CLEVELAND — It’s official. Nick Swisher is coming to Cleveland. And — get this — he’s actually excited to be headed this way.
Beaming for nearly the entire news conference to announce his signing Thursday at Progressive Field, Swisher spoke of the many reasons he chose the Indians over others in the free-agent market — and it wasn’t simply the $56 million he will be paid over the next four years.
According to Swisher, who spent the last four seasons under the bright lights of New York City with the Yankees, one of the biggest draws to small-market Cleveland was new manager Terry Francona. Francona sat beside Swisher, with Indians general manager Chris Antonetti on Thursday.
“You don’t bring a guy like this over here if you don’t plan on winning,” said Swisher, who was joined at the news conference by wife, actress JoAnna Garcia, and father, Steve, a former big league catcher and former minor league manager in Cleveland’s system.
“It was a very easy decision for me, especially on the manager side. I thought it was a big, big thing what Cleveland did by bringing him over here.”
Francona managed against Swisher in Boston, played for his father in Cleveland’s minor league system and has known his family since 1988.
“We needed to get better and bring the right people in,” Francona said, referring to Swisher, a career .256 hitter who has hit at least 20 home runs in each of his eight full seasons in the majors. “When one of your best players is one of the guys that works the hardest and players look up to the most, you’re putting yourself in a good position. That’s why Swish is here. That’s why we wanted him so bad.”
“As we started our offseason, one of the things we sought to do was really fortify our lineup by bringing in an established run producer,” Antonetti said of Swisher, who batted .272 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs for the Yankees last year. “I think in agreeing to terms with Nick, we’ve done exactly that. I’m not sure we could have found a more perfect complement to our team and to our organization.”
There were also Swisher’s ties to Ohio.
He was born in Columbus and spent some of his childhood there before returning to star at The Ohio State University.
The Indians preyed upon this during Swisher’s visit with his wife to Progressive Field in December, playing video messages from OSU coaches and even bringing former Buckeyes football coach Jim Tressel to lunch.
“When we made our trip here, it was almost a done deal,” Swisher said. “It was just the total package that Cleveland has to offer.
“We wanted to go somewhere where we were going to be wanted and where we were going to be loved. And this showed all that. With where roots are and where I started, to be coming back and to be able to play for my supposed home team, I couldn’t be more honored. I’m so excited.”
Finances are always an object, and the Indians paid handsomely for a rare big-name free-agent acquisition. Swisher wouldn’t say how many offers he received or whether the money was similar.
There is the perception that high-profiled free agents steer clear of Cleveland.
“Maybe some people look at it that way but I wouldn’t see why,” Swisher said. “This is an organization that has always been rich in tradition. Obviously money’s a wonderful thing to have but it doesn’t make me who I am. To be able to get that was great, but just to be able to be in this situation right here, it’s going to be awesome.”
Swisher is another piece in a busy offseason for the Indians, who have shown they are bent on contending in 2013. They are expected to announce the signing of Brett Myers, a right-hander that will likely move into the rotation, to a one-year, $7 million contract. And have already acquired infielder Mike Aviles, power-hitting first baseman Mark Reynolds, proven relievers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw and top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Antonetti said. “We feel like we’ve made some significant moves already, but we’d like to continue to improve the team, and that will be our goal for the balance of the offseason and into spring training.”
It’s a philosophy that was another factor in Swisher coming back home.
“This team wants to win and they have the ability to win,” he said. “There’s a lot of upside to a lot of players we’ve got on the squad. I think it’s that ultimate goal of bringing it back to the 90s. Everything was rocking and rolling here because this ballpark was the place to be. With the moves that they’ve made, we are working our way back to that.”
To make room for Swisher on the 40-man roster, the Indians designated outfielder Thomas Neal for assignment.
Neal, 25, spent the majority of last season at Double-A Akron, batting .314 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs in 117 games before a September call up. He hit .217 with two RBIs in nine games for the Indians.
Neal was acquired for infielder Orlando Cabrera during the 2011 season.
Cleveland will have to clear another roster spot when Myers is added.