Trade A Steal For Indians? Lofton Gives Braves Edge

On Baseball

April 20, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart was credited in some quarters with fleecing the Atlanta Braves in the big deal that sent outfielder Kenny Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree to Atlanta for outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom, but the Braves seem quite happy with the exchange.

Lofton had a five-hit, five-run game on Monday and followed it up with a four-hit performance on Wednesday to raise his average to .406. Newly acquired Michael Tucker also is tearing it up in the No. 2 spot, batting .362.

"I just try to make good contact, swing at strikes and good things happen," Lofton told reporters Wednesday. "If I don't get on, Michael does. Pitchers are worried about us and it's fun."

The Braves have traded power -- they ranked second in the NL in homers last year -- for more speed at the top of the lineup, and they are pleased with the results, entering the weekend on a 9-1 roll.

"Kenny Lofton has just been sensational," manager Bobby Cox said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he got a hit every time up. It's a great front of the lineup right now."

Not that the Indians are complaining, either. Grissom hasn't taken off at the plate yet -- entering the weekend with a .231 average -- but Justice is hitting .364 and has helped replace the power the club lost when Albert Belle became a free agent and signed with the rival Chicago White Sox.

Cleveland is off to a slow start, but figures to rise to the top of the standings as soon as manager Mike Hargrove can get his starting rotation together. The Braves also sputtered at the outset, but recovered quickly by winning eight of their first nine home games. They entered the weekend with a five-game winning streak and back in their normal perch atop the National League East standings.

So how about May 1?

New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams imposed an Opening Day deadline on negotiations for a new contract, then pushed it back to April 15 when he was unable to convince the club to give him a six-year deal worth an average of $9 million.

The club has offered four years for $24 million, which seems like a reasonable offer under the circumstances. Williams is coming off his first really great year and won't be eligible for free agency until after the 1998 season.

"This just allows Bernie to build more numbers and enhance his value," agent Scott Boras said. "The closer he gets to free agency the more difficult it will be to sign him and the more value he has."

That may turn out to be true, but Williams has averaged just 17 homers and 77 RBIs per 550 at-bats in his first four-plus years in the majors. He had a career year last season with 29 homers and 102 RBIs, but ranked only 44th in the majors in home runs and 42nd in RBIs. Hardly a compelling argument for the fourth-highest salary in the game.

Rude reception

Former Florida Marlins manager Rene Lachemann was booed during introductions Tuesday night on his first visit to Pro Player/Joe Robbie/Wayne Huizenga/Blockbuster/Waste Management Stadium since he was fired by the club.

Lachemann, who returned as the third base coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, took it in stride, though it had to hurt. He spent 3 1/2 years trying to build a winner in Florida, only to be fired before the club spent nearly $80 million to turn the club into an instant contender.

"Life is too short for me to be bitter," Lachemann said afterward. "I have some great memories here, and I feel there will always be some part of Lach in this club as this club continues growing."

Still, Lachemann admitted that it was difficult to walk onto the field in a different uniform.

"There's a lot of emotion for me," he said. "When you start something and build it from the ground up, you get attached, and I still feel something for this team. I still root for them every day, except when they play us."

Nevin returns

The Detroit Tigers designated veteran outfielder Vince Coleman for assignment earlier this week to make room on the roster for 1992 No. 1 overall draft pick Phil Nevin, who returned from the disabled list way ahead of schedule.

There was talk that the wrist injury he suffered this spring would end his season, but Nevin made a miraculous recovery and may have ended Coleman's playing career in the process. The Tigers are hoping he'll stay on as a coach, but Coleman is holding out hope that the Marlins will pick him up as a reserve outfielder/pinch runner.

Butler cranks it up

Los Angeles Dodgers leadoff man Brett Butler got off a slow start, but he reeled off five straight hits on Wednesday night to raise his average to .311 and his on-base percentage to .446. Pretty impressive performance for a guy who had throat surgery last year and recently had to go through more tests because of recurring pain in the area where a cancerous tonsil was removed.

"I wanted to help and contribute to the club and I think I've done that," he said.

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