Who Won the Trade #1? A Look Back at When the Indians Sent Kenny Lofton to the Braves

The year is 1997. Spring Training is in its final days and Indians General manager John Hart is grappling with the fact that the first cracks in a potential dynasty are beginning to take shape. The winter has seen premier slugger Albert Belle spurn the team in free agency in favor of becoming the highest-paid player in the history of the game. While a trade for power-hitting third baseman Matt Williams and a farm that remains stocked with players like Brian Giles, Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon can help the team win in the near term, the core that has brought Cleveland out of the forty years of doldrums is beginning to have its reckoning.

Specifically, with Belle out the door, center-fielder Kenny Lofton is in the final year of his contract. Lofton has been an Indian since 1992 and unlike some of the team’s other stars, has foregone signing a (five-year, $44 million) contract extension that would keep him an Indian through some of his free agent years. Additionally, Lofton is also somewhat disgruntled. The trading of veteran clubhouse presence Eddie Murray the previous summer as well as second baseman Carlos Baerga has left a bad taste in his mouth. To his point, some would partially blame the team’s deflated chemistry for their poor showing in the 1996 American League Division Series vs. the Baltimore Orioles.

Hart knows all of this. He also knows that a mere 17 months ago his team was two wins away from the World Series trophy and last year’s performance vs. Baltimore was a woeful step backward. The pressure is beginning to mount. The future may be bright, but prospects aren’t a guarantee. The window for this crop of talent dwindles with each coming year and Lofton’s potential exit is a perfect example of how opportunity can pass a team by. And with Lofton’s aforementioned frustrations, his exit seems more likely than not.

Hart has spent the winter thinking and talking this over. One of the main individuals on the other end of these conversations is friend, adversary and Atlanta Braves General manager John Schuerholz. The pair have talked about a potential trade over the course of the winter but ultimately landed on the idea being too large of a shakeup for either side to pull the trigger. However, as March comes to a close and the regular season is about a week away, Hart becomes resolute. He feels the need to get a deal done.

Conversations between Hart and Schuerholz had been happening quietly and in confidence until the very end. When the trade comes down on March 24th, 1997, none of the players are aware of it, nor are their agents. On the Indians’ side, Hart has only corresponded with field manager Mike Hargrove and owner Dick Jacobs. Claims are that less than 10 people knew of the trade before it was presented to the league office. In the deal, Cleveland sends Lofton and relief pitcher Alan Embree to Atlanta for two outfielders: David Justice and Marquis Grissom.

This would be one of the most noteworthy transactions to take place within the hay day of the ’90s Indians. The decisions made in this deal changed the course of the team (really, both teams). With a trade that large and meaningful, it only makes sense to take a look back and reevaluate now that its ripple effects have more than played out. Today, more than twenty-five years later we will ask the still compelling question: which team won the Kenny Lofton trade?

 

The Literal and Figurative Players

First, we need to look at the players involved and the motivations that placed them into this deal in the first place. We will do so with the context and perspective of the time.

In getting Grissom, Hart finds an immediate replacement for Lofton. Grissom is essentially a right-handed hitting, Walmart-brand (or K-Mart brand, since it’s the 90s) version of the former Indians lead-off man. Grissom is an elite defensive center-fielder like Lofton, possibly even a little bit better. However, Lofton is better in nearly every offensive statistical category with the exception of home runs. Most prominently, Lofton is also more of an elite speedster. Lofton would use that speed to feed a penchant for not only turning singles into doubles but pilfering bases. Between 1994 and 1996 Lofton also more than doubled the number of stolen bases that Grissom (a pretty fleet-of-foot lead-off man in his own right) had. Still, Grissom is a suitable replacement for Lofton that won’t embarrass the team in center, has lots of playoff experience (including catching the final out of the ’95 World Series vs. the Tribe) and can hit at the top of the order. His deal is on similar financial footing in terms of Lofton’s current pay rate but lasts through the 2002 season, so in trading for Grissom the Indians are tying up dollars in him, albeit at a lower rate than the perceived pay raise Lofton would be due in the future.

In acquiring Justice, Hart is trying to fill the hole left by Belle’s departure. Justice, at this point in his career, will be 31 years old and is a two-time All-Star capable of hitting 40 home runs in a season when he isn’t injured. The problem is that he is injured fairly often. He is coming off of a 1996 season that saw him injure his right shoulder and only play 40 games. Still, if he is healthy he is another offensive weapon for the Indians to deploy in one of the best offenses in baseball. He was an above-average right-fielder in Atlanta but played left or DH mostly in Cleveland for health reasons. Justice had signed a lucrative long-term deal with the Braves that was traded to Cleveland in the deal, meaning the Indians also plan to make a substantial financial commitment to Justice through the early 2000s.

And those long-term financial commitments are a big part of why the Braves are motivated to make a deal. The trade will see the Braves shed more than $6 million in payroll for 1997 and alleviate themselves of the long-term contracts they had made to their now two former outfielders. Schuerholz is motivated to dump salary like this because he knows his Big Three starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz all are approaching free agency after the 1997 season. He is trying to gather as much capital as he could in order to retain them. The three starters have been the backbone of a perennial World Series contender for the better part of a decade at this point.

So while Schuerholz is certainly thrilled to have a perceived upgrade in center-field for the year, he is just as happy knowing that he will be off of Lofton’s salary in the off-season. Come 1998 that should equate to a little more than $10 million per year in savings. The Braves GM also knows he has young talent in the minors to back-fill for Justice, and ultimately, Lofton as well. Not only is Andruw Jones a week away from his rookie year, but Schuerholz is also planning to trade a young Jermaine Dye for Michael Tucker (the Royals, who received Dye, won that one), who would be his regular right-fielder in ’97, hitting .283 with 14 homers while making just $250,000.

Regarding Embree, he is a bit of a throw-in. Schuerholz likely doesn’t want to trade two valuable Major leaguers for a single player in return, feeling like the values don’t quite match. By 1997, Embree has gone from a talented 5th-round¬†pick who made the jump from AA to the majors at age 22 to missing nearly all of the following 1993 season and not really performing well in the majors since. At this point, he is a middling lefty reliever that’s never posted good numbers and figures as relief depth in the majors. In short, he is a candidate for improvement due to a change of scenery, but not much else.

 

Time to Evaluate

Having described the players and why they were fit for this deal, we can begin to evaluate with the benefit of hindsight. First, we look at what I think is the most obvious comparison. Two center-fielders on championship-contending teams were swapped for one another. It only makes sense to compare how they fared and how they were able to aid their respective new teams’ World Series aspirations.

Truthfully, both center-fielders would end up having underwhelming seasons in some form or fashion. To start, it would turn out that the Braves sold high on Grissom. His 1996 season which saw him hit .308 with 23 homers would be a career year. Comparatively, he would play in 144 games for the Tribe in ’97 but would hit .262 with a paltry slugging percentage of .396. This would be one of his weaker offensive seasons to this point in his career. He would be moved in and out of the lead-off spot in the order throughout the season as his top-of-the-order prowess wasn’t as strong as expected. Ultimately, Grissom would never hit at the top of the order after August 7th. Still, even with the regular season being a let-down, Grissom would be instrumental to Cleveland’s World Series run as he was named ALCS MVP (possibly best known for being the winning run on Omar Vizquel‘s phantom suicide squeeze in Game 3 that resulted in a walk-off steal of home by Grissom) and would hit .360 while playing in all seven games of the World Series.

Lofton, at the plate at least, was just as advertised for the Braves. He would be an All-Star in ’97, hitting .333 and setting the tone at the top of their order. However, the problems for Lofton in Atlanta were three-fold. First, Lofton suffered an injured groin just before the All-Star Break. This seemed to affect his speed, or at the very least, his base-running. Lofton posted just 27 steals in 1997, a career-low to that point and was caught stealing a league-leading 20 times. With how big of a weapon Lofton’s speed was, it certainly made a difference in his game. Beyond the injury, there were other interpersonal problems between Lofton and the Braves staff. He simply didn’t get along well in Atlanta. For one, he expressed frustration with the team’s training staff about the injury, though Lofton allegedly didn’t do himself any favors by reportedly playing basketball outside of team activities while he was hurt. Lofton butted heads with Braves manager Bobby Cox as well. Take it for what you will, I was a kid at the time, but I distinctly remember hearing rumors that part of the reason why Lofton didn’t enjoy being on the Braves because Cox wouldn’t allow Lofton, who was a clubhouse DJ of sorts in Cleveland, to play rap music in the Atlanta clubhouse- a story that seems plausible for the time, but completely asinine in 2023. Regardless of that rumor rehashed more than two decades later, it seems that the disgruntled attitude that Lofton held at the end of 1996 in Cleveland carried over to his time in Atlanta. Only to add more fuel to the discontent fire, Lofton would be a detriment to the ball club on the field in October. He hit just .175 in the Braves’ run to the NLCS and would only steal one base while being caught three times.

Truthfully, Grissom and Lofton’s seasons inversed over time. Lofton was far and away the better player for the regular season, even with the missed time and having an injured groin he posted 5.2 Wins Above Replacement to Grissom’s mere 2.0. He had one of the best-hitting seasons of his career while Grissom had one of his worst to date with their defense being comparable. And yet, it would be Grissom who was an impact player in October. The Indians were rewarded for their patience with him as he was instrumental to them getting as so devastatingly close to a world title as they did, while Lofton really struggled in the post-season.

As for Justice, in the long run, he was likely the most impactful player of the whole trade. He missed about 30 games in 1997, but actually filled the shoes left by Belle better than one would have expected that season. He slashed .329/.418/.596, good even during the steroid era for a wRC+ of 156 as he smashed 33 home runs and drove in 101 RBI. He would stay in Cleveland for another two and a half seasons and while he would not hit at that level again, he would remain relatively healthy and productive. Justice would average 139 games played, 27 homers, 29 doubles and 82 walks (his batting eye later lending to his role on the Moneyball As) with a 130 wRC+ (only bested on the team by Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome) in his time with the Tribe. That time would come to a close in late June of 2000 when he was traded to the Yankees for young outfielder Ricky Ledee (who Hart would later flip for 1B/DH David Segui for the 2000 stretch run) as well as two pitchers: Zach Day (who Hart would turn into Milton Bradley the next year) and Jake Westbrook.

And that leaves Embree. The left-handed reliever did indeed get exactly the change of scenery that he needed in coming to Atlanta for 1997 as it would be one of the best seasons of his career. He would pitch 46 innings with a 2.54 ERA for the campaign and unlike Lofton, would return for 1998 before being traded in June for right-handed reliever Russ Springer. All told, it really was a strong showing for Embree in Atlanta as he would pitch to a 3.06 ERA with the team. Admittedly, had he stayed in Cleveland and performed just as well, the team could have used him. Hart would go on to make a few deals in search of dependable left-handed relief pitching in the late 90s and would be unsuccessful until overpaying by sending Brian Giles to Pittsburgh for Ricardo Rincon (also of Moneyball fame) in 1999. Still, it’s yet to be seen that Embree would have been as successful in Cleveland. Atlanta was a known haven for pitchers at the time under pitching coach Leo Mazzone. It’s not an incredible reach to say the move to Atlanta really did benefit Embree.

 

Who Won The Trade?

On the one hand, a case can be made that the Indians did due to Grissom’s post-season heroics, Justice’s production with the team that far outweighed the one-year production Lofton provided in Atlanta and interestingly, the fact that the Indians were ultimately able to turn Justice into three other Major Leaguers – one of whom had a fairly long and serviceable career as a mid-rotation starting pitcher with the team. In that, I am referring to Westbrook, who would also ultimately be involved in the three-team trade that brought Cleveland Corey Kluber, who while being a multi-time Cy Young Award winner for Cleveland in his own right, also ultimately turned into the current All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase– bringing us to the present day.

On the other hand, if you are Schuerholz, you ended up accomplishing your goal. Lofton, while tumultuous in the clubhouse and a dud in the post-season, was a one-year stopgap as intended to Andruw Jones. He also was able to get off of the big salaries he was carrying in Grissom and Justice. In turn, he was able to use the money he had freed up to ensure the return of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. The cost savings he was able to procure would be enough to pay for Maddux’s salary as the most expensive of the three hurlers. The Braves would continue to win NL East Titles in large part due to this three-headed monster of starting pitching. They would combine for 10 more All-Star appearances in Braves uniforms before all was said and done.

Of course, the elephant in the room that I haven’t mentioned was that after the Indians had severed ties with Lofton in ’97 and sent him on his way to Atlanta, he ultimately signed back with Cleveland the following off-season. Interestingly, the extension offer that Hart had sent Lofton’s way before the 1997 season was for $44 million over five seasons- an Average Annual Value of $8.8 million a year. The deal that Lofton would ultimately take from the Indians in 1998 in his first return to Cleveland was for $30.5 million over four years, not only $13.5 million and one year less than what had been previously offered, but more than a million dollars less per season as well.

For his part, Lofton was more of a model citizen in his return to Cleveland and was a welcome sight for Cleveland fans who were still a little underwhelmed by Grissom’s 1997 campaign. He was a familiar face returning that continued to produce as the Indians closed out their 90s era contending teams that are still remembered so fondly to this day. He would ultimately play out his four-year contract in Cleveland, helping the team to three more AL Central Titles, becoming an All-Star two more times, stealing 54 bases in 1998 and hitting .301 in 1999. The team would off-load Grissom to Milwaukee after signing Lofton in a deal that would they thought would bolster their pitching, but none of the three pitchers that came to town ever moved the needle. Still, the team essentially sent Grissom away in order to give Lofton his spot back.

Some, including myself, don’t believe that Lofton would not have returned to the team in ’98 if he had not been traded in ’97. Had he been forced to play out the season as a malcontent, he would have been looking to leave the organization for greener pastures. Whether by plan or sheer luck, sending Lofton away and him having such a poor experience in Atlanta ultimately played in Hart’s favor as Lofton was looking to return to a known place of comfort. He might have even realized his own faults within the situation in Cleveland.

All of this being said, I think if we are looking at just the specific components involved in this trade, then Hart and the Indians won the deal. They got the most out of the players involved and what came from their aftermath. However, in terms of goals on the periphery of the deal, the Braves got exactly what they wanted and were able to parlay that into nearly another decade of post-season contention while the same can not be said for the Indians. So in the end, who won the deal depends on what you value in a trade. This is one of those trades where both teams were ultimately able to accomplish their goals. The Indians supplemented their title contention run, while the Braves created long-term sustainable relevance in the National League. Personally, both sides did well, but I really like the long-term sustainable relevance the Braves created.

But on the other hand, I just want to acknowledge that John Hart’s 1997 trade of Kenny Lofton to the Atlanta Braves, in my opinion, turned out to be an absolute masterclass. He played the situation perfectly, got immediate value in places of team need for a contending team and ultimately got really lucky in that it was a deal that let the team eventually reconcile with one of the players that they actually traded away. The Indians may have come up just short in the ’97 World Series but they more than exceeded expectations with this trade.

I’ve messed this up haven’t I? More than 3,200 words deep and I can decide who won the trade. This… hasn’t gone well and I don’t sense that I’m about to have a breakthrough either way. How’s that for a terrible disappointment? I love this idea of going back in history and reevaluating old trades though… maybe I will do better next time.

 

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