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Most important trades in Indians history

The Indians might make a trade in the next five hours, or they might not. Here are the most important ones in history.

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Cleveland Indians v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Have you heard enough about trades yet? No, of course you have not! Today’s the non-waiver trade deadline for MLB and Cleveland still needs, like, an entire outfield. Doubtful that happens, so instead let’s take a look at some old trades.

Yesterday at The Hardball Times, I published a piece all about trade threads. That is, how teams turn one player into another, and another, and so on until they have something truly remarkable. You can read it all here. Spoiler: The most remarkable thread on any current roster belongs to the Indians, dating back to July 7, 1977, and weaving its way forward to Corey Kluber.

I’m not going to recap my entire piece, but it did get me thinking about what might be the most important trade in Cleveland history. So, to follow-up, I looked back through the pages of history to come up with the team’s top trades.

Honorable Mentions

In 1910, in a minor deal, the Philadelphia Athletics sent infielder Morrie Rath and a player to be named later to Cleveland for outfielder Bris Lord. What makes this deal an honorable mention is the PTBNL: Joe Jackson, the Shoeless one. Jackson had been worth negative wins by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ metrics in his two big league seasons, but he exploded with the Naps for the best years of his career, collecting 37 of his career 60.5 fWAR.

Joe Carter was just hitting his prime in 1989, when the Indians traded him to San Diego, so it may seem unfair to call the trade a rip-off, but Cleveland certainly came out better, getting Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, and Chris James in return. James had a long but undistinguished career around replacement level, whereas the former two helped create a winner in Cleveland for the first time in 40 years. The Padres flipped Carter a year later with Roberto Alomar and probably hated watching the Alomar brothers play for the next decade and a half.

5. Russell Branyan for Ben Broussard

Bear with me for a moment, because I know that the trade of Branyan for Broussard was not that important. What was important was what came afterward, which ties into the trade threads I mentioned previously. Branyan was Adam Dunn-lite, hitting a good number of home runs but striking out way too often, so the Indians traded him to Cincinnati for Broussard, who struck out a little bit less but also hit fewer home runs. Broussard was a little better than mediocre but he was valuable as a trade asset and the Tribe flipped him for Shin-Soo Choo in 2006.

Choo, of course, was a stalwart in the Cleveland outfield for six-plus seasons before he was traded in a three-team deal that returned Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw. The impact of every player involved in this thread on Cleveland’s success (or lack) between 2000 and the present, in particular Bauer and Shaw’s outsized impact on the team’s World Series run in 2016, make this a very important trade.

4. Sad Sam Jones and Fred Thomas for Tris Speaker

Sad Sam Jones was a good pitcher in his time, perhaps comparable to recent pitchers like Orel Hershiser or Jake Peavy — quite good, part of World Series-winning teams, but not Hall of Fame worthy (and lacking in terms of nicknames). Fred Thomas was a forgettable, below-replacement level infielder. However, the two of them, plus $55,000 ($1,332,634.13 in 2018 dollars) from Cleveland was enough to return one of the greatest center fielders of all time: Tris Speaker.

The addition of Speaker in 1916 not only turned the team around from one of its worst records ever (57-95 in ‘15), it also started a stretch of 8 consecutive winning seasons, the longest in franchise history to that point, including the 1920 world championship. Speaker still stands as the third-best center fielder by bWAR (124.2) and fWAR (130.6), trailing only Willie Mays and Ty Cobb.

3. Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn

Most Tribe fans with an interest in history know this one, as the “curse” of Colavito haunted the team for decades. Whether or not trading the 1956 Rookie of the Year actually damned the franchise for so long I leave up to you, but this trade was certainly important, as it marked the end of a golden era in Cleveland.

2. Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Lee Stevens

Arguably the most lopsided trade in team history in favor of the Tribe. In his second year as general manager, Mark Shapiro managed to fleece Les Expos so thoroughly they had to relocate to Washington two years later (this is correct, don’t look it up). In exchange for 1.5 years of Colon plus Drew (who accumulated -2.2 bWAR), the Expos gave up a combined 103.2 wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference flavor), more than twice Colon’s career number.

Of course, Phillips clashed with management and was traded to Cincinnati before he became a star and Sizemore failed to stay healthy enough to maximize his five-tool talent. But Lee won his Cy Young in Cleveland and then was traded in a deal that returned Carlos Carrasco and Jason Donald (who was then part of the trade for Bauer and Shaw), so the deal is still paying dividends.

1. Jerry Dybzinski for Pat Tabler

I broke this down in detail for The Hardball Times, but the short version is that Cleveland built from this trade to eventually acquiring two-time Cy Young winner Kluber. Dybzinski and Tabler played very minor roles in team history, but at various times this deal produced the acquisition of Kenny Lofton (who is fourth in bWAR, third in runs scored, and first in stolen bases in team history), David Justice, Jake Westbrook, and now Kluber. It’s a trade that has 40-plus years (and counting) of impact upon the organization.

Deadline deals are about winning now, but the long-term effects of deals like Dybzinski for Tabler prove how long-lasting the effects of trades can be. I tend to value those deals with long-lasting effects more highly, perhaps you’re the opposite. Share your thoughts on Indians’ trades past and present in the comments.