Grantland, the new website from ESPN and Bill Simmons, has an article from Rany Jazayerli about how the current Tribe team was built with great trades. This isn’t news to any of us in Cleveland, but it’s still an interesting read.
In June 2006, the Seattle Mariners were looking for some veteran talent and Indians GM Mark Shapiro was happy to provide it. Shapiro shipped Eduardo Perez to the Emerald City, and the platoon first basemen wound up hitting .195 with one homer for the Mariners before retiring. In exchange, the Indians received a minor league shortstop who was hitting .236/.323/.360. That shortstop was just 20 years old and already in Triple-A. Asdrubal Cabrera debuted with Cleveland the following year, and this season he emerged as perhaps the best-hitting shortstop in the American League and made his first All-Star team.
Shapiro wasn’t done toying with the Mariners and their general manager, Bill Bavasi. Seattle’s thirst for platoon first basemen was apparently unquenchable; a month after acquiring Perez they would ask for Ben Broussard, who hit .238 with 8 homers for the Mariners. At least Broussard managed to hang around another season before hanging up his spikes. In return, Cleveland obtained Shin-Soo Choo, a former top prospect who couldn’t crack the Mariners’ lineup despite hitting .323/.394/.499 in Triple-A. Choo became the Indians’ starting right fielder in 2008 and has been one of the best all-around players in baseball ever since.
Seattle finished 78-84 that year, good for last place in the AL West. Bavasi no longer works for the Mariners, and he never did find the droids he was looking for.
Two years later, the Los Angeles Dodgers needed a third baseman at the trade deadline, and once again Shapiro was ready to deal. The Dodgers received Casey Blake, a competent everyday player in the last year of his contract. Competent players with expiring contracts rarely fetch premium talent, but the Indians offered to pick up the remaining salary on Blake’s contract3, which helped them land Carlos Santana. At the time, Santana was already considered one of the game’s best catching prospects; now, he is considered one of the best young catchers, period. While Santana’s career batting average is just .236, this season he has already drawn 102 walks and hit 21 homers, and most scouts think the best is yet to come.
Cabrera, Choo, and Santana — a third of the Indians’ lineup — were all acquired for pocket lint, in deals so lopsided they would have been vetoed by your fantasy league commissioner. Yet all three trades pale in comparison to the great heist of 2002, when the Montreal Expos found themselves five games back in the wild card race at the end of June. Montreal GM Omar Minaya quite sensibly reasoned that since the Expos might not exist for much longer, he might as well sell his farm before the franchise bought the farm. The Indians sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and a toolsy teenage outfielder named Grady Sizemore.
The last one was brilliant, but it also hurts, as Shapiro was dumb enough to listen to Eric Wedge and let Brandon Phillips go for nothing. That move alone may have cost them a championship.