Kearns does not believe the added comfort of a Major League contract will change his approach this spring.
"I'm sure from the outside looking in, it's easy to think it would be different," Kearns said. "I really don't look at it any different. I'll just come to Spring Training and get ready for the season. I really didn't come in last year thinking I had a lot of pressure on myself."
Kearns, whose new deal is worth $1.3 million plus incentives, provides Cleveland with a right-handed outfielder to complement the all-lefty combination of Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. Should Sizemore's recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee extend beyond Opening Day, Kearns could easily slide into the starting role in left, with Brantley in center.
Last season, Kearns hit .272 with a .354 on-base percentage to go along with eight home runs and 42 RBIs in an 84-game tour with the Indians. Cleveland then dealt Kearns to the Yankees on July 30 in exchange for a player to be named later. Overall, Kearns hit at a .263 clip with a .351 on-base percentage over 120 games in 2010.
At the time of the trade, the Indians made it clear to Kearns that they had interest in bringing him back into the fold this winter.
"We think he's a great fit for our team," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We recognized the makeup and composition of our team would be predominently left-handed, especially in the outfield. Austin provides great balance to that with his ability to play all three outfield spots and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter.
"Looking forward, we certainly saw, even at that point, a potential fit for us in this offseason. Obviously, it took a little time to get done as he explored his alternatives and we worked to get some clarity on our end. But we're elated that we were able to bring him back."
Kearns, who now makes his home in the Cleveland area, said the Tribe was the best fit for him and his family when it was all said and done.
"There were some other teams, pretty good teams, that we talked to," Kearns said. "In the end, Cleveland was just the right place to come back and play."
New York eventually sent big 23-year-old right-hander Zach McAllister, listed as 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, to Cleveland to complete the trade for Kearns. McAllister split the 2010 season between Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) and Triple-A Columbus (Indians), going 9-12 with a 5.29 ERA over 27 starts.
Back with the Indians, Kearns currently projects as a part-time player, providing some days of rest against left-handed pitchers for the three starters in the outfield. Over the course of his career, including stints with the Reds and Nationals, Kearns has hit .261 with a .383 on-base percentage against southpaws.
Antonetti added that Kearns could also serve as a right-handed designated hitter on occasion, spelling Travis Hafner every now and then. That is a role that Shelley Duncan filled a year ago and Antonetti said Duncan could hold that job again "provided he is on the roster."
The Indians will need to remove a player from the 40-man roster in order to vacate a spot for Kearns. Antonetti said that he anticipates designating a player for assignment. The move is expected to come within the next day or two.
Kearns is the first Major League free-agent signing this winter for the Indians, who are scaling back their payroll and preparing to enter the 2011 campaign with one of the youngest teams in baseball. With little financial flexibility, Cleveland is also in the market for a veteran starting pitcher and an infielder, preferably for help at third base.
"A complementary outfielder was certainly a priority for us," Antonetti said. "We're happy that we were able to get that done. Now we'll continue to work on the other ways we can potentially improve the team."