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What could have been: The Robbie Alomar trade

What could have been: The Robbie Alomar trade
Roberto Alomar (Photo: AP)
December 20, 2014
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Editor's note: This is an updated article which originally posted three years ago on the old IBI site at that I felt was good to bring out of the vault so to speak.

The 13-year anniversary of the Roberto Alomar trade passed earlier this month.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, it is amazing that it has now been 13 years since that trade was consummated on December 11, 2001. It is a trade that signaled a dramatic change in the direction of the franchise and was the opening salvo for what has since become a 13-year war between the fans and ownership on the true intentions of that new direction.

A lot of people point to the Brandon Phillips debacle in April of 2006 as one of former GM Mark Shapiro’s worst decisions, but his worst move was his handling of the Robbie Alomar trade and the lack of talent that resulted from it.

The Indians traded Roberto Alomar, Mike Baczik, and Danny Peoples to the New York Mets for Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, Billy Traber, Jerrod Riggan, and Earl Snyder. Four years later, none of the five players obtained from the Mets were still in the Indians organization.

When you trade a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer who came off a very good 2001 season and arguably the best three-year run in his career, you better nail it with the players acquired in the deal. The Indians’ intent in the deal was to get some good, young Major League ready talent in return, but in the end not even one core player came from that trade.

The fact the Indians never had anything to show from the Alomar trade is mind-boggling. Forget that Alomar’s career plummeted at a ridiculous rate upon being traded and he really did nothing once he left the Indians. The fact is, at the time of the trade, he was the best second baseman in baseball and one of the game’s elite players who was still performing at a high level. For players like this, you usually get tons of talent dumped in your lap in a trade, which the Indians thought happened.

Shapiro’s mistake was the double whammy bad move where the prospects he received in return for Alomar bombed, and the Major League player he received in the deal - Matt Lawton - was immediately given an unnecessary four-year $27 million contract extension.

To make matters worse, Shapiro piggybacked the trade by signing Ricky Gutierrez to play second base with a three year deal totaling just short of $12 million. So make that a triple whammy bad move. In one fell swoop, Shapiro ended up making three mistakes all in one with the players he obtained for Alomar, extending Lawton, and then signing Gutierrez. Ouch.

The idea behind trading Alomar made sense for the Indians. After they lost over $14 million in 2001 with a payroll just over $92 million, third year owner Larry Dolan required payroll be cut to the high $70 million range. With a payroll cut looming, a rapidly aging team, and a barren cupboard in the minor leagues to replenish needs at the Major League level, Shapiro saw an opportunity to address these needs by dealing Alomar.

Before the trade, the Indians farm system was devoid of much talent heading into 2002 (ranked 20th by Baseball America). At the time of the trade, Escobar was the Mets #2 rated prospect and Traber their #5 rated prospect. That same year, Jose Reyes was the Mets #3 rated prospect and David Wright their #7 rated prospect.

It goes without saying that for Alomar, the type of prospect return and Major League results for those players would have been along the lines of Reyes and Wright. In other words, players that would become very good Major Leaguers and core pieces of the team in the near future. Wow, imagine if either one or both of Reyes and Wright were in a Cleveland uniform the past decade or so?

In fairness to Shapiro, Escobar and Traber were much closer to the Major League doorstep, while Reyes and Wright were still very green and in the lower levels of the Mets minor league system. Shapiro’s goal with the trade was not to rebuild, but to retool with Major League ready young talent. Had he been in full blown rebuild mode like he was six months later with the Bartolo Colon trade, he probably ends up with Reyes and maybe even Wright instead.

In dealing for Escobar, Shapiro obtained a player with big-time prospect status as he had been ranked #1 in the Mets system three years in a row from 1999-2001 and #2 in 2002. Escobar was viewed as the top prize acquired in the trade and a player the Indians viewed as a long-term solution in the outfield.

But Shapiro was really gambling on Escobar’s durability, something that was a big reach considering the red flags with health issues his entire time in the Mets system. From the day he signed with the Mets he had health issues. In his first two seasons (1996-1997) he only played in a total of 60 games and accumulated 184 at bats because of hamstring issues. Even after exploding onto the scene in 1998 in the South Atlantic League when he hit .310 with 27 HR, 91 RBI, 49 stolen bases and .947 OPS he was still hampered by nagging injuries as he was limited to 112 games. That season he was tabbed the league’s best prospect, and was starting to be compared to a young Vladimir Guerrero.

Then came 1999. Escobar managed to play in only three games because he spent the first half of the season recovering from a lower back injury, then shortly after he returned he separated his shoulder on a home run swing.

Escobar came back in 2000 and hit .288 with 16 HR, 67 RBI, 24 steals and .863 OPS in 122 games at Double-A, and then in 2001 he hit .267 with 12 HR, 52 RBI, 18 steals and .758 OPS in 111 games at Triple-A. While he was relatively healthy both years, the numbers were in decline. Looking at the drop in production it looks as if the injuries not only were starting to have an affect on his talent as his speed and power dropped significantly, but also had an affect on his development.

The next year during his first spring training with the Indians in 2002, Escobar went crashing into the center-field wall and tore his ACL and pretty much ended his days as a high-level prospect. A little over two years later, Escobar was released late in the 2004 season.

The other highlight in the deal was soft-tossing left-handed pitcher Billy Traber. He was selected by the Mets in the first round of the 2000 Amateur Draft, and was the first lefty taken off the board (16th overall). However, like Escobar, injury concerns quickly surfaced with Traber.

Traber was set to sign a $1.7 million signing bonus pending completion of a physical, and when the MRI was completed it revealed abnormalities in his pitching elbow which pointed to possible damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) of his pitching elbow. As a result, he still signed, but had to settle for a $400,000 bonus and ended up signing a 2001 contract thereby shutting him down for the 2000 minor league season.

Traber was healthy in 2001 and pitched like a man on a mission. He started the year in High-A and advanced three levels all the way to Triple-A compiling a 10-9 record and 3.09 ERA in 27 starts (151.1 IP, 140 H, 36 BB, 124 K). But scouts were still concerned about the elbow.

Upon joining the Indians, Traber pitched very well in 2002 at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo going a combined 17-5 with a 2.94 ERA in 27 starts (162.1 IP, 157 H, 32 BB, 115K). He also pitched well in 2003 with the Indians, including a magnificent complete game one-hit shutout of the Yankees that year.

It looked like the Indians had found a gem, but the injury concerns surrounding Traber soon surfaced late in 2003 when he went down with an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. He missed all of the 2004 season, returned to the Indians in 2005, and was never the same and was gone after that season.

Jerrod Riggan was not a top prospect at the time of the trade, although he did rank in the teens in the 2002 Mets prospect rankings. He was viewed as more of a player who could help the organization in the short term out of the bullpen. He had some experience as a Major League reliever in 2001 as he posted a 3-3 record and 3.40 ERA in 35 appearances out of the Mets bullpen.

After the trade Riggan pitched well at Triple-A Buffalo in 2002 going 4-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 28 games before he was called up to Cleveland, but he never found himself and struggled going 2-1 with a 7.64 ERA in 29 appearances that year in Cleveland. He stuck around for half the season in 2003 before the Indians released him. He never pitched in the big leagues again and was out of baseball after the 2005 season.

As for Earl Snyder, he was a throw-in and pretty much became a career “4A” player in Triple-A bouncing around from team to team. He was out of the Indians organization after the 2002 season.

Shapiro’s mistake was not the fact he traded Alomar because he actually traded him at the most opportune time when his value was very high and he was about to go in sharp decline. But the prospect choices Shapiro made were poor, and to top it off, in response to the trade they saddled the team with some horrible contracts for Lawton and Gutierrez that took a few years to get out from under.

This was Shapiro’s first notable trade as general manager of the Indians and was his worst during his nine-year tenure. Thankfully, he learned his lesson quickly with his next big trade six months later when he dealt Bartolo Colon for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee. While he earned the golden sombrero by striking out four times on the prospects in the Alomar deal, he hit a game winning walkoff grand slam in the Colon deal.

The damage from the first trade of Alomar affected the Indians for years as they lost potential core pieces for the future of the team. Imagine had they acquired Jose Reyes and David Wright instead. Those two may have put them over the top to win a World Series during their last window of contention from 2004 to 2009.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Alomar trade is one of the worst in the history of the organization.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

December 23, 2014 - 11:51 AM EST
It was a rough 5-10 years for the farm system. Prospects aquired in trades failed, they drafted conservatively on pitching by choosing low floor college pitchers. The one HS pitcher they chose developed into one of the best in all of baseball then suffered a career ending finger injury. Trades have been what kept this franchise competative at times, but the inability to sign key players once they hit FA and injuries have made it difficult to establish consistency. A major concern with a weak farm system is it doesn't supply the big club with quality players. This in turn makes it next to impossible to aquire high ceiling prospects in trades. He was lucky to get guys like Choo, Cabrera, and Santana with average at best major league players.
Rich S.
December 21, 2014 - 1:59 PM EST
I know Mark Shapiro readily admitted that this trade was a mistake. I recall when Gutierrez was signed Mark said in a press conference that Gutierrez could be considered part of the deal because the money saved by dealing Alomar equalled what they gave Lawton and Gutierrez.

Fortunately, as Tony indicated, Mark learned the lesson quickly and became one of the best at trading veteran players for prospects, especially in the minor deals - Kearns for McCallister and Westbrook for Kluber being examples.

You can't always hit home runs like the Colon deal. But his success rate is very good in trades. The farm system during his tenure was the biggest valid criticism, as they were never able to develop a starting outfielder.

Overall, in my opinion, I believe Shapiro did a good job during his GM reign.
Canadian Joe
December 21, 2014 - 10:06 AM EST
Love the Westbrook for Kluber deal.
December 21, 2014 - 9:51 AM EST
I remember Pluto writing about these deals in one of his books. The upshot was that Shapiro was not yet fully committed to a rebuild and wanted to get some major league players plus ML ready prospects, IOW, more of a reload than a rebuild. So he included Lawton in the deal and avoided any prospects in the lower levels that were years away.

Six months later he was resigned to the idea that a complete rebuild was necessary, so in the Colon deal he asked for the best prospects regardless of how far they were from the bigs. The result was Sizemore, Phillips, and Lee - the gold standard of ML star-for-prospects trade.

Too bad he thought the Tribe could trade Alomar and still contend. If he was committed to a full rebuild at the time he traded Alomar, he might have asked for different prospects. But yeah, looking at Escobar's injury history and the trajectory of his performance his last two years in the Mets' system, it's hard to believe he was the centerpiece of the trade.

The Indians' overvaluing of Escobar, Marte, and LaPorta in the 2000's really set this franchise back as they failed to fully capitalize on the Alomar, Crisp, and Sabathia trades. Fortunately, they got huge hauls on some of the smaller deals, especially Broussard/Choo, Eduardo Perez/Cabrera, Blake/Santana, and Drese/Hafner. Oh, and how about the Westbrook for Kluber deal?
December 21, 2014 - 8:21 AM EST
If I recall Terry Francona was working with the Tribe at the time as a consultant or some title like that, but he scouted Escobar that whole summer and endorsed him as the main prospect in the deal. Many of us prospect lovers on the old Fanhome site (Tommy Lee-Tribetalk-etc) were clamoring for Reyes as the main piece in a Alomar to Mets trade. The feelings were that in any deal for Alomar we had to get a high end MIF prospect as part of the deal. Somebody like Reyes who they saw every day back when we had a team playing in the same SALLY affiliation. No hindsight then or now we were enamored with Reyes speed-defense-offense skill set. Had this gone down we could have replaced a Vizquel-Alomar combo with Reyes and Brandon Phillips! Well, Of course, Eric Wedge may have saw things different
December 20, 2014 - 10:44 PM EST
Thanks for the trip back in time Tony! However, I'm with the maven on this one. While this was surely an important trade, and obviously Alomar was coming off a great year, but still, I think you're overestimating his market value Tony.

And while none of us really knows what was being offered by who, this was probably the best he could get. Clearly Escobar and Traber were undervalued because of injuries and Shapiro took a chance on them. Hard to argue with that, esp since they were both pretty close to ML-ready. Who's knows if the Mets would have even included Reyes or Wright?
December 20, 2014 - 9:46 PM EST
That Shapiro got bupkis for Alomar is not in dispute.

But saying Alomar was a great player is leaving out some of the baggage(Hirschbeck,prima donna,bad attitude,me first player, etc.) that came with Roberto.

The major reasons he was on the Tribe were:
1) a lot of other teams(only one other team gave him a FA offer) wanted nothing to do with him,so they got him relatively cheaply .
He signed for a million per year more than he made in Baltimore,which is the same thing that happened when he signed with Baltimore as a FA.
2) the Indians had his older brother to ride herd on him,which no other team could count on.

These were still big factors when they traded him three years later and none of us know what other offers the Tribe proposed and received when they shopped him,this may well have been the best deal.

Alomar played only 2 more mediocre seasons so dumping him was a good move,but yeah I wanted more for him then as well.

I still think dumping Phillips was a way worse move though.
December 20, 2014 - 5:32 PM EST
I was in third grade at the time of this trade and I remember talking about this trade on the school bus. I had a friend who absolutely hated everything about this trade and it appears he was a quality talent evaluator.
December 20, 2014 - 5:14 PM EST
This trade is far and away his worst trade in hindsight, but man, I don't think anyone completed as many lopsided trades in that 10 year span as Shapiro did. You could put a transaction timeline in the Indians hall of fame.

Colon for Phillips/Lee/Sizemore
Finley for Crisp
Shuey for Mulholland/Cruceta/R Rodriguez (At the time this was a massive haul. Rodriguez was their #1 prospect)
Diaz/Drese for Hafner/Myette
R Rodriguez/Spencer for Ludwick
Bradley for Gutierrez/Brown
Crisp/Bard/Riske for Marte/Shoppach/Mota (This one did not go as well, but Marte was an ELITE prospect, though I do remember Pedroia's name being brought up in trade discussions)
Phillips for Stevens (Yikes on this one)
EPerez for ACabrera
Broussard for Choo
Brown/Kouzmanoff for Barfield (Good idea, I think most people considered Barfield a bit overrated at the time though)
Sabathia for Laporta/Bryson/Brantley
Blake for Santana/Meloan
Gutierrez for Smith/Valbuena
DeRosa for CPerez/Todd
Lee/Francisco for Carrasco/Donald/Marson/Knapp (This is finally starting to show results, but I was quite upset about this one considering Knapp's medicals)
Martinez for Hagadone/Masterson/Price

It's not that all of these trades are lopsided. Most of them are not. Looking at how prospects are being valued today though, you can't argue at how well Shapiro did on paper with most of these acquisitions. He managed to retool consistently, and if it weren't for some busts like Marte/Laporta and the whole Phillips debacle, we could have had another dynasty on our hands during the latter part of the last decade. The Sizemore and Hafner injuries hurt quite a bit as well.

I think we really went through 3 different retooling's. The first was Sizemore/Phillips/Lee/Crisp/Hafner/RRodriguez. Then while most of those guys were (or should have been) hitting their primes, we added Gutierrez/Marte/Cabrera/Choo/Barfield. Then on his way out, when we knew Hafner and Sizemore had lost a ton of value and our MiLB system began to weaken, we added Laporta/Brantley/Santana/Valbuena/Perez/Carrasco/Donald/Marson/Knapp/Hagadone/Masterson.

Its just crazy to think about how many core pieces we were able to acquire via trade. How many other teams were capable of doing what Shapiro had done? I always tend to ramble on when discussing Shapiro trades, but man, what could have been...

December 20, 2014 - 3:20 PM EST
I went back and looked. Escobar's plate discipline was was not nearly as bad as I had remembered until he got to AAA...
matt underwood
December 20, 2014 - 1:30 PM EST
i feel this trade forever haunted shapiro - he always seemed gun shy about trading prospects for proven MLB talent. he never seemed to have the guts to pull the trigger on a big trade. at least antonetti gave it a shot with Ubaldo - people screamed at what was given up but it ended up being a steaming pile of garbage. prospects 9 times out of 10 seem to be extremely over valued - i wish we would make more trades and take more chances to improve the big league club to finally make something happen.

Canadian Joe
December 20, 2014 - 1:09 PM EST
You are right Tony. There were definitely red flags there. It sure would have been interesting to see what would have happened had they worked out. And Jason Knapp as well. I recall he was somewhat fragile at the time as well. Seems we are partial to "damaged goods" at times in these deals. Some work, some don't !!!
December 20, 2014 - 12:52 PM EST
You are right Joe. Hindsight is always 20/20. I think Shapiro learned a lot from this trade. That said, when you look back on it - and I was one concerned about it at the time - they were taking a big risk knowing the health issues/history of the two players Escobar and Traber who headlined the deal....
Canadian Joe
December 20, 2014 - 12:50 PM EST
Your point is well made Tony,but a bit harsh considering this was a prospect trade to re-tool. Had Shapiro taken Reyes and Wright, he would have been lauded. Or if Escobar and Traber had worked out. But when dealing with prospects, this can happen. It is a crap shoot. As much as this trade hurt the Indians, I cannot fault Shapiro totally. Going from prospect to suspect is a slippery slope, and more slip than actually made it. That deal probably started the slide for Cleveland that's taken 10 years to recover from. History has a way of coming back to bite you in the a**, and I am sure Shapiro has the scars to prove it. On to bigger and better things. GO TRIBE !!!!!!!

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