August 1, 2014

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Offseason makeover has Indians players excited and optimistic about season

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Sitting in front of his cubicle, All-Star closer Chris Perez pushed aside the crossword puzzle he was working on and eyed the other side of the Indians’ clubhouse.

The changes are obvious.

Across the busy room, center fielder Michael Bourn, fresh from signing a four-year, $48 million contract, shook hands with teammates, some of whom were stunned by his arrival. Just a few feet away, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds, two more of Cleveland’s free-agent acquisitions, chatted with slugger Jason Giambi and new right fielder Drew Stubbs pulled on socks before the team’s first full-squad workout.

After hiring manager Terry Francona and spending millions on players this winter, the Indians have been remodeled, upgraded and overhauled.

If there was an offseason championship, the trophy would be headed to Cleveland.

“It seems like this year there are no excuses,” said Perez, who had 39 saves in 2012. “The front office stepped up and now it’s time for us to get it done. There’s no reason why we can’t win this year.”

For the first time in years, expectations are soaring for the Indians, who collapsed last August on the way to losing 94 games. But general manager Chris Antonetti, given the go-ahead and financial resources by owner Paul Dolan to make moves, rebuilt the Indians and restored their relevancy.

“Chris had a pretty good winter,” Francona joked.

Perez was much more serious.

The colorful right-hander has been critical in the past, contending the Dolan family hadn’t done enough to keep the Indians, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, competitive. Perez doesn’t have any such complaints these days. In fact, he couldn’t happier with the makeover.

“We have so much more depth that we’ve had before,” Perez said. “It’s a totally different atmosphere, and for the guys who have been here for the last four or five years, it’s refreshing — for sure.”

There’s a distinct buzz around the club, and it’s got nothing to do with the low-flying planes landing at the airport bordering the Indians’ training complex.

With the signings of Bourn, Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million), Myers (one year, $7 million), and Reynolds (one year, $6 million), the Indians have spent a combined $117 million on free agents after dishing out a total of just $8.3 million in the past two years.

If future options for Bourn, Swisher and Myers kick in, the Indians could pay out $157 million, a staggering figure for a middle-market franchise which has had to trade top players (see CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Shin-Soo Choo) in the past for fear of losing them in free agency.

Bourn’s signing caught the baseball world as flat-footed as a power hitter sitting on a fastball and getting fooled by a curve.

The Indians were thought to have been tapped out when they signed Swisher. But with a chance to nab the speedy 30-year-old Bourn, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner with Atlanta who led the NL in steals three times, Cleveland made a move that has invigorated their franchise from top to bottom.

“Signings of this magnitude typically don’t happen at this time of the year largely because teams have set their budgets,” Antonetti said. “We were able to sign Michael because of significant investment from our ownership. They recognized this was a unique opportunity to bring in an unbelievably talented player at a unique juncture.”

As the winter dragged on, the Indians kept in touch with Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras, and were able to finalize a deal earlier this week.

“It was a long offseason, but it was fun for me,” a smiling Bourn said at a news conference as his 3-year-old son Bryson bounced on his knee. “It taught me patience. I landed in a spot where I think that I’m wanted, where they’re committed to me and I’m committed to them, and that was the main focus.

“I’m ready to rock and roll.”

Boras said Antonetti was “relentless” in the club’s pursuit of Bourn, who after doing some research on a team he didn’t know well, realized the Indians had a core of young, talented players like shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, second baseman Jason Kipnis, left fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Carlos Santana.

“The difference between the Indians now and four years ago is that these players have arrived,” Boras said. “These are really, really good players and when you start adding components to it, it makes the Indians that much better.”

Bourn will make $7 million this season, $13.5 million in 2014 and 2015 and $14 million in 2016. The Indians have a $12 million option for 2017 that’s guaranteed if he reaches 550 plate appearances in 2016.

But money aside, Bourn brings speed to burn to the top of the Indians’ lineup as well as in the outfield, where he’ll be sandwiched between Stubbs and Brantley, giving Cleveland one of the game’s best defensive outfields.

Bourn had a one-on-one meeting in Francona’s office before the Indians had their first full-squad workout, which had moments of entertainment and instruction.

As the players stretched, assistant trainer Mike Salazar walked among them wearing a red Speedo, the price for betting Notre Dame would beat Alabama in the BCS title game. Later on, Francona caught for third-base coach Brad Mills, who led the pitchers and infielders in a fast-paced fielding drill.

There was no shortage of energy, another encouraging sign for the Indians.

With every spring, optimism blooms.

This year, there’s more than usual.

“I’m glad there seems to be a buzz,” Francona said. “If there was one outside, good. But I want us to create our own. This has been a pretty interesting winter. If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan and you didn’t like this winter, you’re probably going to be mad at anything.”

Notable

Swisher left the team following the death of his mother, Lillian Marie Malizia, in Columbus. Francona said Swisher could be back as early as Saturday night.

• Cleveland will lose its third pick (No. 69 overall) in June’s draft for signing Bourn, who since 2008 has a major-league best 257 steals — 177 more than any Cleveland player in that span.

• To make roster space for Bourn, the Indians placed RHP Josh Tomlin on the 60-day disabled list. He had Tommy John surgery in August.