Lofton deal a child of luxury tax


March 30, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was a '90s kind of deal. The Cleveland Indians traded their contract problem to the Atlanta Braves for a star-quality outfielder who had priced himself out of the starting lineup and a center fielder on a fixed income.


This is only the beginning. Major-league owners have been trying for years to find a way to emulate the NBA and the NFL and -- with the signing of the new collective bargaining agreement -- they finally have succeeded. You can't go to a game without tripping over the luxury tax threshold or pick up the newspaper without getting another unwanted economics lesson.

This week's blockbuster deal, which sent premier center fielder Kenny Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree to the Braves for outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom, provides the perfect illustration.

Lofton was traded because he was entering the final year of his contract and the Indians were unable to sign him to a long-term extension. It was not a deal that would have been made under any other circumstances, which makes it even more impressive that Indians general manager John Hart was able to get two players of the value of Justice and Grissom.

It wasn't the first time a player has been traded because of impending free agency, but it might be the biggest deal motivated entirely by administrative and economic concerns.

The Braves needed to shed some payroll to improve their chances of re-signing potential free agents Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. They also needed to clear space in the outfield so that a couple of their promising young outfield prospects could play regularly, though that configuration changed two days later when they traded right-handed-hitting Jermaine Dye to Kansas City for left-handed Michael Tucker.

The Indians didn't want to come away empty-handed at the end of the year the way they did when Albert Belle signed with the Chicago White Sox, and were willing to assume an extra $7 million in payroll to remain the favorite in the American League Central one more year.

It was a perfect fit. Justice can play left field while the Indians give promising Brian Giles more time to mature. Grissom could be in center field for the next three years at a "bargain" salary of about $5 million per year, though he will have the option of demanding a trade at the end of this season if he doesn't enjoy playing in Cleveland.

The Braves get to play two young prospects on each side of the best center fielder in the game, and they save enough money in the bargain to subsidize the first season of one of the big free-agent contracts the club figures to hand out next winter. Who knows? It might even be for Lofton.

There has been speculation that Lofton will play out his option and sign as a free agent with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, because he loves Arizona and would like to play near his Tucson home. That may happen, but Lofton might not be in such a hurry to leave if the Braves win the World Series and make a legitimate attempt to re-sign him.

Here's a frightening thought for the rest of the National League. Theoretically, the Braves could re-sign Lofton, Maddux and Glavine for $9 million each per year and only increase their 1998 payroll by about $4 million. If the rumors are true that they will soon deal Fred McGriff, the difference in payroll (including the usual rise in the value of their non-guaranteed contracts) would be almost negligible.

They would suffer a marginal loss in offensive punch, but if just one of their young outfielders develops into a solid run-producer, they figure to remain the favorite in the NL East for at least the next three or four years.

The Indians, meanwhile, are better able to fill the offensive gap left when Belle became a free agent. If Justice and Matt Williams can adapt quickly to the change of leagues, the loss of overall offensive production caused by the departure of two of the game's premier offensive players will be marginal. The Indians will win the AL Central and the whole thing will have been relatively painless for Indians fans.

Definitely a '90s kind of deal. It was all business and everybody came away feeling like a winner.

To set the record straight

The trade generated some excitement in an otherwise uneventful spring, but for those who have labeled it the biggest deal of the 1990s, let's calm down and look at the situation a little more objectively. The biggest trade of the '90s took place in December of 1990, when the San Diego Padres traded Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar to the Toronto Blue Jays for McGriff and three-time All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez.

The other deal

The second Braves deal in three days caused no small amount of head-scratching, since everyone assumed that the underlying reason for the first trade was to make room in the Atlanta outfield for both Dye and Andruw Jones. Instead, the Braves traded Dye and pitcher Jamie Walker to the Royals for Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart.

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