Indians Lookback: Dealing From Depth Goes Wrong When Cleveland Deals For Lefty Reliever

T.J. Zuppe

When the Indians traded for Andrew Miller in 2016, they were hopeful that the slider-slinging southpaw would prove to be the difference between a quick exit and a deep October run. 

Their hope was rewarded in ways beyond anticipation, as Miller served as the Boogeyman looming under the beds of opposing hitters, stealing the souls of empty swings until his tank ran dry in Game 7 of the World Series.

That outcome helped the organization stomach losing some highly-regarded prospects, including outfielder Clint Frazier and lefty Justus Sheffield.

While none in the return package have yet to to become big-league mainstays, the four-player bundle sent to the Yankees was painful but necessary to acquire one of the best relievers on the planet.

The trade also became proof that it's possible to execute an all-in move and not later bemoan it like a "NO REGRETS" neck tattoo.

But not all swaps for southpaws are equal.

On Nov. 18, 1998, then Indians general manager John Hart, in an attempt to fill the lefty role in the Tribe bullpen, orchestrated a trade with the Pirates, acquiring 28-year-old left-handed reliever Ricardo Rincon.

To strike a deal, Hart dealt from the club's seemingly endless offensive depth, trading 27-year-old outfielder Brian Giles to Pittsburgh.

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While Rincon was mostly fine in his role -- he spent just over 3 1/2 years in Cleveland before getting dealt to the A's during the 2002 campaign -- it's easy to reflect and see flaws, as it's one of several trades that possibly kept the Indians from extending their contention window and became one of the worst swaps in somewhat recent franchise history.

Giles joined talented but blocked hitters like Jeromy Burnitz, Richie Sexson and Sean Casey in eventual trades to help remedy other parts of the roster in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Of course, those young bats were excess for the offensively-charged Indians, who were still led by David Justice, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez in their outfield at the time of the Rincon trade.

Giles, a bit of a late bloomer, had grown into slightly more than a platoon role, averaging 440 plate appearances per season between 1997-1998.

The left-handed hitter was far from a star-level talent, but solid perfectly described the former 17th-round selection by Cleveland in the 1995 draft, posting a .382 on-base percentage and 118 wRC+ over his final two years with the Tribe.

He had also survived trade rumors for a handful of seasons, linked to the likes of Randy Johnson during the 1998 campaign.

The Indians were also in need of a lefty bullpen arm to join veteran Paul Assenmacher. Hart, who was just weeks away from landing free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar, felt adding another set-up arm to complement right-hander Mike Jackson was a major need.

"Traditionally, we have looked to build a very strong bullpen every year," Hart told reporters following the trade. "We felt one of the pieces we were missing was a lights-out left-hander."

Rincon was coming off of a solid season with the Pirates in 1998, having served as the club's closer for a portion of the year. His 2.91 ERA over 65 relief innings was 51 percent better than the league average, per Baseball-Reference, in '98.

With Pittsburgh seeking offensive punch and Cleveland owning more than they could play, the two teams swiped right on a potential connection.

"This is a sign of us doing what has worked for us for the last four or five years," Hart said at the time. "Championship clubs need to have a strong bullpen."

Rincon would go on to make 207 appearances with the Indians, posting a 4.43 ERA in his first year with Cleveland.

He featured an earned run average 3.73 and FIP of 3.82 in 154 1/3 career innings with the Tribe. He'd also allow five runs in four postseason appearances, amassing a total of 3.0 wins above replacement as a member of the Indians.

Giles, on the other hand, would put up a 26.1 bWAR with the Pirates before eventually getting traded to the Padres in 2003.

No calculator needed to compute that difference.

The left-handed hitter would average 37 homers, 10 steals and post a 1.030 OPS, 60 percent better than league average, from 1999-2002 with the Pirates.

Later, his trade to San Diego netted Pittsburgh six years of a very good Jason Bay, not to mention four years of current Indian Oliver Perez, who eventually became three more years of Xavier Nady.

Giles would become a two-time All-Star, receiving at least one MVP vote in every year with Pittsburgh, finishing as high as 13th in that four-year span.

His career would continue through 2009, slashing .292/.401/.505 in 11 seasons following the trade, earning a ninth-place MVP finish in 2005.

Rincon would have needed to be one of the best relievers in baseball to make that appear somewhat equal. He was not.

Of course, any time a club trades a position player for a reliever, the total value of what's lost will be tough to match, but the organization dealing for the reliever is hoping that the type of high leverage situations the hurler occupies makes the swap worthwhile. 

Perhaps that could have been more true had Rincon been used more as a full inning setup man. Instead, Rincon was typically employed in left-on-left situations, further limiting his overall worth.

To make matters worse, the Indians would enter rebuild territory in 2002, seeking to trade any veterans with value. 

The A's, as was infamously portrayed in the movie "Moneyball," craved a lefty at the deadline and targeted Rincon while the Indians were in town. Rincon would trade one clubhouse for another, and Cleveland emerged with minor-leaguer Marshall McDougall and a smaller payroll.

Cleveland thought so much of their version of Eminem, they left him unprotected in the next year's Rule 5 Draft. The Rangers snatched him up.

The frustration doesn't just end with Giles blossoming into an offensive star and the Indians failing to at least grab a younger, long-shot prospect for Rincon years later -- a prospect who wouldn't need immediately protected. It grows when revisiting the franchise's needs in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Sure, it's fair to say that Giles may never have gotten the opportunity he gained in Pittsburgh.

But the regret isn't necessarily that he grew into an elite offensive talent elsewhere, it's that the Indians didn't ultimately use him to address their massive starting pitching needs. 

It's even more confounding to revisit trades for Johnson or Pedro Martinez that didn't materialize, particularly when seeing how the Giles trade piece would be employed soon after.

Perhaps the Indians capture that elusive title had they acquired an ace, even for one playoff run. Maybe their window doesn't close as rapidly in 2002 had they transitioned to young bats like Giles and Sexson instead of dealing them.

"[The Mariners] wanted Giles included in the deal," Hart told MLB.com. "At the time, I didn't want to put Giles in there. We ended up not making the deal, and we ended up coming a little bit short. Even though Houston didn't win even with Johnson, I thought our team really could have used him, and I probably held on to a prospect longer than I should have."

As one reflects on some frantic moves, the trade of Casey for Dave Burba in 1998 or Sexson for Jason Bere, Steve Woodard and Bob Wickman in 2000 can, to an extent, be somewhat defensible. The Giles move, however, was, at best, a head-scratcher at the time. 

It only got progressively more ugly in future years.

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T.J. Zuppe
T.J. Zuppe

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