The Cleveland Indians lack the financial wherewithal to compete for big-name free agents and their recent draft history is nondescript, to put it kindly. But the Tribe sure does hold its own on the trade market.
Think Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese to Texas in exchange for Travis Hafner. Or wrap your mind around the great prospect heist of 2002, when former Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee.
If the Colon trade serves as the gold standard for parlaying a short-term asset into long-term gains, the Indians also have a flair for stockpiling young talent in installments. Exhibits A and B came during a 26-day span in the summer of 2006, when Shapiro fleeced the Seattle Mariners in stereo.
Scan the roster for the Indians, the surprise American League Central leaders, and you'll find quite a bounty by way of the Pacific Northwest. Asdrubal Cabrera, who leads AL shortstops with 10 homers, 58 hits and an .900 OPS, arrived from Seattle five years ago in a late June deal for Eduardo Perez. Less than a month later, the Indians acquired outfield prospect Shin-Soo Choo and pitcher Shawn Nottingham from the Mariners for Ben Broussard.
As astounding as it seems to be that the Indians could acquire two cornerstone, All-Star caliber players in separate deals for a platoon designated hitter tandem, Shapiro admits that a certain element of luck was involved. A committee made up of Pat Gillick, John Schuerholz and Branch Rickey wouldn't have been smart enough to map things out this seamlessly.
"Your goal in doing trades is to have them be a win-win,'' said Shapiro, now Cleveland's club president. "Even when we traded Chuck Finley [to St. Louis] for Coco Crisp or Mark DeRosa [to the Cardinals] for Chris Perez, you want the player that you send to the other team to provide them with what they want. You're not looking to steal players and win trades. You like trades to be a foundation for a future trade.
"And no one was smart enough to think we were getting what we got. I guarantee if you went back and read our reports on Choo, we identified him as a potential big leaguer, but not as one of the best all-around players in the big leagues. Not one scout and no objective analysis said that.''
In 2006, Baseball America ranked Cabrera and Choo as Seattle's sixth and seventh best prospects -- right behind Jeff Clement, Adam Jones, Kenji Johjima, Chris Snelling and Matt Tuiasosopo -- but neither player was regarded as a can't-miss, lights-out, sure-thing bet to succeed in the majors.
The Indians, who won 93 games in 2005 and came one victory short of a World Series appearance in 2007, were muddling their way through a disappointing 78-win season in 2006 when Shapiro and assistant GM Chris Antonetti began looking for ways to keep the payroll under control and spin some veteran talent into long-range help.
Seattle, conversely, was willing to dig into its prospect inventory for short-term upgrades even though the team was not at the point of contending. The Mariners finished 15 games out of first place in the AL West in 2006 at 78-84 -- an identical record to Cleveland's. But former GM Bill Bavasi said the M's were trying to send a message to the fan base and the players that the club was serious about winning.
"We were trying to get better fast,'' Bavasi said in an email. "Believe me, in Seattle there was no taste for a five-year plan, and no matter how things turned out, I respect that attitude. The 2006 club was sort of starting to get it together and we believed it was important for the players to see we were serious about maybe not winning but at least getting better now.''
No one was smart enough to think we were getting what we got. I guarantee if you went back and read our reports on [Shin-Soo] Choo, we identified him as a potential big leaguer, but not as one of the best all-around players in the big leagues. Not one scout and no objective analysis said that.
”-- Indians team president Mark Shapiro
The teams' divergent approaches provided the basis for a trade a month before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. The Mariners had a promising young double-play combination in shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and second baseman Jose Lopez and another middle infield prospect on the way in Luis Valbuena, and they were willing to move Cabrera, who was suffering some growing pains on his way up the chain. The Mariners pushed Cabrera aggressively through the system, having him skip Double-A ball, and Cabrera hit .236 in 60 games with Triple-A Tacoma in 2006.
"Cabrera won't be an offensive force, but he's a switch-hitter with bat control and a whole-field approach,'' Baseball America wrote that year. "His speed is just average, and he doesn't have standout ability in terms of power, base stealing or on-base ability. Defense is Cabrera's forte.''
Seattle was looking for a bat to replace DH Carl Everett and settled on Perez, a positive clubhouse presence and established role player who slugged .501 against left-handed pitching over the course of his career. But the Mariners didn't see many lefties down the stretch, and Perez receded into the background. He hit .195 in 43 games, and moved on to a new career shortly thereafter as an analyst for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight.''
One deal down, one to go. The amazing thing is that Cleveland was able to go back to the well and find common ground with Seattle again less than four weeks later.
Enter Phase II
Broussard showed decent power in five seasons with the Indians, averaging a home run every 26.4 plate appearances. But he made $2.4 million in 2006 and was about to get more expensive in salary arbitration, and manager Eric Wedge was not a fan of his glove work at first base. When the Indians began putting out trade feelers, multiple suitors emerged. One deal under discussion would have sent Broussard to the Los Angeles Angels for first baseman Casey Kotchman, who was injured and had lost much of his luster as a former hotshot prospect.
Dave Malpass, the same scout who had pushed so strenuously for the Indians to acquire Sizemore from Montreal, was a strong advocate for Choo. But some talent evaluators questioned whether Choo would ever hit left-handers consistently or provide the desired power for a corner outfielder. With Ichiro Suzuki entrenched in right field in Seattle, Choo was never going to play the position for the Mariners.
Broussard gave Seattle a short-term power boost. But as his production waned, his attention began to drift away from baseball to his other passion, music. He retired in 2008 and channeled his talents as a singer/songwriter and guitar player into a second CD a year later.
Bavasi, who was fired by the Mariners in 2008 and now works as a special assistant to Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty, spent a lot more time second-guessing the Cabrera trade than the Choo-for-Broussard deal.
"Safeco Field being what it is, we really felt a left-handed hitter with some power now would help us a ton,'' Bavasi said of Broussard. "That's one of those deals that I look back at and think, 'Made sense at the time.' Nobody went nuts losing Choo. The deal stunk, but you win some, you lose some.''
The Cabrera deal, in contrast, continues to sting. In hindsight, Bavasi concedes he made a "bad mistake'' in not consulting Bob Engle, who was running the Mariners' international scouting operation and had signed Cabrera as a 16-year-old free agent out of Venezuela.
"Bob was really upset as the year went on and Eduardo sat,'' Bavasi said. "As opposed to the Choo deal, I thought, 'The GM of this Seattle club is a f---ing idiot.'''
If this comes as any consolation to angry Seattle fans, Bavasi punishes himself over the Cabrera deal almost as much as they do.
The Indians, conversely, are thrilled with their end of the trades. Over the past two seasons, Choo posted an OPS of .884, third highest among major league right fielders behind Nelson Cruz and Jayson Werth. After a slow start this year, he's picked up the pace lately to raise his batting average to .244.
"To me, he's one of most complete players in the game,'' Shapiro said. "He has the ability at any given time to throw out a runner, steal a key base, hit a home run, work a walk or make a diving catch. He can beat you in any facet of the game, and he's driven to be better.''
As for Cabrera, he has debunked the early perception that he's more glove than bat. He's selective enough to work counts and strong enough to drive the ball into the gap and beyond, and he relishes stepping to the plate in big situations. Shapiro uses the word "fearless'' to describe Cabrera's competitive mindset.
As an added bonus, Cabrera is perpetuating a Cleveland tradition in the middle infield.
Let's wrap up this baseball history lesson with a flashback to 1993, when Indians general manager John Hart sent Felix Fermin, Reggie Jefferson and cash to Seattle for a defensive upgrade at shortstop. Omar Vizquel went on to win eight of his 11 Gold Gloves in an Indians uniform and become a valuable contributor on some dominant Cleveland teams in the '90s.
Almost two decades later, the Mariners are doing their part to spark another baseball resurgence in Cleveland. They're the Indians' gift that keeps on giving.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick