Hart pumps new blood into Indians

March 26, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- No Kenny Lofton. No Albert Belle.

It's difficult to imagine the Cleveland Indians without their two most dominant players of the '90s. It's even more difficult to imagine them intimidating opponents the way they did two years ago, when they went 100-44 and won the American League championship.

Lofton is the most feared leadoff man in the game, Belle the most feared slugger. Still, the Indians are a better team than they were at the start of spring training, and a better team than they would have been if Lofton had departed as a free agent.

Marquis Grissom. David Justice. Matt Williams.

How can you still not like the Tribe?

General manager John Hart might be impulsive, but he always has a vision, and is never afraid. His November trade for Williams was an absolute theft. And yesterday's blockbuster -- Lofton and Alan Embree for Grissom and Justice -- should ensure that the Indians remain dominant into the 21st century.

The last trade to involve this many high-profile players occurred in 1991, when then-Toronto GM Pat Gillick acquired Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter from San Diego for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. That deal lifted the Blue Jays to back-to-back world championships. This one should improve two playoff teams.

The Braves not only got Lofton, they created outfield spots for Andruw Jones and Jermaine Dye while saving $7.7 million in '97 payroll and luxury tax, and another $16.1 million in the two years after. They can use that money to re-sign potential free agent Tom Glavine, and by trading McGriff, they also might keep Greg Maddux.

That probably won't happen right away -- the Braves need McGriff's power now that they've lost Grissom and Justice. Still, Ryan Klesko can eventually replace McGriff at first. Or, Klesko can play left, with Jones taking over in center and Dye in right if the Braves lose Lofton.

Options, the Braves always have options. Contrast that with the Orioles, who lack a productive farm system and depend largely on free agents. They can't make trades this creative. Meanwhile, the Indians already can plot the next step -- outfielder Brian Giles to Philadelphia for pitcher Curt Schilling.

Yesterday's trade made them the clear favorite in the AL Central, especially now that Chicago third baseman Robin Ventura is out three to four months. The acquisition of Schilling would make them the team to beat in the American League, though Hart said that is a "dead issue" right now.

Whatever, the Orioles' former third base coach has now traded Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Eddie Murray off the '95 team that looked like a future dynasty, and lost Belle to free agency. He started breaking up the Indians' first World Series team since 1954 four months into the following season, and hasn't stopped since.

Only two starters from the '95 club remain at their same positions -- shortstop Omar Vizquel and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. Hart wasn't thrilled with Belle's temper, Baerga's work habits or Lofton's growing disenchantment. But he cited economics as the main reason for the team's dramatic overhaul.

Hart engineered the Indians' turnaround by signing young players to long-term contracts. But innovative as that strategy was, it could sustain a championship-caliber club for only so long. Belle left as a free agent this winter. Lofton probably would have left next winter. Once again, Hart wanted to stay ahead of the curve.

He said last night that the Indians will overpay Justice, who is guaranteed $12.5 million over the next two seasons. But at least now the roster will be stable. Justice and Williams are signed through 1998, Grissom and Alomar through 1999, Manny Ramirez through 2000 and Vizquel through 2002.

"My whole ballclub is locked up," Hart said. "I don't have to be at the mercy of Kenny Lofton flying to Arizona, flying to Colorado, flying to Baltimore, and we're sitting there [next off-season] wondering what we're going to do.

Hart offered Belle $40 million, but he wouldn't go higher, refusing to commit 25 percent of his payroll to one player. And so Belle went to the division-rival White Sox for a landmark $55 million deal. That greatly influenced Hart's thinking on Lofton, persuading him to be pro-active.

The GM named names yesterday, citing the White Sox, San Francisco, Florida and Toronto as teams willing to lose money in pursuit of a championship. "They're going to deficit-spend, that's fine. I don't criticize any club," Hart said. "We're just going to operate differently."

The Indians' starting pitching is still suspect. Their bullpen isn't as deep without Embree and Julian Tavarez. And the bottom third of their lineup isn't nearly as imposing as it was in '95. Still, Justice and Williams each could hit 40 home runs in the AL. Grissom could add another 30.

It might take time for the Indians to jell, but Hart can't panic and fire manager Mike Hargrove. His tendency is to overreact, to shake things up. And yet, his active mind is his greatest strength. He just lost Albert Belle and traded Kenny Lofton. And he's still got a dangerous team.

Tribe turnover

A position-by-position look at the Indians' everyday starters in 1995, when they went 100-44 and were AL champions, and this season:

1995

Paul Sorrento, 1B

Carlos Baerga, 2B

Omar Vizquel, SS

Jim Thome, 3B

Manny Ramirez, RF

Kenny Lofton, CF

Albert Belle, LF

Eddie Murray, DH

Sandy Alomar, C

1997

Jim Thome, 1B

Tony Fernandez, 2B

Omar Vizquel, SS

Matt Williams, 3B

David Justice, RF

Marquis Grissom, CF

Manny Ramirez, LF

Kevin Seitzer, DH

Sandy Alomar, C

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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