Great trade swindle: 10-year anniversary

The 10-year anniversary of one of baseball’s all-time swindles is June 27. And if you want to know just how much of a haul the Cleveland Indians received from the Montreal Expos for right-hander Bartolo Colon, follow the money.

Three of the four players that the Indians acquired — left-hander Cliff Lee, second baseman Brandon Phillips and center fielder Grady Sizemore — will have earned a combined $271.2 million by the time their current contracts expire, according to

To think, then-Indians general manager Mark Shapiro initially was criticized for the deal, which news reports at the time portrayed as Colon and pitcher Tim Drew for Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers.

“I remember driving out of the ballpark seeing a fan with a sign that said, ‘Shapiro Bobblehead Night,’” recalls Shapiro, who is now the Indians’ club president.

“It was the first time in seven or eight years … the first move with our players, coaching staff, front office and fan base that didn’t signal, ‘We’re trying to contend.’ Being the guy that executed it, that move did not make me very popular.”

Well, those three minor leaguers turned out OK.

Phillips, 30, agreed Tuesday to a six-year, $72.5 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds.

Lee, 34, is in the second year of a five-year, $120 million free-agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Sizemore, 29, remains with the Indians on a one-year, $5 million free-agent contract after completing a six-year, $23.45 million deal.

Including all prior earnings, a cool $271.2 million.

“Do I get a cut?” Shapiro asks, joking.

The trade is the gold standard of prospect deals, often imitated, never duplicated. The Rangers’ five-player haul for first baseman Mark Teixeira, which included shortstop Elvis Andrus, right-hander Neftali Feliz and lefty Matt Harrison, is the only trade since that even compares.

But the circumstances of the Colon trade were unique.

Omar Minaya, then the Expos’ GM, was trying to orchestrate what he thought might be the team’s last hurrah — the Expos, surprise contenders in ’02, were facing the possibility that their owner, Major League Baseball, would eliminate them through contraction.

Minaya had been named GM just a few days before spring training started. The Expos didn’t even have scouting reports on their own minor leaguers; their previous owner, Jeffrey Loria, had taken them to his new team, the Florida Marlins.

“There wasn’t much focus on minor-league players,” says Minaya, who is now the Padres’ senior vice president of baseball operations.

“The No. 1 priority was not long-term. Long-term, we were going to be contracted. And if you were going to be contracted, the No. 1 priority was to be as competitive as you can.

“Every team in baseball was pretty much looking at drafting those players (in a dispersal draft). Before I left the Mets (in early 2002), every team had an exercise, (trying to figure out) what players they were going to get.”

Actually, contraction was not certain to occur; a court order required the Twins, the other team facing elimination, to play in the Metrodome in ‘02, and dropping only the Expos would have left baseball with an odd number of clubs.

A little more than two months after the Colon trade, baseball agreed not to contract any teams through ’06 as part of a new labor deal that it forged with the players’ union.

By then, the Expos’ best young talent was in Cleveland.

The Indians had been in third place in the AL Central when the trade was made, seven games back. They still had veterans such as Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome and Chuck Finley, as well as a young CC Sabathia. But the team’s farm system nearly was barren, and Shapiro wanted to avoid a crash.

“When we did that deal, Brandon clearly was the marquee player,” Shapiro recalls. “Cliff Lee, we felt, would be a very good major-league pitcher, but we had no idea he’d win a Cy Young. Grady was the upside guy. He was very athletic, the kind of guy we weren’t taking in the draft at that point. And he had off-the-charts makeup.”

Sizemore became a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, and if not for injuries, he would be even more decorated. Shapiro once described him to Sports Illustrated as, “without doubt, one of the greatest players of our generation.”

Lee became a three-time All-Star and won the 2008 Cy Young Award as a member of the Indians. Phillips became a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner. Both he and Sizemore also won one Silver Slugger award.

Yet, as bountiful as the Indians’ package was, none of the three players’ careers followed a steady, upward arc.

Lee won 46 games from 2004 to ’06, returned to the minors in ’07, then got traded three times in 12 months after winning the Cy Young, starting with a financially motivated deal that sent him from the Indians to the Phillies.

Sizemore, currently recovering from back surgery, has had five operations and gone on the disabled list seven times since late May 2009.

Phillips became a star only after leaving Cleveland.

The Reds acquired him on April 7, 2006, for pitcher Jeff Stevens, whom the Indians included in a package for infielder Mark DeRosa 2½ years later.

At the time, Phillips was out of options. The Indians were trying to contend. And then-manager Eric Wedge preferred infielder Ramon Vazquez to Phillips as the last man on his roster.

The Indians never put Phillips on waivers, but Shapiro says they gauged the interest of every other club. All but the Reds passed, and even the Reds were reluctant to tinker with their roster at the start of the season. But their GM at the time, Wayne Krivsky, decided that Phillips was worth a look.

Worked out pretty well, no?

Phillips, Lee, Sizemore.

A combined $271.2 million worth of talent, and still counting.