The Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians made a blockbuster trade Tuesday that likely will have a major effect on the pennant races this season and for years to come.
The Braves traded All-Star outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice for outfielder Kenny Lofton and relief pitcher Alan Embree.
The trade allows the Braves to create playing time in rightfield for promising prospects Andruw Jones and/or Jermaine Dye.
It also allows them to reduce their 1997 payroll, projected to be a major-league-high $62-million, by about $8-million (of salary and luxury tax payments). And, perhaps most important, the trade frees up a significant amount of money as they seek to re-sign pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who will be free agents after the season.
The deal, Braves general manager John Schuerholz said in West Palm Beach, enables the team to "be more aggressive with signing players this year and next winter."
The Indians, stung by the departure of Albert Belle during the off-season, were faced with the prospect of seeing Lofton (who will make $4.75-million in the final year of his contract) leave as well.
"It's a painful trade for the fans and all of us in the organization, but the way baseball is played in the '90s, it became extremely apparent that this deal had to be made," Indians GM John Hart said.
"We went through this last year with Albert Belle. He left and we got nothing in return. We were not prepared, as an organization, to let that happen again. Kenny made it clear he wanted to go out on the market."
On the field, the trade would seem to favor the Indians, at least for this season. They replace leadoff man Lofton with Grissom and add the power of Justice, who appears fully recovered from the shoulder injury that limited him to 40 games in 1996.
He and Grissom join a lineup that includes sluggers Matt Williams, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez.
The Braves do gain one of the game's top leadoff men in Lofton, who has won four straight Gold Gloves and five consecutive AL stolen base titles. He hit .317 with 14 homers, 67 RBI and 75 stolen bases last season.
"We think with Lofton we get an established centerfielder and leadoff batter, one of the best in baseball," Schuerholz said. "We think our 1997 team will be as strong if not stronger."
The Indians felt equally good about their acquisitions, even if it does mean their payroll will increase to nearly $58-million. Justice is under contract for $6-million this season and $6.5-million in 1998. Grissom is entering the second season of a four-year contract that pays him $4.8-million a year.
"As good as Kenny is _ and he's the best leadoff hitter today _ and as much as he's done for this organization, I feel that Grissom and Justice make us a better club," manager Mike Hargrove said.
The Braves had been rumored all winter to be looking to trade one of the high-priced players, either Justice, Grissom or first baseman Fred McGriff. But in recent weeks Schuerholz had indicated they would consider keeping the team intact, so Tuesday's deal sent a shock throughout baseball.
"It's been a difficult morning," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Dave Justice has been here almost as long as I have. Marquis Grissom has been a great spokesman for the team. He lives in Atlanta, has a family there. I hate to lose guys like that."
"I'm in shock," said Justice, 30. "If I was supposed to shed any tears, it was when I said goodbye to the guys."
Added Grissom, 29: "This is a business. We had a great ballclub. Now I'll go play my butt off (for Cleveland). I'll just have to get used to Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens."
Lofton, 29, denied telling the Indians he was not interested in a contract extension and was committed to filing for free agency. (He is rumored to be considering signing with the Diamondbacks.)
"I can't really think too well right now," Lofton said. "Maybe I can say I'm disappointed. 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."
Embree, 27, fills the Braves' need for a left-handed reliever and allows Terrell Wade to remain the fifth starter.
"This is a trade of enormous magnitude for two very, very good franchises," Hart said. "We're talking about franchise-type players. We talked about this at some length, and we realized that if we were going to get it done, it had to happen soon."
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.