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)
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:
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.
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.