Hart revisits '98 trade talk for Big Unit

Longtime exec envisions Groundhog Day redo from Cleveland tenure

Hart revisits '98 trade talk for Big Unit

ATLANTA -- Braves president of baseball operations John Hart stands as one of the few men in this world who can say he has experienced extended success as a professional sports executive in Cleveland.

While leading the Indians to six division crowns and two American League pennants within a seven-season span from 1995-2001, Hart orchestrated a number of valuable trades, including the one that brought Marquis Grissom and David Justice to Cleveland and sent Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree to Atlanta just before the start of the 1997 season.

Half of the eight position players the Indians placed in their starting lineup for Game 7 of the 1997 World Series were acquired via trades Hart orchestrated as the club's general manager. But like any GM, the highly regarded veteran executive wishes he too might have had at least one Groundhog Day mulligan at the Trade Deadline.

Actually, Hart would simply like the chance to see what might have happened had he used Brian Giles to get a least a couple of months of Randy Johnson back in 1998. Instead, Hart is forced to remember that he ended up trading Giles just a few months later for a much shorter and far less accomplished left-hander named Ricardo Rincon.

"There are so many [trades] that I'm happy with and proud of, but like with anything, there are deals where you look up and say, 'Gosh, I wish I hadn't done this,' or 'I wish I would have been a little more aggressive,'" Hart said.

Nearly 20 years later, Hart still regrets that he was not able to land Johnson from the Mariners. As the final hours leading up to the Trade Deadline passed, Seattle was requesting that Giles be included in any deal for the future Hall of Famer, who was in the final year of his contract.

Giles was 26 years old when he found a lasting spot at the Major League level. Still, as he hit 17 homers in 1997 and then added 13 more through his first 68 games in '98, he provided Hart a reason to deal him for what could prove to be nothing more than two months and a playoff run with Johnson.

The Indians already had a comfortable lead in the AL Central. But to compete with the Yankees, who were cruising toward a 114-win season, there was certainly reason to be tempted to pay a steep price to put Johnson in a playoff rotation.

Hart opted not to make the deal. Consequently, Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA over the 11 starts he made after the Astros acquired him from the Mariners for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama.

In exchange for three top prospects, Houston gained the regular-season dominance it expected from Johnson. But the Big Unit lost both of his playoff starts as the Padres needed just four games to eliminate the Astros from the Division Series.

The Indians rolled through their Division Series against the Red Sox. But the starting rotation was exposed, as Cleveland lasted just six games against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Bartolo Colon tossed a complete game to give the Tribe a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But Cleveland's starting pitchers lasted less than five innings in four games.

"[The Mariners] wanted Giles included in the deal," Hart said. "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."

Hart held on to Giles for about another month after the conclusion of the ALCS. After opting not to include the outfielder in the trade for Johnson, he traded him straight up for Rincon, who had fared well pitching out of Pittsburgh's bullpen the previous two seasons.

While Giles hit at least 35 homers during each of his first four seasons with the Pirates, Rincon posted a 3.73 ERA over the four seasons he spent in Cleveland's bullpen.

"We made a lot of good trades," Hart said. "But if you make enough deals and you're completely honest with yourself, then you have to realize some of them just don't work out."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.