Braves Trade: Chris Johnson to CLE for Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Cash

The July trade deadline has come and gone, and John Hart is still making trades. Naturally. The details:

Indians get: 3B Chris Johnson
Braves get: OF Michael Bourn, DL Nick Swisher, $10M

This isn’t your typical Braves trade recap. Trades are usually made because another team has an asset that you think makes you better, and analysis usually consists of comparing the playing abilities and talents of the players lost and gained. All of that is more or less irrelevant in this trade. Sure, we’ll get into it a bit, but it’s not really the point.

The point is the money. Here are the contract details for the players involved, beginning right now:

Chris Johnson: Owed $19.5M – $2M remaining this year, $7.5M in 2016, $9M in 2017, and $1M in 2018, assuming the 2018 option ($10M total) is bought out, as it should be.

Michael Bourn: Owed $18.5M, $4.5M remaining this year, and $14M in 2016. If Bourn bats 550 times in 2016, he will be guaranteed $12M for 2017.

Nick Swisher: Owed $20M – $5M remaining this year, and $15M in 2016. If Swisher bats 550 times in 2016 AND passes an end of the year physical, he will be guaranteed $14M for 2017.

Cleveland is shedding $38.5M in future payroll obligations. Atlanta sheds $19.5M of its own and receives $10M in cash to help offset the difference. That leaves Atlanta paying an extra $9M in total money, but not paying any of it after 2016, assuming they can limit Bourn and Swisher’s plate appearances. Atlanta is paying $9M for more flexibility for the 2017 season, when the team is set to move into SunTrust Park. That’s all this is really about. Atlanta traded a player it didn’t want for two players it didn’t want because they fit into the teambuilding schedule a little better. Cleveland traded two players it didn’t want for a player it didn’t want because it saves them $9M in total money. It makes sense for both sides, and the effects that matter here are the ones that come off the field.

So what about between the chalk? I guess we’ll look at the actual players, while we’re here.

Our long national nightmare is over. Unlike this and many other ground balls, Chris Johnson was able to get to a new team.

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson is a bad baseball player, and not in the complimentary way. This season he has a combined WAR (average of fWAR, bWAR, and WARP) of -0.4. Last year it was -2.0. An average non-prospect AAA 3B would likely be significantly more helpful than Johnson, who is worthless defensively and reliant on BA to carry his offense. Hey, an average non-prospect 3B who is freely available? That’s Adonis Garcia! If you want a real-life description of what the R in WAR stands for, it stands for Adonis Garcia. If you want a real-life example of what negative WAR means, it means that a player as bad as Chris Johnson could be replaced for the better by a guy just like Adonis Garcia. With the recent acquisition of Hector Olivera, Johnson wasn’t just an overpaid bad baseball player. He was an overpaid bad baseball player that obviously had no discernible long-term starting job. The Braves held very little leverage in Johnson trade talks before the deadline. After agreeing to pay another 3B 30 or so million over 5 years, they held less.

Recently our Micah Smith wrote about the (un)tradability of Chris Johnson. In it, he wrote:

Because of this, I see Johnson as a negative value “asset.” The only possible way the Braves move Johnson is:

  1. give up a player another team wants more than it doesn’t want Johnson
  2. take on a player another team wants less than Johnson

Both of these are negative value moves.

Now that the Braves moved Johnson, we learned that the Braves didn’t opt for option #1, but rather #2. However, I don’t know that it’s really a negative value move. Yes, the Braves had to pay $9M more than they otherwise would have, and we have Johnson’s downward spiral to thank for that – but the Braves still found something a little more convenient. Atlanta didn’t really come out of this with anything helpful, but they’ve made their negative a more convenient one, and they’ve paid a non-exorbitant price to do so. It’s a price, sure, so it’s technically a negative value move, just not as negative as I think Micah expected.

Some readers will wonder why I haven’t launched into the standard fan tirade where I call Johnson a clubhouse cancer, malcontent, bad teammate, etc. Well, that’s not really my place. I mean, it’s true he was a malcontent. He was benched, was vocally unhappy about it, and wanted to be traded. I don’t particularly blame him, though. He can’t improve his numbers or get back into a groove if he’s on the bench, and all he wants to do is get better and help his team more. No benched player is happy about it. As for the other, as much as we’ve rolled our eyes at his petulant behavior on the field and in the dugout, I’ve seen no evidence that he’s a bad teammate. From what I’ve read, he’s a well-liked guy in the clubhouse. He played on a division-winning team in 2013. I just can’t call him a clubhouse cancer. That’s a narrative that built after he started struggling, and I don’t really subscribe to it. It seems unfair to him, and it’s unfair to readers to guess at things I couldn’t possibly have any insight into. I’m not in the Braves clubhouse. Pass.

Nick Swisher

As happy as Atlanta is to be rid of Chris Johnson, Cleveland is equally as happy to be done with Nick Swisher. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Swisher has a combined WAR of -1.5. He hasn’t been quite as bad as Johnson, and he’ll definitely be someone the fans appreciate more, but that comes at nearly double Johnson’s cost. I suppose it could be blamed on his bad knee, but bad knees don’t really get much better for 34 year olds. Swisher has been a helpful player as recently as Johnson – in 2013, Swisher had a healthy combined WAR of +3.0 – and he probably has a better chance of being decent again. The Braves seem really outwardly optimistic about Swisher’s knee, but I get the feeling they’re just putting on the right face and saying the right things, as they should.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Swisher if he’s healthy. It’s been a while since that’s been the case. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

If Swisher is healthy, he’s still a longshot to be the Swisher of old. FanGraphs’ ZiPs rest of the season projection has him as a .224/.308/.373 hitter. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections are a little more optimistic, at .246/.332/.408. The plan is likely to play him a good bit down the stretch. If he can hit his way into respectability again, the Braves could conceivably trade him in the offseason, eating some of the money owed. More likely, he spends 2016 bouncing between bench and DL, and that’s if he’s not out-right released.

Michael Bourn

Remember this star? The Braves did not just acquire him. (Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

I get the feeling Braves fans will react emotionally to this acquisition. Bourn was an All-Star level player when he was in Atlanta, which was as recent as 2012, but he hasn’t been that player since leaving. In 2013, he was an acceptable starter, but not a particularly good one. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s played like a bench player. Unsurprisingly, a player whose value was entirely wrapped up in his speed started to decline as he got into his 30s. Here is 20s Bourn vs 30s Bourn:

(DRS = Defensive Runs Saved)

Stat 20s Bourn 30+ Bourn
BA .272 .257
OBP .339 .315
SLG .365 .345
SB Attempt Rate 23.6% 12.6%
SB Success Rate 81% 67%
DRS/Inning .0105 .0003

That player Braves fans loved and wanted to re-sign, sadly, is gone. There have been some nagging hamstring issues, but for the most part, it’s just a decline in speed. He still has some gas in the tank – Bourn actually managed to lead the AL in triples last year – but at this point it’s just enough to keep him in the majors, rather than enough to make him a star.

Bourn can probably still play a capable LF, which we might see now and in the early stages of 2016, at least until Mallex Smith has the appropriate amount of seasoning time in Gwinnett (read: long enough to delay Smith’s arbitration).  After that, expect Bourn to settle into a bench role and finish out his contract well short of the 550 plate appearances required to vest his 2017 contract.


Just don’t worry too much over the players and what this means for the Braves roster. The short end of it is that it doesn’t mean very much at all with regard to the Braves in 2015 and 2016. The team was bad and it’ll likely stay bad. Putting all this added cost into the 2016 roster means the trade will be prohibitive to the team’s offseason free agent spending, most likely. Adding high-cost veterans  just got a little tougher. However, that really wasn’t expected for 2016, so we just keep coming back to what this means for 2017: the Braves have cleared another $10M off the 2017 payroll, and they’ll be spending it on someone presumably better than Chris Johnson. That’s why Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are Braves.

About Brent Blackwell 203 Articles
Brent Blackwell also writes for College Football By The Numbers at

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