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The Trade That Should Have Never Been

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--In 1972 and again in 1974, Cleveland handed the New York Yankees a reliable corner infielder for them to build a decade-long dynasty. The moves dealt perennial All-Stars Craig Nettles and Cris Chambliss, respectively. In return, the Tribe accumulated five players that never really panned out. Despite the eventual value inequality of these 1970s transactions, neither comes close to Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn in 1960. That deal was so big that it carries its own Cleveland curse, book about said curse, and a Wikipedia site devoted solely to it. Even the youngest Tribe fans cite this as the worst trade in franchise history. By Cleveland management's account, it was "trading hamburger for steak." To Indians historians, the "steak" (reigning batting champion, Keunn) was overcooked and the "hamburger" (reigning home run champion, Colavito) was gourmet.

It is time for Cleveland to forget that deal, as the reevaluation of a 1997 deal has emerged a legitimate contender. On the verge of his Indians Hall of Fame induction, it is finally becoming apparent that Kenny Lofton should have never left the Tribe. His trade to Atlanta was the most devastating transaction in Indians history.

Trading "The Rock" may not have been a fan favorite, a la Victor Martinez in 2009, but it was an on-paper even agreement. It is hard to pick an immediate winner of the deal because neither Detroit nor Cleveland made the playoffs with Colavito or Kuenn on their rosters. The Indians finished the 1961 season with a 76-78 record, while the Tigers finished even worse at 71-78. Colavito was even traded back to the Indians in 1965, returning to All-Star form and finishing fifth in the AL MVP voting. Yet, it was the Tigers that won the World Series three years later. If there is any curse surrounding Rocky Colavito, it may be having him on your team, not trading him away.

This is why the Lofton deal was more detrimental. The combination of timing and quality of the team entering the season could not have been botched any worse. Leave it to Cleveland to bring two new egos into the clubhouse 8 days before the first game of the season.

A season after stealing an American League high 75 bases, the Indians felt Lofton was on the downswing of his career. After a poor Spring Training, General Manager, John Hart, pulled off a "blockbuster" deal. He shipped the five-time reigning AL stolen base leader and three-time reigning Gold Glove Award winner to the Braves. Scouts that said he could no longer get the job done in 1997 sure ate their words when Kenny Lofton was back in an Indians uniform stealing bases, ten years later.

With Lofton, the Cleveland Indians would have won the 1997 World Series. Period.

The proof is the same reason why he is going into the Indians Hall of Fame this year. He was the leader in the clubhouse and the staple at the top of the lineup. His departure may have added gaudy stats to the heart of the order, but it left Mike Hargrove scrambling to pencil the first name into the lineup card everyday.

Along with relief pitcher Alan Embree, Lofton, was exchanged for two-time All-Star and 1990 Rookie of the Year, David Justice, as well as his replacement in center field, Marquis Grissom.

Neither Marquis Grissom nor David Justice were the clubhouse glue that Lofton was. If they were, they would not have been shipped elsewhere after spending only 1 season and 3.5 seasons in Cleveland, respectively. While Justice may have signed for the money or Championship possibilities, Lofton always played for the city of Cleveland and its fans. There is no other reason to explain why he signed three different contracts with the Tribe during his career. If he was not the greatest clubhouse guy in recent memory, why else would the 2007 Indians sign the 40 year-old journeyman? Why else would the Indians offer Lofton a contract to come back in 1998 (a year after dealing him to Atlanta) if they were not acknowledging he was the missing piece.

Trades are often valued by who wins in the long run, misjudging how close a team was to a Championship before the deal. The Lofton deal
altered the flow of a team two years removed from a World Series appearance. Any trade should have brought in experience and expiring contracts, not youth. Most fans would give up 10 future All-Star seasons from an outgoing player to win a Championship in the one and only season with an incoming veteran.

Let's say Atlanta also threw in a 25 year-old Chipper Jones--to make it a six player deal. In exchange, the Indians would give up their 31 year-old third baseman, Matt Williams. Barring any additional transactions, the Indians would still be reaping the statistical benefits of that trade. Jones is still playing, while Williams retired seven seasons ago. However, the trade would still be labeled a loss if it did not mean a World Series ring in 1997. Coming into Spring Training the Indians were already there.

Reasons why it was
NOT the worst trade in Indians history:

Even without a prototypical lead off man in front of him, David Justice still knocked in 101 runs in 1997. Kenny Lofton could not have filled that gap. No one can argue that the t
he Indians had a definitive power shortage entering the 1997 season. They needed to replace the bats of the legendary Eddie Murray, who was dealt midseason in 1996 to Baltimore, and Albert Belle, who was a free agent signing of the White Sox.
If the team would have competed with its initial Spring Training roster for an entire season, the club would have scored one run less per game and perhaps missed the playoffs altogether. A deal had to be made. The 1997 Indians were never built on pitching; 68 regular season games saw Cleveland give up 6 or more runs. They needed to put up numbers in order to reach 85 wins.

From purely statistical points of view, John Hart successfully plugged the offensive holes.
David Justice had an All-Star season in 1997, hitting 33 homers en route to the Silver Slugger Award and a .329 batting average. He even finished fifth in MVP voting. Defensively, Marquis Grissom patrolled the outfield as well as Lofton. He, too, was a reigning Gold Glove winner; capturing four straight in the National League. Grissom even took home the ALCS MVP Award. So how could it have been a mistake to bring these two players aboard?

Reasons why it was the worst trade in Indians history:

August 7, 1997 was the last day Marquis Grissom hit in the lead off spot. All told, he spent 84 games at the top of the lineup; not one during the playoffs. Meanwhile, Lofton spent 121 games in the lead off spot for a playoff team in Atlanta. Brian Giles, Omar Vizquel, and the newly signed Bip Roberts platooned during the stretch run and the postseason while Grissom fell to the ninth spot. A young Brian Giles did not have the eye, or the speed, to fit the job description. Bip Roberts was a utility infielder that would not ordinarily start, but Mike Hargrove was forced to play him at second base in order to have a stabilized lead off hitter. The goal was to use Vizquel only in case of emergency. His natural fit was that of the greatest two-hitter in Indians history.

Regardless of what Justice did offensively and Grissom did defensively, the trade took away the spearhead of the offensive attack. Bip Roberts and Marquis Grissom were each half a player, one matched Lofton's skill set offensively and the other on defense. The Indians essentially wasted a lineup spot by playing them both.
Kenny Lofton was the complete player. During that same season, he stole 27 bases, hit .333, had a .983 Fielding Percentage, and was named a National League All-Star.

The problem only magnified in the playoffs. Bip Roberts led off 14 of the 16 postseason games, but posted a minuscule .303 On-Base Percentage--a mere .150 in the ALCS. He scored only 4 runs and stole just 3 bases throughout all 16 games. For a season marked by outscoring the opponent, this was not productive enough from the lead off spot. As for
Justice, he hit .185 in the World Series with 8 strikeouts in the 7 games--a relative no show.

That is why the trade hurt the Indians. It had nothing to do with any of the four players involved in the deal; it gave Cleveland bench players more at-bats than they ever should have received. Thus, no apples to apples comparison of those traded can be made. John Hart would never say that Bip Roberts was as good as Kenny Lofton, for he never expected the two to be compared. Heading into the year, the two had very different roles for their teams; it was Grissom that was supposed to make Cleveland forget about Lofton. However, Grissom under achieved in the lead off spot and the Indians were left looking like they traded Lofton for a utility infielder.

The trade was not batting order compatible. History shows holes in the middle of the lineup can be filled with role players and September call-ups, but a lack of depth at the top is exposed immediately. Pure lead off hitters only come around franchises once every twenty years. The Indians had theirs and let him go. The trade gave certain bench players more at-bats than they ever should have.

If the Indians management were smart they should have dealt a young Richie Sexson or Brian Giles, with huge up-sides, to a rebuilding team in exchange for a proven veteran DH. They did not need to trade for a young talent like Justice from a contending team. There were free agents out there if the Tribe would have just spent the money. In December of 1996, the Indians could have signed free agent Moises Alou before Florida. That would have killed two birds with one stone, denying the eventual Champions their big bat. Instead of the Royals acquiring Jeff King and Jay Bell--and their combined 204 RBIs in 1997--from a rebuilding Pittsburgh club, it could have been the Indians.

Many Clevelanders look back on 1997 and wish Jose Mesa could have mustered just two more outs. It is easy, but unfair, to place the blame of an entire Series on that one inning. The emotion of having the goal within reach blurs the season-long issue: not enough pitching, no lead off man. The Championship might have been a comfortable victory with Lofton on the base paths. Perhaps Indians fans should remember 1997 as the year the Tribe made it all the way to the World Series despite not having their leader. The people would still sing the same "What if" song, but maybe to a different tune.

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