Bourn makes Tribe relevant again

My initial knee-jerk reaction: Terry Francona’s new team, the Cleveland Indians, might be better than his old one, the Boston Red Sox.

That probably (likely?) is overstating it, but say this for the Indians:

They suddenly are relevant again.

Relevant because of Francona. Relevant because of Nick Swisher. And relevant because of their latest stunning addition, free-agent outfielder Michael Bourn.

The Indians reached agreement with Bourn on a four-year, $48 million contract on Monday night — a deal that seemed unimaginable for them at the start of the offseason, and for that matter even two days ago.

Did anyone foresee the Indians spending a combined $104 million on Swisher and Bourn, even after their owner, Paul Dolan, sold the team’s regional sports network, SportsTime Ohio, to Fox Sports?

Well, follow the money.

The Indians not only received $230 million from Fox, but also rights fees of at least $40 million annually over the next 10 years, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The increase, according to a source, will be about $9 million per year.

That’s nothing to rival, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers, but baseball’s new national TV rights deals will provide all 30 clubs with another windfall, netting each club approximately $26 million per season from 2014 to ’21.

The Indians back-loaded Swisher’s contract to reflect those deals, and used a similar structure to land Bourn, right down to a fifth-year vesting option, according to a source.

In both cases, they exploited their unique position in the market, landing accomplished free agents for less money than most in the industry expected those players to receive.

Yes, for once the system actually worked to their advantage.

The Indians, as a team with a top-10 selection in the next amateur draft, could not lose their first-round pick for signing free agents who received qualifying offers from their previous clubs.

Swisher, 32, was one such free agent. Bourn, 30, was another. Teams drafting from No. 11 to No. 30 were reluctant to sacrifice their first-round choices and corresponding slot money for those players. But the Indians only had to forfeit their second rounder, currently No. 45 overall, for Swisher, and their next pick — a new competitive-balance pick, currently No. 69 — for Bourn.

So much for the criticism of Dolan as an owner who won’t take advantage of an opportunity.

Earlier in the offseason, the Indians offered free-agent center fielder Shane Victorino a four-year, $44 million deal, a questionable decision at best. As it turned out, they got Bourn, a younger, superior player, for only $4 million more — and at a lower average salary ($12 million) than the Red Sox gave Victorino over three years ($13 million).

Bourn also came in much lower than B.J. Upton, whom the Braves signed as his replacement for $75.25 million over five years. Upton is two years younger than Bourn and hits for more power. Did the Braves overpay their new center fielder? Well, they had their old one pegged just right — they believed Bourn was worth $40 million to $48 million over four years.

Bourn’s problem in the market wasn’t just draft-pick compensation; Upton faced the same hindrance. The Braves and other clubs thought Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras, was unrealistic in his expectations. And Bourn, let’s face it, is not without flaws.

His value is dependent almost entirely on his speed. He strikes out too much, his on-base percentage is just OK for a leadoff hitter and he declined markedly after the All-Star break last season.

Well, the Indians will take him — take his base-stealing ability, his elite defense in center field, his average of 153 games played over the past four seasons. The Cleveland rotation probably won’t be good enough for the team to compete with the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. But offensively, Francona’s new club sure is interesting.

If Drew Stubb hits, the Indians can go with an outfield of Bourn in center, Stubbs in right and Michael Brantley in left — second, perhaps, only to the Braves’ in defensive ability. Swisher would play first base and Mark Reynolds would be the DH in that scenario.

If Stubbs falters, Swisher can play right and Reynolds first; Jason Giambi, a non-roster invitee to spring training, represents an intriguing option at DH. The Indians also can try to acquire more pitching by trading Stubbs or — if they want a bigger return — Brantley.

As it stands, their rotation will be led by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and free-agent signee Brett Myers, with Carlos Carrasco the likely No. 4. Newcomers Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir also are options, along with holdovers Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber.

It’s not an inspiring group, and actually could prove to be quite a mess if Masterson and Jimenez don’t improve upon their 2012 performances. But the improved outfield defense should enhance the pitching, and a better offense should help, too.

I’ll be watching. We’ll all be watching.

The Indians suddenly are a must-see team.