Sunday, February 8, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Kenny Lofton

After the 1996 World Series ended in complete disappointment, the Atlanta Braves were at a crossroads that would decide the next half-decade. They still had a cadre of players who were young and productive like Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones, and the surprising rookie, Jermaine Dye. But their starting pitching had finally shown signs of cracking. Steve Avery had began to fade, prompting the trade of Jason Schmidt and other pieces to the Pirates for Denny Neagle. Far more worrisome, however, was the pending free agencies of superstars Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. How can you replace two Hall-of-Fame talents who were still in the primes of their careers?

The Indians offered a way. Trade away the long-term contracts that David Justice and Marquis Grissom had and open up money that can be used to sign the two starters through their early 30's. It was a deal that would be ridiculed, but rarely understood. The Braves had been, at the time, in four World Series in the 90's, but only took home one ring. Justice and Grissom were instrumental in that 1995 season with Justice smacking a ball into the Atlanta night for the only run in a deciding Game Six while Grissom made the final put-out of the Series. However, John Schuerholz valued Glavine and Maddux higher.

Meanwhile, the Indians were also trying to find a way to keep their core together. Albert Belle was leaving Cleveland for the big dollars Baltimore was offering. With one year remaining on his contract, Kenny Lofton had turned down a $44M, five year offer that was actually more than the Indians had offered Belle. John Hart was convinced that Lofton would test free agency and leave the organization. Having already lost Belle for nothing, the Indians were definitely open to avoiding a similar circumstance.

The Braves originally were hesitant when the trade talks left the hypothetical and went into real discussions. Schuerholz struggled to weigh the pros and cons. Lofton was never going to stay in Atlanta and regardless of what Schuerholz writes in Built to Win about Lofton's unwillingness to "buy into our ideals" and so forth, it was pretty clear the Braves weren't keeping the center fielder beyond the one year. After all, if the Braves needed the money to extend their aces, why would they extend Lofton? Plus, with the Braves having surging youngsters like Dye and the Baseball America #1 Prospect Andruw Jones, Atlanta had the replacements they would need. It was the money that was already committed to their veteran outfielders that Schuerholz wanted.

Once Schuerholz did finally come around on the trade, it was with days left before the 1997 season. Justice, who had missed most of the previous season after a shoulder injury, was hitting with force once again. And the closer the season became, the more it appeared that trade would not happen. Schuerholz would even throw in a last issue...he wanted more from the Indians than just Lofton. They settled on Alan Embree, a left-hander with control issues who had flamed out as a starter. On March 25, 1997, the two teams announced their blockbuster. Grissom and Justice for Lofton and Embree.

Fans were naturally upset. While Atlanta struggled to ever warm up to Justice, Lofton was a showboating ego-driven guy. Sure, he was fast, but the Braves had lost two starting players in their lineup for one year of a jackass and some lefty no one ever heard of. Schuerholz would compound the fans' disappointment by dealing Dye two days later to the Royals for Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart. While the Indians deal makes complete sense, the Dye one still boggles me.

Lofton would get off to a tremendous start in his one year in the A-T-L. He nearly hit .400 in his first month with the new team and swiped 11 bases. While it would remain a productive year, injuries and probably an unfamiliarity with the opposing pitchers and catchers led to a disappointing season. He'd slash .333/.409/.428 in 122 games, finishing fourth in the batting race. However, in 47 stolen base attempts, he was caught 20 times, which would be the last non-defensive stat he would ever lead the league in. He on-based .214 in the playoffs, getting caught stealing in two of the three times he even attempted a stolen base. For a season that looks good on the surface, it was still a disappointment.

However, the main reason for the trade from Atlanta's point-of-view played out. They were able to sign Glavine to an extension that would pay the lefty $42M over five years just two months after the trade. That made Glavine the highest paid pitcher in baseball for all of three months. In August, the Braves extended Maddux for $57.5M for five years.

Meanwhile, Lofton quickly headed back to Cleveland, but it didn't take long for one of the most dynamic players of the 90's to become a good complimentary player over the kind of guy who was seeking "Albert Belle money."

1 comment:

  1. A) I have read that the Braves actually offered a five-year, $44M extension to Lofton in May 1997, only for him to turn it down. Then he pulled his groin on the artificial turf in Toronto in June, he missed most of the next six weeks, and his base stealing never fully recovered that year. Meanwhile, the Braves lost their interest in re-signing him.

    Atlanta could have afforded Lofton by dumping Fred McGriff after the 1997 season (which the Braves did anyway) and by not replacing McGriff with Andres Galarraga (whom Atlanta did sign). Ryan Klesko would have shifted to first base to replace McGriff.

    Anyway, the Braves did not need to trade Justice and Grissom before the 1997 season in order to afford Maddux and Glavine over the long term. Given that those contract extensions did not begin until 1998, and given that owner Ted Turner was not in favor of the Cleveland deal, the Braves could have held onto Justice and Grissom for that year. Atlanta could have tried to win another World Series with Justice and Grissom, enjoy a greater revenue grab, and then make a decision about which veteran players to shed. Perhaps the Braves could have just traded Grissom, replacing him in center field with a cheap twenty-year old named Andruw Jones.