GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Michael Bourn didn’t come to spring training with a list of statistics he wanted to improve from his first season with the Indians.
Instead, the 31-year-old center fielder decided to concentrate on the little things, like improving his bunting and the leads he took at first base, and invited critique from any and all. Tribe General Manager Chris Antonetti found such attention to detail unusual, especially for a seven-year veteran.
Nick Swisher didn’t come to spring training striving to hit .300 in the first week of games.
Instead, the 33-year-old first baseman decided to ease into it, not caring how much he played in the early going, willing to wait until the end so he could face the best pitching and find his stroke. His trademark exuberance is still there; he was cited by teammate Jason Giambi as the instigator of much that keeps the uproariously fun clubhouse going.
But how much Swisher cares about his production seemed evident earlier this month when he took exception to a question on whether he wanted to contribute more in his second year in Cleveland. He was miffed at the implication that he’d had a bad season in 2013.
Pessimistic predictions about the Indians’ chances of bettering their 92-70 record from a year ago center on the starting rotation. But if the Indians are to make the jump from American League wild-card qualifier as they open the season Monday in Oakland, they will need more from their million dollar-men Swisher and Bourn.
The two drew an unprecedented financial commitment from the Dolan family before the 2013 season. Swisher received a four-year, $56 million contract that was the largest given to a free agent in Indians history. Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million deal. The Dolans surely wanted more from those investments.
Battling soreness in his left shoulder for part of the season, Swisher hit .246. Even as he led the team with 22 home runs and was among the Tribe’s top three in nearly every offensive category, his on-base percentage of .341 was his lowest since 2008. His home-run total was his lowest since 2007.
An All-Star in 2010, Swisher remains one of two American League players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of the past nine seasons. In that feat, Swisher joins Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, along with the New York Yankees’ Alfonso Soriano and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who have accomplished it while playing in both leagues.
But it wasn’t until Swisher’s last 22 games that the Indians saw the player they thought they’d signed. In that span, from Sept. 6 on, he hit .294 with four doubles, seven home runs, 17 RBI and a .968 OPS.
Now firmly entrenched at first base and needed in right field only in injury emergencies, Swisher said he feels more comfortable.
“I love that feeling,” he said Thursday. “Now I don’t have to meet anybody. My overall game, I feel better. It’s nice to be healthy every day. I’ve really made a commitment back to the weight room and I feel great about that.”
The most dramatic downturn for Bourn, a two-time National League All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, came in steals. Although he leads the majors in stolen bases since 2008 with 280, his total from the previous year dropped from 42 to 23, his attempts from 55 to 35.
Concerns remain about his left hamstring, which needed surgery in October. Bourn suffered a mild strain of the same hamstring March 16 while running the bases against the San Francisco Giants and will open the season on the disabled list, although he’s expected to miss only the first four games.
After he batted .263, his lowest average since 2008, the Indians also need Bourn to produce more at the plate, which he did last season in the second half. Of his 50 RBI, 31 (second on the team) came after the All-Star break. In his last 15 games he hit .300.
Bourn doesn’t believe he put too much pressure on himself last year because of his contract.
“Naw,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who sign good deals, that comes with the territory. I feel like it’s an honor to have a deal like that. I was happy about it and I just played baseball.”
Even on Monday when Bourn was placed on the disabled list, Antonetti and manager Terry Francona praised the dedication Bourn has shown for 2014.
“He made a comment to me in our first meeting about if I saw things in his leads [at first base], to say something to him,” Francona said. “He wants to be impactful. You could see how much he worked on bunting this spring. To the point where he knew he was going to be out sometimes, but he wanted to incorporate it into his game because third basemen have to respect that and he’ll get a lot more hits.
“He’s about as conscientious a kid, my goodness. No hidden agendas, no ego. Maybe in Bournie’s eyes it wasn’t the year he thought he could have had. But it’s hard not to be proud of guys who try to always do the right thing. The game is hard. Sometimes for whatever reason, we’re not as good as we want to be. That doesn’t mean you’re disappointed in players.”
Bourn said he never sets statistical goals because the one season he did didn’t turn out so well.
“Why would you set a goal when all you’ve got to do is play hard every day?” Bourn said. “I don’t have to set any goals on runs scored or what I’m going to hit, how many hits I’m going to get. I know I can play baseball, so we’ll see what comes out of it at the end of the year.”
Bourn impressed Antonetti more with the details he knew he needed to improve.
“He’s really conscientious and thoughtful,” Antonetti said. “There’s nothing more we can ask of a guy like that.”
Francona said he learned much about Bourn when the Indians found themselves in blowout games and Francona lifted his starters.
“Guys are tired. You can’t get as many guys out as you’d like,” Francona said. “I remember looking at Bournie and he was beat up. He’s diving all over the outfield. He never once made a comment like, ‘Hey, can I come out?’ That shows you a lot about a person.”
Swisher, meanwhile, arrived with a plan to build up as camp went along, perhaps to help him avoid his roller-coaster season in 2013. He batted .160 in June, when he missed six games with left shoulder soreness, .284 in July and .225 in August.
“He said he wanted [us] to start him a little bit late and we played him a lot late,” Francona said. “He’s really swinging the bat well. It’s kind of good when you’ve got veterans who care. He didn’t play because he didn’t want to. He wanted to give himself the best chance to be ready and he looks ready.”
Swisher said he didn’t see the logic of playing games in February after 11 seasons in the major leagues.
“This was the whole game plan, to backload everything,” he said. “My body feels great. The team’s playing great. All I want to do is continue doing what we’re doing right now.”
Bourn conceded that Indians fans didn’t see the real him last year. That’s a feeling Swisher might share, even though he wouldn’t admit it.
“Naw, not really, but it’s bound to come out,” Bourn said. “God gave me some serious ability.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.