically age well into their mid-30s, and Swisher's passive approach, with lots of walks and strikeouts, is often a harbinger of an earlier decline. For a good team, Swisher on a three-year deal at the same annual salary of $14 million would have made sense, since he could have delivered plenty of value in the first year or two to justify the contract even if his decline started before the deal was up. For Cleveland, however, the club is staring at a situation in which it is unlikely to post a winning record before Swisher's performance slips from 3-4 wins above replacement per season to probably half that.
He may be more valuable to the team as a tradeable asset next offseason, before any decline sets in, than as a player to keep for the full four years, given the rapid inflation in free-agent salaries and the threat of a very thin free-agent pool after 2013.