Braves take fiscal leap, get Lofton They look to outfielder to clear walls, payroll in Grissom-Justice deal

Indians also lose P Embree

Atlanta saves $5.8M in pay, $1.9M luxury tax

March 26, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After "kicking the tires of this deal all spring long," the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians made a stunning trade yesterday that was fueled by the economic concerns of both clubs.

The Braves sent two-thirds of their outfield, David Justice and Marquis Grissom, to the Indians for center fielder Kenny Lofton, who is considered the best leadoff hitter in baseball, and relief pitcher Alan Embree.

Considering the players and the teams involved, it is one of baseball's biggest trades in years. But financial concerns, as well as returning to the World Series, were behind the transaction.

"Quite candidly, I think we made a good baseball trade that was motivated by baseball economics on both sides," said Braves general manager John Schuerholz.

He said the two teams had been contemplating the deal throughout spring training. "We finally got to the point where we both felt comfortable with it," Schuerholz said. "We both approached this matter guardedly because we were talking about giving up significant talent from our clubs. But it suits our needs and theirs."

The trade can be viewed in various ways:

It is an exchange of Gold Glove center fielders, Grissom for Lofton.

The Indians, by acquiring Justice, bolster an offense that has lost Albert Belle.

The Indians get something for Lofton before losing him, like Belle, as a free agent. Lofton's contract expires after this season.

The Braves open a spot for Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones, two attractive outfielders who contributed to last year's success.

The Braves, who wanted to reduce their major-league-high $63.8 million payroll, save $7.7 million in actual salary and luxury tax for this year. By shedding $26.9 million owed Justice (two years) and Grissom (three years) for the rest of their contracts, the Braves also create greater flexibility in their quest to keep Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who can be free agents in November.

By losing Justice's $6 million salary and Grissom's $4.8 million salary this season and taking on Lofton's $4.75 million and Embree's $206,000, the Braves emerge with a net saving of $5,844,000. They also save $1,870,400 in luxury tax. Combined, the reduction in actual salary and tax means a saving of $7,714,400.

The Braves will still enter the season with one of the five highest payrolls. The five clubs with the highest payrolls over $51 million will pay a 35 percent tax on payroll portions over that threshold.

The New York Yankees now have the highest payroll, $63.4 million. The trade sent the Indians, who had been seventh at $53.5 million, past the Braves, $58.8 million to $58.5 million. Payrolls for tax purposes will change with each player move during the season so the top five teams won't be known until the end of the season.

The Braves had made no secret of their desire to trade Justice, Grissom or Fred McGriff to reduce their payroll and open a spot for Dye and Jones. "If we can make a deal that allows our club to be championship caliber, as strong as it is now, and also diminish our payroll, we'll do that," Schuerholz had said early in spring training.

The only surprise was that Schuerholz was able to put Justice and Grissom in the same package. Lofton's status made that possible.

"We went through it last year with Albert Belle, and Albert left us," said Indians general manager John Hart. "We are not prepared as an organization to let that happen again."

Lofton, who has usurped Rickey Henderson's status as the game's No. 1 leadoff hitter and the American League's perennial base-stealing leader, disputed Hart's view that Lofton "made it clear he wanted to exercise his right to go out on the market."

"I never planned on testing the market," Lofton said. "That didn't come out of Kenny Lofton's mouth. The Indians decided that."

As for recent baseball trades involving star players, few compare.

Toronto and San Diego pulled off a big deal after the 1990 season, with Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar going to the Blue Jays for McGriff and Tony Fernandez.

In late 1992, the Oakland Athletics sent Jose Canseco to Texas for Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell.

Lofton, who batted .317, had 75 stolen bases and scored 132 runs in 1996, joins an Atlanta outfield that has Ryan Klesko as the incumbent left fielder and will now have Dye and Jones in right.

Dye, 23, batted .281 in 92 games last season after Justice dislocated his right shoulder swinging at a pitch May 15. Jones, a native of Curacao who will turn 20 on April 23, became the youngest player to ever hit a postseason home run in the NLCS, then surpassed that performance by hitting two home runs in his first two times up against the Yankees in the first game of the World Series.

Although it was initially assumed that the Braves would use Lofton only for this season, then let him go as a free agent so that Dye and Jones could play at the same time, Schuerholz disputed that conclusion.

"We're going to leave that agenda item wide-open," he said by telephone from West Palm Beach.

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