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Welcome Back, Austin Kearns

Between 2005 and 2007 Austin Kearns posted wRC+ of 107, 118, and 107 with the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. Then something happened – namely his batting average on balls in play bottoming out – and Kearns’ wRC+ in 2008 and 2009 topped out in the 70s. Such struggles were exacerbated by declining playing time in an overstocked outfield. Kearns’ stock plummeted and the first-time free agent found himself with little in the way of options.

Kearns wound up accepting a minor league deal offer from the Cleveland Indians. The possibility of a spot on the major league roster was evident through and through. Sure enough, Kearns showed up in shape and passed the Indians’ gumshoe inspection. A month and some into the season, and the low-risk maneuver is paying dividends in real life, much like it has in fantasy leagues across the land. Just look at this comparison:

2010 – 112 PA, 32 H, 3 HR, 18 R
2009 – 211 PA, 34 H, 3 HR, 20 R

Kearns’ numerical renaissance extends into the land of sabermetrics too. A .411 wOBA places him amongst one the game’s best hitters to date. Clearly a .439 BABIP is unsustainable given what we know about Kearns, but those plate appearances are in the bank. Kearns’ early success and phoenix-like return from his ashes is reminiscent of the Carl Pavano situation from last season. With Michael Brantley and Trevor Crowe around, it might not be outlandish to expect Kearns’ names to raise in trade rumors as the deadline approaches either.

Back when Kearns signed with Cleveland, Matt Klaassen drew a comparison between his career arc and that of Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro. Klaassen even went as far as to call the pairing serendipitous. That works. The direct relationship between general manager and player is illustrated nicely on the margins. When a high priced player busts or when a lowly spring training invite, like Mr. Kearns, recaptures shine and illuminates his front office’s aptitude with every stroke.

Shapiro’s reputation has experienced dimming with Travis Hafner’s and Kerry Wood’s contracts, but he’s certainly looking bright with Kearns.