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2002 Retrospective: The Roberto Alomar Trade

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Going into the offseason, new General Manager Mark Shapiro had to contend with two trains of thought:

(1) Keeping the Indians competitive. This was a team that was just coming off a 91-71 season, but age and free agency was closing the window of opportunity quickly. As noted in the previous installment, the only regular under 30 was Einar Diaz, and he was 28.

(2) Acquiring talent for the future. Along with an aging core, Shapiro had a second problem: there wasn't much in the farm system. The Indians' farm system by this time was one of the thinnest in the game. So in order to replace guys like Travis Fryman and Charles Nagy, Shapiro either needed to spend a lot of money or to trade off a player in order to patch a hole elsewhere.

In 2002, the organization's top prospect was Corey Smith, who was ranked #73 in Baseball America's overall prospect rankings. The only other player in the top 100 (to this point) was Victor Martinez at #97.

The combination of these two issues probably planted the seeds for the Roberto Alomar trade, a blockbuster deal at the time. Alomar was coming off an outstanding season, posting a .336/.415/.541 line in 2001. He finished fourth in MVP balloting.  He had two years remaining on a five-year contract that would pay him roughly $16M in 2002 and 2003.  He was entering his mid-30s, so he was probably due for at least a gradual decline.

Here's some excerts from a preview of the 2001 Winter Meetings (Plain Dealer, Paul Hoynes)

Shapiro, meanwhile, has positioned the Indians to follow a less intrusive but still meaningful path. It is always that way when cutting payroll is a primary concern. Like the Yankees, the Indians have parted with pieces of their past. Free agents Kenny Lofton, Dave Burba, Marty Cordova and Rich Rodriguez are gone. Baltimore signed Cordova, and the Tribe cut its ties with Lofton, Burba and Rodriguez. The Indians are still attached to Juan Gonzalez by the thin safety line of arbitration, but that is more appearance than reality. He has until Dec. 19 to accept or reject their offer. What Shapiro can do is make some calculated trades.
"Losing" those players wasn't much of an issue, but I want to concentrate on this paragraph:
Finding a market for infielders Robbie Alomar or Omar Vizquel would be easier. Alomar, still in his prime, would bring the biggest return, but the offense is already down 275 runs batted in because of the loss of Cordova and Lofton, and the anticipated loss of Gonzalez.
So essentially Shapiro was trying to fill several holes by dealing one of his best players. The Mets were looking to make a splash, and they were willing to give up two of their better prospects to do it. So on December 11, 2001, the Indians dealt Roberto Alomar, Mike Bacsik, and Danny Peoples to the Mets for Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, Jerrod Riggan, Billy Traber, and Earl Snyder. Here's what the Cleveland media had to say on December 12 (Plain Dealer, Paul Hoynes):
Championship teams don't trade away first-ballot Hall of Famers in their prime. The Indians did that yesterday when they sent Robbie Alomar to the New York Mets for a middle-of-the-road outfielder and four prayers. Just tell us the truth. Cleveland knows the drill. The Indians are rebuilding. One brick at a time. There's no other way to spin what they've done since being eliminated in five games by Seattle in the Division Series. With Alomar's departure, and the anticipated free-agent escape of Juan Gonzalez, they have turned their back on 89 homers, 362 runs and 375 RBI from last season.

Actually, I agree with much of what Hoynes said. At this point, the Indians weren't a World Series contender. Most of their core players were on the downside of their careers, and it would have been better to blow the team up at this point than to wait another six months. Of course, I don't think this was Hoynes' point, given his reaction after the Indians did start to rebuild.

So the phiosophy of the organization at the time was to try to contend with what you had, and at the same time, little by little, build back the farm system so the eventual rebuilding would be as quick and painless as possible. Let's look at this philoshpy through the prism of each player in the trade:

Matt Lawton. Definitely part of the contending goal, Lawton was a 30-year-old corner outfielder with a good eye and some power.

Jerrod Riggan. Part of the contending goal. At the time he was traded, Riggan was 27 and coming of a good season split between Norfolk and New York. With Danys Baez moving to the rotation, the Indians were going to need help in the bullpen.

Earl Snyder. A 25-year-old third baseman who was probably a year away from the majors. Snyder hit .281/.375/.526 for AA Binghampton in 2001. I'd probably put him in the future category.

Billy Traber. Most definitely in the future category. The Mets' best pitching prospect at the time, the 21-year old had pitched mainly at AA the year before, so he probably needed a season in AAA.

Alex Escobar. Future category. Alex had been highly touted for the past several years; in 2001 Baseball America ranked him the #18 prospect in all of baseball. A "five-tool" player, Escobar probably needed another season in the minors.

The reaction to the trade was as expected. Bud Shaw (Plain Dealer, December 12) didn't like the deal:
Accepting the Roberto Alomar trade as a good deal for the Indians requires not just a leap of faith but the kind of leap Evel Knievel used to take. Alomar didn't want out, like former outfielder Joe Carter did. His skills weren't in free-fall, like popular second baseman Carlos Baerga in 1997. The Indians had Alomar for two more years at a reasonable baseball salary.

[snip]

For the trade to work, it must also satisfy for the long run. The young talent acquired from the Mets in addition to Lawton and bullpen pitcher Jerrod Riggan better emerge from the deal as prominently as Baerga and All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. emerged from the Carter deal.
Fans didn't like the trade, either (Plain Dealer, December 12):
mendelsohn.9@osu.edu Why is it that Cleveland fans always get the short end. For more than five years, we were the most loyal fans in baseball. While we were packing in 42,000-plus game after game, many clubs struggled to fill half that many seats. And now this. Larry Dolan is an owner who preached world championship-caliber clubs every year when he bought the team a few years back, but now he is finding out he can't afford the club. He has exhausted all revenue sources and still can't make a dime, so let's trim the payroll by getting rid of our best players. But why trade Alomar? He was our most exciting player to watch. He was worth the price of admission alone. He arguably is one of the top three position players in the game. And we could have had him for two more years at a bargain of $8 million each. Ten days ago, Shapiro was denying any reports to trade Robbie and now this. I will still love my Indians baseball and will till the day I die. But today I am truly upset at watching one of our great players leave in such a deceitful way.
wahoo29@hotmail.com Shapiro, you've just traded away the greatest second baseman to ever play the game. You said you are worried about how this trade will appear years from now as opposed to this moment. Does the phrase "The Curse Of Robbie Alomar" mean anything to you? If your goal was to see what 7,000 fans look like in Jacobs Field, I think you might have achieved it.
Toohighhopes@aol.com Thank you Messrs. Dolan and Shapiro for (finally) allowing me to pass on a sacred Tribe tradition. I had Rocky Colavito to love and Trader Lane to hate; now my son has Robbie Alomar to love and you clowns to hate. C'mon. Trading away the next Rogers Hornsby/Joe Morgan for the next Ricky Ledee? With all the strong, proven pitchers on the blocks, what possessed you to trade for what you did, which I can't quite tell what that is? You get a totally unproven prospect (doesn't everybody have plenty of these?), a mediocre mid-market outfielder (don't we already have a few of these?) and you trade away your 2001 minor-league pitcher of the year [Mike Bascik]? Mr. Dolan, need to cut payroll? Why not start with the morons that scouted this deal, then nail the guy who pulled it off and finish up by docking yourself a few million.

So you have Lawton and Riggan as players that could help the 2002 Indians, and three players that probably wouldn't. The Indians now had their replacement for Marty Cordova, but they now needed a second baseman. That move, along with the rest of the 2001-02 offseason transactions, in the next installment.