Expos And Indians: A Lopsided Trade With Two Losers

by Gordon Watkin | Posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014
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Colon, Lee and Sizemore

The ghost of Expo’s past haunts the present Indians fans to this day.

When the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians are mentioned in the same sentence, predominately it sounds destined for a tragedy to present itself. Under these circumstances, this assumption is accurate, but not without evaluating some other interesting implications first. In what could arguably go down as the most lopsided transaction of all time, epic in Indian’s history, a realization becomes imminent. What is more saddening? The departure and misfortunes of three great players or the trade’s symbolism as the Expo’s final push before leaving Montreal? The scenario I allude to is the deal between the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians in June of 2002.

The Deal

2002 was certainly a season voided from Tribe fans’ memories; 20.5 games back of the first place Minnesota Twins and 14 games beneath .500. Another dismal year for a team that once boasted one of the greatest hitting line-ups the majors ever seen. Many Indian fans of present and past believe the team to be incapable of making logical, coercive decisions that could lead to a sustainable winner in Cleveland. However, June 27, 2002 changed all of that, or at least temporarily alleviated concern.

Young executive Mark Shapiro pulled the trigger on a deal with the Montreal Expos that saw the Cleveland Indians send then ace Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and young a left-hander out of the University of Arkansas named Cliff Lee. A casual baseball fan can see the names involved and realize the implications behind this trade. Three prospects who developed into three all-stars in exchange for one briefly elite starter.

One transaction held the future implications of completely revitalizing a decimated franchise. What could have the Expos possibly been thinking? Did management not trust their scouting department? Well, logically the transaction was simple. Montreal needed a winner; especially following a developed awareness of an impending end to their long-term tenure in Canada’s largest bilingual city. It was all in and the Expos got one of the games most dominant pitchers of that decade. The implications were that straightforward: Win, and potentially remain in Montreal; they needed a big arm to do it.

Montreal was a unique baseball market; one that had attendance fluctuate contingently on how many baseball games the team won. Big name players were not uncommon, as the likes of Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, to pitchers John Wetteland, and the great Pedro Martinez all once dawned the Expo crest on their chests. Bartolo Colon was none of those players. He wasn’t anything the fans hadn’t seen before. However, the hope of the franchise rode on his right arm to pound the strike zone, as he so often did, and to get outs giving the Expos chances at wins.

He did just that, going 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA while finishing the season overall 20-8 and placed sixth in Cy Young Award voting. Unfortunately, as all baseball fans know, it wasn’t enough. Less than two calendar years later, Jarry Park Stadium was being ripped to the ground by the seventh inning of the second game of a double header with the Philadelphia Phillies; a day in which the Expos lost both games. Nothing is more tragic than that thought; the lack of decency to even let the team finish out their final season with dignity, pride and integrity. The end was fitting for the tragedy that is the Montreal Expos story and Canadian baseball fans to this day miss baseball in Montreal.

Cleveland, on the other hand, has a happier tone for the years following the trade. However, they too never experienced the true overall benefits of the deal. Brandon Phillips was traded following the impatience of management to ride his developmental curve and he became a central component of a very potent Cincinnati Reds offense. He emerged as one of the most prolific, and athletic second baseman in the game today. Combining an ability to drive in runs, hit for power, steal bases and flash a great glove Phillips has emerged as a star.

Grady Sizemore developed into one of the best center fielders in baseball by the mid 2000’s. Tremendous power, and blazing speed led to Sizemore appearing in three all-star games, winning two gold gloves, a silver slugger award, and becoming a member of the prestigious 30-30 club like his former teammate Brandon Phillips. Injuries have since derailed the talented center fielder and he has not made an appearance in a Major League game in nearly two years.

The final component of the deal, Cliff Lee, has emerged as one of the game’s premier left-handed pitchers and is also incredibly efficient. With over 1700 career strikeouts, 139 wins, four all-star appearances, and an AL Cy Young award it is a safe proclamation to say Cleveland negated the loss of Colon’s pitching production with Lee alone.

Mind you, not all of the aforementioned statistics and accolades were accumulated with the Tribe. In fact none of the aforementioned players have been a member of the team for a minimum of two seasons (Sizemore) and in the next most recent case of Cliff Lee five years.

The Implications

For statistic’s sake, let’s analyze what was dealt and what was received, keeping in mind neither team enjoyed all of the statistics accrued in these players’ careers.

Brandon Phillips

Accolades

3x All-Star, 4x Gold-Glove Winner, Silver Slugger Award Winner, 30-30 Club

BA .271

HR 166

RBI 704

SB 159

Grady Sizemore

Accolades

3x All-Star, 2x Gold Glove Winner, 30-30 Club, Silver Slugger Award Winner

BA .269

HR 139

RBI 458

SB 134

Cliff Lee

Accolades

4x All-Star, AL Cy Young Award Winner

W/L Record 139-86

ERA 3.51

K 1752

WHIP 1.19

Bartolo Colon

Accolades

3x All-Star, AL Cy Young Award Winner

W/L Record 189-128

ERA 3.94

K 1950

WHIP 1.31

The implications of this breakdown are quite staggering. Desperation in the Expo’s move aside, Shapiro and the Indians pulled off one of the greatest transactions in history by acquiring three impact, all-star caliber players (A Cy Young award winner, and two 30-30 players at premium positions both multi gold glove winners to boot) in exchange for a pitcher who despite being in his prime, most likely would have left the struggling Indians regardless in the near future.

This poses one more interesting question; If the Expo’s never had the impending pressures of an inevitable move and they were able to develop and field home grown talent what would of their roster looked like by 2006 when these three prospects were all simultaneously in the Majors?

Ask and you shall receive.

C: Michael Barrett (1995 Draft Rd 1)

1B: Nick Johnson (2003 Trade with NYY)

2B: Jose Vidro (6th Rd, 1992 Draft), Brandon Phillips (1999 Draft, 2nd Rd)

SS: Orlando Cabrera (Signed in 1997)

3B: Ryan Zimmerman (2005 Draft 4th overall)

LF: Alfonso Soriano (Signed in 2006 as UFA)

CF: Grady Sizemore (2000 MLB Draft 3rd Rd)

RF: Vladimir Guerrero (Signed March, 1993)

CP: Chad Cordero (Drafted Rd 1 in 2003)

SP:

Cliff Lee (Drafted 4th Rd, 2000)

Livan Hernandez (Trade March 2003 from FLA)

Tomo Ohka (Trade in 2001)

Esteban Loaiza (2004 Signed as UFA)

Javier Vazquez (5th Rd 1994 Draft)

The only position not truly filled before 2006 would technically be first base. Nick Johnson was acquired in 2003 for Javier Vazquez, a move the Expos most likely never make assuming they are able to convert Michael Barrett to first base, and use Brian Schneider as primary catcher.

To say this roster is interesting is an understatement. In 2006, this roster would have a unique mix of budding superstars, prime-aged veterans, and declining players with great leadership skills. Of course certain players on this list were not on the Nationals in 2006 and were on other clubs. Speaking completely hypothetically, those stars would not have been moved (such as Guerrero) before the impending franchise relocation.

At the end of the day, the trade happened andthe core of young talent was moved. The Indians enjoyed moderate success and the Expos are no more. It would be an interesting roster even today and it is tantalizing to ponder what they could have and should have been. Presently, no players remain from this deal on the Indian’s roster and despite the fact the deal will go down as one of the best trades in team history. If not for unfortunate circumstances, the deal had potential to be more lopsided should Sizemore have remained healthy to play out his prime and the Indian’s not been forced to sell of Lee’s expensive left arm.

The Devil’s Advocate

Despite the clear lopsidedness of this trade, as an Indian fan I have difficulty reviewing the transaction without sadness. As impressive as the Expo roster could have been if these players were retained, the present day roster of the Indians would be far more impressive. Assuming the players were retained the Tribe would have never dealt C.C. Sabathia, or Victor Martinez, and would have never battled mediocrity in a weak division for nearly half a decade. The premature departure of Phillips is a huge reason for dismal seasons leading up to the drafting of Jason Kipnis. As impressive a talent as Kipnis is, nearly a decade of Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee would prevent the departure of Martinez,and Sabathia (Who were both traded for essentially nothing, cough….Matt LaPorta…. cough).

Had the Indian’s just remained patient a winning tradition potentially presented itself over the past ten years and a capitalization on a weak division that once saw the now mighty Detroit Tigers lose 116 games would be ripe for picking. Those days are gone. The opportunity has passed. Presently the Indians are finally on the way up. But, wow, what could have been. That is the single, simplistic phrase that haunts all sports fans. Especially those with allegiance to, lets say, less than successful franchises. Let this move go as a lesson: simply because your team capitalizes on fortunate circumstances and appears to handedly win a trade it is the actions following the move that prove equally as important. Hopefully, one day, the Expo’s return and this tale gets a little less depressing.

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Gordon Watkin
About the Author

Gordon is a Sport Management graduate from Brock University. He has a background playing professional soccer, but is an avid sports fan particularly of the Cleveland Indians. Follow Gordon on Twitter @GordonWatkin.

  • dscrr

    I remember that deal as an Expo fan. Three very good players gone. Just like when Langston came for a cup of coffee and Randy Johnson was lost. And there are more trades like that. If only MLB hadn’t conspired to rid Montreal of the Expos. Think if, in 2003, the Expos had not been gutted by MLB in September, allowed no call ups for instance, they would have made the playoffs.

    • Gordon Watkin

      Completely agree! To this day demographic information strongly advocates the team could sustainably survive through a long rebuilding phase, and would flourish when the team became competitive. Canada needs more markets, British Columbia has wildly supported minor league affiliate clubs, and too warrant an opportunity for a baseball team. Bottom line – Selig wants baseball a Canadian game. We’ll see how it changes when the new commish steps in. Thanks for the comment!







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