In June 2002, Indians GM Mark Shapiro made a trade that shocked the baseball community: he dealt Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for Lee Stevens and three prospects. At least that’s how I saw the trade on ESPN’s Bottom Line. Colon, after several years of disappointment, had finally seemed to make good on his massive potential. And given the organization’s recent inability to procure pitching, trading the team’s best pitcher with another year left on his contract angered a lot of people, especially the fans of Cleveland. After all, this deal followed on the heels after Shapiro dealing away Roberto Alomar, a popular player, to the Mets the previous winter.
Shapiro had decided that the time had come for the team to undergo a rebuilding process, and the Colon deal was the opening salvo of a massive demantling of a franchise in order to shorten the rebuilding window as much as possible. And with the farm system barren and not much money to use for free agents, Shapiro essentially nuked the roster, and over the next couple of months dealt pretty much everyone with some value for prospects. It was a very risky course of action, given the volatility of prospects, and given the backlash by the fans that still seems to exist today. But three years after the Colon deal, the Indians sit two games behind the Wild Card leader, and are six games above .500. And unlike last year’s team, most of the key contributors are under the team’s control for the next 4-5 years. While Shapiro has made plenty of mistakes since then, his decisions in 2002, including the one to break up the team in the first place, have placed the Indians in a great position going forward. This series will recap the context, the media coverage, and of course the trades themselves.
We start after the 2001 season, a year which saw the Indians win their sixth AL Central title in seven years.
Players Under Contract for 2002 (2001 WARP):
2B Roberto Alomar – $7.9M (11.6)
RHP Danys Baez – $4.125M (2.3)
OF Ellis Burks – $6.667M (5.0)
RHP Bartolo Colon – $4.925M (7.3)
1B Wil Cordero – $4.167M (0.2)
C Einar Diaz – $1.087M (6.3)
LHP Chuck Finley – $7.9M (1.5)
3B Travis Fryman – $5.82 (-0.1)
RHP Charles Nagy – $6.00 (0.8)
LHP Ricardo Rincon – $1.50 (2.1)
RHP Paul Shuey – $3.25M (2.3)
C Ed Taubensee – $1.8M (-0.2)
1B Jim Thome – $8.0M (8.0)
SS Omar Vizquel – $4.50M (4.7)
RHP Bob Wickman – $3.40M (6.0)
RHP Jaret Wright – $4.312M (0.2)
By this time, Travis Fryman, Charles Nagy, and Ed Taubensee were pretty much done thanks to injuries. Jaret Wright was in the midst of several arm surgeries, so he wasn’t going to be counted on for much in the coming year. The bullpen looked to be in decent shape, with Baez, Wickman, and Shuey coming off stellar seasons. The rotation, on the other hand, didn’t look so good. Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia both had good seasons in 2001, but the back end of the rotation looked pretty bad. The offense remained more or less intact, although the team had to replace the entire outfield (Cordova, Lofton, Gonzalez).
Overall, this looked like a good team, but it was getting old and expensive. Of the starting nine, only Einar Diaz was under the age of 30.
Here’s the pending free agents for the Indians (2001 WARP):
OF Marty Cordova (4.2)
OF Kenny Lofton (2.9)
OF Juan Gonzalez (8.3)
RHP Dave Burba (1.6)
LHP Rich Rodriguez (1.0)
Obviously the biggest name of the bunch was Juan Gonzalez. Kenny Lofton looked done as an everyday center fielder. There was some thought to bringing Cordova back, but only at the right price. But overall, there weren’t too many holes to fill. The Indians were going to plug Milton Bradley in Lofton’s place, but they needed two corner outfielders. And obviously they needed pitching.
Here’s an excerpt from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, talking about the pending free agents (12/3/01, Paul Hoynes):
Gonzalez hit .325 with 35 home runs and 140 RBI in 140 games for the Indians. After Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, he’s probably the most desirable available talent.
But agent Jeff Moorad is going to have to create a market because of Gonzalez’s history of injury. Moorad took a step in that direction by taking out a $50 million insurance policy on Gonzalez.
He has also crunched some numbers.
“In the last four years, Giambi has 141 homers and 490 RBI,” said Moorad. “In the last four years, Juan has 141 homers and 492 RBI. And that includes Juan’s season in Detroit.
“Giambi will play next year at 31. Juan will play next year at 32. That’s something people don’t realize.”
The Mets are interested in Gonzalez. To a lesser degree, so are Atlanta and Seattle. There’s a remote chance that Texas, where Gonzalez started his career, could make an offer.
Moorad says Gonzalez, a lifetime American Leaguer, will keep an “open mind” about switching leagues.
But friend Luis Mayorial said: “Juan considers himself an American League kind of player because of the DH.”
Gonzalez started 119 of 140 games in right field.
“Juan would like to sign a six- or seven-year deal,” said Mayorial. “He’s very focused on reaching the Hall of Fame and winning a World Series. He put up his numbers this year. He doesn’t need to be the highest-paid player in the game. He just wants to be paid his market value.”
Lofton, 34, left the Indians as their all-time leader in stolen bases with 450. He was third in runs scored at 951 and ninth in hits at 1,463.
Agent Casey Close says the New York Yankees, Oakland and Baltimore have expressed the most interest in him.
“There is an obvious need for quality leadoff hitters,” said Close. “If Kenny can stay healthy and get off on a good roll, he could definitely help a team. People can say what they want about Kenny’s year, but it was still a solid year and a good second half.”
Lofton hit .261 with 21 doubles, four triples, 14 homers and 66 RBI. He stole 16 bases in 24 attempts.
If the Yankees don’t re-sign leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch, Lofton could replace him in left field with Bernie Williams playing center. In Oakland, leadoff hitter/center fielder Johnny Damon is a free agent. Lofton could replace Damon, or could play left if Terrence Long moves back to center. With the release of Brady Anderson in Baltimore, Lofton could hit leadoff.
“It all comes down to the need of the club,” said Close.
Said one National League scout: “Lofton may have to move to left field, but I still think he could play center field two or three times a week on a championship club. He showed that in Cleveland.”
Lofton’s 16 steals were the fewest in any of his 10 seasons. His 66 RBI were the third most in his career.
“The game has changed,” said Close. “The emphasis is on power and smaller ballparks. There aren’t a whole lot of players out there stealing 60 to 70 bases a year. But if Kenny can stay healthy, I think he can still steal 40 to 50 a year.”
Seth Levinson, Cordova’s agent, talks to Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro a lot. The two-way conversation is always the same – Cordova would love to return, but the Indians need to make a trade to create enough room on the payroll to pay him.
The Yankees and Dodgers have expressed interest in Cordova, but only if they can trade Shane Spencer or Gary Sheffield, respectively.
Kansas City has promised Cordova an everyday job. The Royals need somebody to protect Mike Sweeney in the lineup.
Cordova, 32, hit his way onto the Indians in spring training. Then he hit .301 with 20 homers and 69 RBI in 122 games in the regular season.
“Cleveland is the perfect place for Marty,” said Levinson. “He was playing on a great team, in a great ballpark in front of great fans. That’s why he wants to go back, but we may not be able to wait.”
Levinson says Cordova will get a three-year contract.
Other developments included the shopping of John Rocker, rumors of the Indians dealing Roberto Alomar to the Yankees, and talk of a long-term deal for CC Sabathia.