I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
What Are the Greatest Trades in Cleveland Indians History?
Executives for the Cleveland Indians have a reputation as shrewd negotiators with an eye for young talent. The Indians have pulled off some of the greatest trades in baseball history, often knowing exactly when to part with a veteran player to infuse some young talent into their roster or farm system. That's not to say Cleveland has never made a bad trade (though they've botched far fewer than they've won), but for now, we're going to focus on trades the Indians won by a wide margin.
When searching through Cleveland's entire trade history on Baseball-Reference, I identified nearly 20 trades that would be contenders for this list. Narrowing them down to a top 10 was a tedious process, and there were several trades that I was surprised missed the cut. I ranked trades based on the lasting impact of the acquired players compared to the quality of the players who were lost.
10. Tito Francona Arrives
- Date: March 21, 1959
- Trade Partner: Detroit Tigers
- Players Acquired: Tito Francona
- Players Traded: Larry Doby
Larry Doby is one of Cleveland's greatest players of all-time, but by the time the Indians traded him for the second time in 1959, he was far from the version of himself that had represented the franchise in seven straight All-Star games from 1949–55. Doby had been reacquired by the Indians for the 1958 season, but he was limited to just 89 games due to a shoulder injury he sustained on a barnstorming tour. As the 1959 season was set to begin, it was clear Doby was expendable, and the same could be said for a 25-year-old Tigers outfielder named Tito Francona.
Francona had been with three teams in three seasons, but felt he was a good enough player to have stability and play regularly. In the days leading up to the trade, Francona had said: "I have a wife and a family started. I think I deserve a chance at some decent money in baseball. If I can't get that chance here, I want to be traded" (AP, 1959). Shortly after, Detroit general manager Rick Ferrell made his first trade in control of the Tigers, dealing Francona to Cleveland for Doby. The deal, however, would age much better for the Indians.
Doby appeared in 18 games for the Tigers and hit just .218 before he was purchased by the White Sox for $30,000 on May 13. Francona, meanwhile, became a popular figure in Cleveland for the next six seasons. He finished fifth in MVP voting in 1959 after batting .363 with 20 home runs (both career-highs) and was selected as an All-Star in 1961. In total, he hit .284 in Cleveland, with 85 home runs and 153 doubles.
Though Francona died in 2018, the influence of this trade continues to be felt in Cleveland as his son, Terry, has managed the Indians to a winning record in every season since 2013. Had Tito Francona never come to Cleveland and established his star status, Terry Francona may never have signed with the Indians to play in 1988 and likely would have had far less incentive to come to the dugout in 2013.
9. Shoeless Joe Jackson Arrives
- Date: July 30, 1910
- Trade Partner: Philadelphia Athletics
- Players Acquired: Shoeless Joe Jackson and Morrie Rath
- Players Traded: Bris Lord
Over his first two go-arounds with the Philadelphia Athletics, Shoeless Joe Jackson wasn't a strong hitter. In five games in 1908 and five more in '09, Jackson hit a paltry .150, leading the A's to demote him to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League. Despite his hitting .358 for the Savannah Indians in 1909 and hitting well in New Orleans, Jackson was traded to the Cleveland Naps for Bris Lord, who had previously played outfield for Philadelphia from 1905–07.
At the time of the trade, some in New Orleans compared Jackson to stars like Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, claiming he was a far superior hitter to Lord, who had hit .256 in his time with Cleveland. Jackson was regarded as the Southern League's best outfielder and came to Cleveland following the conclusion of that minor league season. Jackson was hitting .383 when he was traded, and in 20 games with the Naps, he hit .387.
In six years with Cleveland, Jackson hit .375 (including a career-high .408 in 1910) and roped 89 triples. He finished in the top five of MVP voting three times. Lord spent two additional seasons with the Athletics and hit at a .310 clip in 1911, but he never came close to matching the stats that Jackson produced. Also acquired in the trade was Morrie Rath, who hit .194 in 24 games with Cleveland before getting selected by the White Sox in the Rule 5 Draft.
8. Early Wynn Arrives
- Date: Dec. 14, 1948
- Trade Partner: Washington Senators
- Players Acquired: Early Wynn and Mickey Vernon
- Players Traded: Joe Haynes, Ed Klieman and Eddie Robinson
When the Indians struck an offseason deal with the Senators after winning the 1948 World Series, the biggest piece of the trade wasn't even the focal point. Early Wynn had been a fairly inconsistent starter for Washington, gaining an All-Star selection in 1947 but leading the league in losses (17) in '44 and earned runs allowed (128) in '48. It was Mickey Vernon who garnered more attention in the trade, as the first baseman was supposed to shore up one of Cleveland's few weaknesses. "We have added speed that should help us," said Indians owner Bill Veeck. "Vernon is a fast man. Last year when Ken Keltner, Lou Boudreau and Eddie Robinson were on base, it took three long singles to score three runs" (AP, 1948).
Vernon played in 153 games for Cleveland in 1949, but only stole nine bases and scored 72 runs while hitting .290. In the middle of the 1950 season, Vernon was sent back to the Senators for pitcher Dick Weik, who appeared in just 11 games for the Indians. Luckily, Wynn would prove to make the initial trade a worthwhile investment for Cleveland, especially considering the three players traded away didn't perform especially well:
- Pitcher Joe Haynes was 10–21 with a 5.42 ERA in 112 games over four seasons.
- Pitcher Ed Klieman allowed six runs in two appearances for the Senators.
- First baseman Eddie Robinson hit .282 in 179 games before getting traded to the White Sox in early in the 1950 season.
Over his next nine seasons, Wynn would build the foundation of his Hall of Fame case while with the Indians. He was among the staff aces who helped put Cleveland into the 1954 World Series (leading the American League with 23 victories), and had a winning record in each of his each nine seasons with the Indians. Overall with Cleveland (including a handful of games in his final season of 1963), Wynn was 164–102 with a 3.24 ERA and 1,277 strikeouts, and he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
7. Corey Kluber Arrives
- Date: July 31, 2010
- Trade Partners: San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals
- Players Acquired: Corey Kluber (from Padres)
- Players Traded: Jake Westbrook (to Cardinals)
A three-way trade just before the 2010 trading deadline improved two teams contending for division titles while delivering a key rebuilding piece to the Indians. It was clear that the 2010 season in Cleveland was not going to be one to remember (the Indians ultimately finished at 69–93 and 25 games out of first place). Starter Jake Westbrook, however, was an attractive trade chip. The steady veteran drew the interest of the Cardinals, who then looped in the Padres to complete a trade that all sides liked.
Westbrook won four games with the Cardinals in the second half, but they finished five games out of first place. San Diego, which acquired outfielder Ryan Ludwick in the deal, ended up finishing two games out of first place. The Indians picked up pitcher Corey Kluber from the Padres, who was leading the Texas League in strikeouts at the time of the trade. And although he went to Double-A Akron, he eventually became a mainstay in Cleveland's rotation.
"(The Indians) were the first team to ask about him that season (2010)," then-Padres general manager Jed Hoyer recalled in 2016. ". . . (T)here was a lot of concern with the 'lightness' of his fastball. The consensus was he would be a quality reliever" (Muskat, 2016).
Kluber instead became a regular starter with a 92 MPH fastball by 2013, and he won the Cy Young Award in 2014 and '17. He's the only Indians pitcher ever to win the award twice, and was also an All-Star from 2016–18. Over nine seasons with Cleveland, Kluber went 98–58 with a 3.16 ERA and 1,461 strikeouts in 1,341 2/3 innings.
6. Omar Vizquel Arrives
- Date: Dec. 20, 1993
- Trade Partner: Seattle Mariners
- Players Acquired: Omar Vizquel
- Players Traded: Reggie Jefferson, Felix Fermin and cash
The Mariners weren't going to be able to pay Omar Viquel what he was worth after he won his first Gold Glove in 1993, and they found a willing trade partner in the Indians during the offseason. Cleveland would have been in decent shape without upgrading at the shortstop position, but Indians fans are sure glad they did. Acquiring Vizquel cost Cleveland shortstop Felix Fermin and first baseman/designated hitter Reggie Jefferson, but the trade was an easy one to make, according to executives.
"We certainly upgraded ourselves at shortstop," said John Hart, the Cleveland general manager who was the mastermind of several strong trades in the 1990s. "Vizquel is a Gold Glove shortstop. He's a magician. When you have a chance to get a guy like that, you do it" (Ocker, 1993).
Fermin actually had the better offensive season in 1994, playing in 101 games and hitting a career-high .317, but Vizquel won his second of nine straight Gold Gloves as arguably the best defensive player in the game at the time. Fermin tailed off badly in 1995, however, hitting just .195 over 73 games, and he was released in April 1996. Jefferson also had a nice season for the Mariners in '94, posting a .327 average and eight home runs in 63 games. But he signed with the Red Sox in '95, leaving Seattle with very little return for Vizquel, who was a mainstay in Cleveland until 2004 and helped the Indians make two World Series appearances.
5. Kenny Lofton Arrives
- Date: Dec. 10, 1991
- Trade Partner: Houston Astros
- Players Acquired: Kenny Lofton and Dave Rohde
- Players Traded: Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair
Even when the trade was made, it was believed the Indians were getting the better side of the 1991 deal that saw them acquire Kenny Lofton from the Astros. Lofton had been anointed as the future center fielder in Houston, especially after winning postseason MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League in 1991. But he was traded away in a surprising move soon after.
"I feel shocked," Lofton said. "But I think it will be a pretty good situation for me. I think I'm ready to play in the big leagues now. I got a little taste of it last year (20 games). If I go out and be myself, I'll be alright" (Somers, 1991).
To say he landed in a "good situation" would be an understatement. Lofton immediately became an impact player at the top of Cleveland's lineup. Known as one of the fastest players in the league, Lofton averaged 65 steals per season from 1992–96 and added in a .316 batting average, four Gold Gloves and three All-Star selections. He was traded to Atlanta in 1997 (more on that in a moment), but came back to Cleveland from 1998–2001 and again briefly at the end of 2007 in a midseason trade to end his career.
The Astros, meanwhile, got next to nothing to show for Lofton's departure. Willie Blair was 5–7 in 29 games before getting taken by the Rockies in the 1993 Expansion Draft, and catcher Eddie Taubensee hit a paltry .234 in 203 games over three seasons before getting traded to the Reds.
4. David Justice, Marquis Grissom Arrive
- Date: March 25, 1997
- Trade Partner: Atlanta Braves
- Players Acquired: David Justice and Marquis Grissom
- Players Traded: Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree
For Indians fans, one of the most painful moments of the 1990s was watching Albert Belle sign baseball's largest contract with the White Sox after the 1996 season. With another superstar expected to command a top-of-the-line free agent deal following the 1997 season, Cleveland general manager John Hart decided to trade a popular player instead of losing him to free agency.
"We went through it last year with Albert Belle, and Albert left us," Hart said. "We were not prepared to let that happen again" (Berger, 1997).
A trade Hart described as having "enormous magnitude" came to fruition during spring training in 1997, with the Indians sending Kenny Lofton to Braves for David Justice and Marquis Grissom.
"I can't really think too well right now," Lofton said. "Maybe I can say I'm disappointed because I've done everything they've asked me to do in Cleveland, and I thought I would be rewarded. I guess they rewarded me by trading me to Atlanta" (Berger, 1997).
Hart, however, worked some magic following the 1997 season and was able to reward Lofton with a new contract worth $7.5 million per season, leaving the Braves nothing but one All-Star season of Lofton and 86 relief appearances from Alan Embree in exchange for Justice and Grissom. Justice remained in Cleveland until 2000, while Grissom was sent to Milwaukee after Lofton came back. In 2000, the Indians traded Justice to the Yankees, acquiring Jake Westbrook as part of that deal. Westbrook was later involved in the trade that brought two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to the Indians.
3. Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips Arrive
- Date: June 27, 2002
- Trade Partner: Montreal Expos
- Players Acquired: Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens
- Players Traded: Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew
In terms of how many quality players the Indians received in return, the haul Cleveland picked up in exchange for young ace Bartolo Colon in 2002 is their greatest ever. And while those players helped make up the core of a successful stretch of baseball, they were never able to put it all together and win the American League. Colon, who was a key member of Cleveland's 1997 World Series team, had become one of baseball's premier young pitchers in the early 2000s, and with that, would command a large contract in free agency after the 2003 season. The Indians opted to leverage his skills against the future, trading him to the Expos for three prospects to signal a total rebuild.
"We are clearly moving to a total rebuilding process aimed at 2004 and 2005," said Mark Shapiro, Cleveland's general manager. "We had to consider players who could bring back multiple pieces, so we can contend in that time frame" (Ocker, 2002).
Each prospect Cleveland received in return was highly touted, though the younger players in the deal would have the most impact in the 90+ win seasons of 2005 and '07.
- Infielder Brandon Phillips had just been promoted to Triple-A before the trade, and Shapiro believed he had the athleticism to play second base, third base or shortstop. Phillips hit just .206 with the Indians, however, and was traded to the Reds, where he eventually became an All-Star and Gold Glove winner.
- Pitcher Cliff Lee was leading the Eastern League with 105 strikeouts and was a Double-A All-Star when the trade was made. Six Cleveland scouts watched him, and he was projected as a No. 3 starter. He instead became the ace of the staff and won the 2008 Cy Young Award. Lee was 83–48 in eight years with the Indians before signing a $120 million contract with the Phillies.
- Outfielder Grady Sizemore was Montreal's No. 3 prospect, despite only being in Class A. "This is a multi-tool guy who is doing a heck of a job competing in the Florida State League," Shapiro said. "We think he's a hitter of the Trot Nixon or Brad Wilkerson type" (Ocker, 2002). Once again, the Indians sold him short. Sizemore became arguably the best all-around player in baseball from 2006–08, as a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner.
Colon went 10–4 down the stretch in 2002, but the Expos finished 19 games out of first place as runners-up in the East Division. He was traded to the White Sox after the season, and eventually developed a cult following by pitching through 2018 when he was 46 years old.
2. Tris Speaker Arrives
- Date: April 9, 1916
- Trade Partner: Boston Red Sox
- Players Acquired: Tris Speaker
- Players Traded: Sad Sam Jones, Fred Thomas and $55,000 cash
In 1914, the Cleveland Indians lost 102 games in one of their worst seasons ever. They improved slightly in '15, but still finished 44 1/2 games out of first place in the American League. Going into the 1916 season, Cleveland then made a trade that began to turn the team into one of the best in the league. Tris Speaker was the American League MVP in 1912 and held a .337 batting average, but the defending champion Red Sox were willing to send the future Hall of Famer to the Indians for a pair of young players and cash considerations.
"To my mind, Speaker is just the man needed to make Cleveland a real ball team," said Connie Mack, a rival manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. "I do not mean to say that Cleveland will finish one, two, (or) three, but the addition of Speaker will make Cleveland's team one to be seriously considered" (Mack, 1916).
The Indians finished at 77–77 in 1916, but posted above-.500 records for the next seven seasons and won a championship in 1920 (the Red Sox won a second straight World Series and another in 1918). The price for Speaker was pitcher Sad Sam Jones, who went a modest 64–59 in six seasons for the Red Sox, and infielder Fred Thomas, who appeared in 44 games for Boston before getting sold to the Athletics in 1919.
Meanwhile, Speaker became one of the greatest Indians players ever. Over 11 seasons, Speaker hit .354 with 486 doubles among his 1,965 hits. He's MLB's all-time career leader with 792 doubles and became the fifth member of the 3,000-hit club in 1925. Speaker was inducted to the Hall of Fame as part of the second class in 1937.
1. Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga Arrive
- Date: Dec. 6, 1989
- Trade Partner: San Diego Padres
- Players Acquired: Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Chris James
- Players Traded: Joe Carter
Joe Carter was one of several big bats in the middle of Cleveland's lineup in the late 1980s, but that offensive punch was not enough to turn the Indians into a winner. San Diego, meanwhile, was among the National League's top contenders but finished 1989 in the bottom half of the rankings when it came to scoring runs. That made the teams logical trade partners, and they put together a big deal after the 1989 season that saw the Indians reap rewards for years to come.
Trading away Carter wasn't the most popular decision at the time, considering he had blasted 151 home runs and stole 126 bases in six seasons as one of the American League's top up-and-coming stars. But catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and second baseman Carlos Baerga were the first two building blocks in the foundation of arguably the greatest run of success in franchise history, which makes this the greatest trade the Indians ever made. Baerga had yet to appear in the Majors and Alomar had just eight games of Big League experience, but both became impactful rookies in 1990 (with Alomar taking Rookie of the Year honors) and for many seasons to come.
"I'll say this about Cleveland; they certainly scouted us well. They got two of the best prospects in our organization," said Jack McKeon, San Diego's manager and vice president for baseball operations. "Our scouts were against giving up Carlos Baerga. When you get Joe Carter, though, you are going to have to give up something" (AP, 1989).
Alomar, who was blocked by Benito Santiago in San Diego, garnered a lot of interest from other teams after the Indians acquired him, but they ended up getting 11 seasons and six All-Star game appearances out of him. Baerga, meanwhile, teamed up with shortstop Omar Vizquel to form one of the best defensive middle infields in baseball history, and made three All-Star teams himself throughout his 6 1/2 years with the Indians. Chris James was also acquired in the trade, and was a solid contributor for Cleveland in 1990 and '91.
The deal didn't pan out as well for the Padres, who finished 75–87 in 1990 despite 162 games and 27 home runs from Carter. After the season, Carter was involved in an even bigger trade, which also was a losing deal for San Diego. The Padres sent Carter and Roberto Alomar to the Blue Jays in exchange for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. By 1993, the Padres were losers of 101 games, while the Blue Jays were back-to-back World Series champions.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Indians have made a significant amount of strong trades. What follows are a handful of additional trades that didn't quite crack the top 10 but had a lasting impact on Cleveland.
Carlos Santana Arrives
Casey Blake was a popular player and solid contributor during his six years in Cleveland, but on July 26, 2008, he was dealt to the Dodgers for a prospect named Carlos Santana. The trade produced a good outcome for each side but still swings most favorably toward Cleveland. The 34-year-old Blake helped Los Angeles make a pair of appearances in the NLCS, but Santana has provided the Indians 10 seasons of solid power (216 home runs) and a World Series appearance in 2016.
Gaylord Perry Arrives
Sam McDowell was a six-time All-Star and five-time American League strikeout champion, but the Indians seemed to know he was entering the tail end of his career when they traded him to the Giants for future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry on Nov. 29, 1971. After posting 122 victories for the Indians, McDowell was just 19–25 over the final four years of his career, while Perry made two All-Star teams and went 70–57 over the same span. Cleveland also acquired Frank Duffy, who spent six seasons as the starting shortstop.
Trevor Bauer Arrives
The Indians were involved in a massive eight-player, three-team trade on Dec. 11, 2012, and netted a solid return. Players acquired by the Indians included Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, Trevor Bauer (from Arizona) and Drew Stubbs (from Cincinnati), while the only significant loss was All-Star outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (sent to Cincinnati). Albers and Stubbs each spent one season with the Indians, while Shaw was a top reliever for four years and Bauer was one of several ace pitchers for 5 1/2 seasons. Choo remained a starting player after the trade, but the contributions of Bauer and Shaw directly helped the Indians reach the 2016 World Series.
Associated Press. "Carter, Padres Come to Terms." (Fremont) News-Messenger. Dec. 7, 1989. Page B1-B3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Associated Press. "Tigers Get Doby For Francona." The Lima Citizen. March 22, 1959. Page E1-E3. Retrieved via Newspapers.com on Nov. 11, 2020.
Associated Press. "Tribe Acquires Vernon, Wynn In Swap For Three Players." The (Dayton) Journal-Herald. Dec. 15, 1948. Page 18. Retrieved via Newspapers.com on Nov. 11, 2020.
Berger, Ken. "Justice, Grissom to Indians." Cincinnati Enquirer. March 26, 1997. Page D1-D8. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
"Joe Jackson for the Naps." Washington Post. July 31, 1910. Page 1 (Sports). Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Mack, Connie. "Think Boston Can Stand It." Boston Globe. April 10, 1916. Page 6. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Muskat, Carrie. "Kluber Trade Taught Jed Hoyer Valuable Lessons." MLB.com. Feb. 1, 2016.
Ocker, Sheldon. "Indians Acquire Vizquel." Akron Beacon-Journal. Dec. 21, 1993. Page D1-D4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Ocker, Sheldon. "Tribe Deals Colon to Expos." Akron Beacon-Journal. June 28, 2002. Page C1-C5. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Somers, Ron. "Astros Trade Kenny Lofton to Cleveland." Arizona Daily Star. Dec. 11, 1991. Page 1D-2D. Retrieved via Newspapers.com on Nov. 12, 2020.
Statistics in this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.
© 2020 Andrew Harner