Looking back on the Justice-Grissom to Cleveland trade 23 years ago

Bill Shanks

Twenty-three years ago, Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz had to make a decision. Should he try and sign all of his three ace pitchers, three guys on pace for Baseball’s Hall of Fame, or should he sacrifice one to help keep the offensive players intact?

He could have traded Tom Glavine, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux as they entered the last season of their contracts and simply re-signed two. Then, he might have been able to keep either David Justice or Marquis Grissom, two of his position players who were also coming up on new deals.

Schuerholz decided the rotation had to be saved, and it’s hard to argue with keeping three pitchers who did make it to Cooperstown. But that is why he had to trade Justice and Grissom, 23 years ago Wednesday, to the Cleveland Indians for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree.

Ugh. It still hurts to think about, doesn’t it? Justice had been hurt for most of the 1996 season, but when he went to Cleveland, he went off offensively. Justice hit .329 with a .418 OBP, 33 home runs and 101 runs batted in. He finished fifth in the American League MVP voting.

Grissom, who was entering the last year of his contract in 1997, struggled a bit with Cleveland. He hit only .262 with 12 home runs, 66 RBI and 22 stolen bases. His numbers were down after he left his hometown team in Atlanta.

Lofton was a horrible fit in Atlanta. He hit .333 with a .409 OBP, but a year after stealing 75 bases for the Indians, Lofton stole just 27 for the Braves in 1997. He went right back to Cleveland the next season, spending an unhappy season in a Braves uniform.

Embree spent a season-and-a-half in Atlanta before being traded to Arizona for Russ Springer in June 1998.

Glavine signed a contract extension in May of 1997, while Maddux signed a five-year extension with the Braves three months later. Smoltz had already signed his extension in November 1996.

And the three aces would not have stayed together if Schuerholz had not traded Justice and Grissom 23 years ago Wednesday.

But would the Braves have perhaps done better from 1997 through 2002 if they had only kept Justice and let either Glavine or Maddux go? Andruw Jones was ready to replace Grissom in 1997, and if the Braves had kept Justice, they would not have had to trade Jermaine Dye for Michael Tucker the very next day.

The logic given for trading Dye was that with the trade of Justice the Braves needed another left-handed bat, so Tucker was more valuable in their mind than Dye. But what would the lineup have looked like if Justice had remained with Dye and Jones in the outfield with him for the next few seasons?

Schuerholz inferred the Braves could not afford Justice and Grissom if they kept Glavine and Maddux. However, two years after trading Justice, the Braves signed Brian Jordan to a five-year contract. Couldn’t that money have gone to Justice?

Well, after the trade March 25, 1997, that decision had already been made.

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