When the Brewers Made a Play for Kenny Lofton
In 1997, the Brewers had the off-season’s biggest prize in their sights
In late November, 1997, a lunch of mildly-historic proportions took place at the storied Miss Katie’s Diner in Milwaukee. In a dining room where Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl had chatted over sandwiches and coffee just the year before, the principals of this meal were of less international importance, but were nonetheless attempting to do something far more rare than a mere meeting of world leaders. The diners were Sal Bando, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Kenny Lofton, baseball superstar and the top free agent on the market. Lofton was considering bringing his star to Milwaukee. And Bando and his Brewers were considering spending some serious cash.
When word leaked of the meeting, there was considerable shock within Milwaukee and the baseball world. Lofton was a four-time all star, a speedy sparkplug who topped a pennant-winning lineup in Cleveland in 1995 and a near-pennant winner in Atlanta in 1997. Early on in the 1997 season, he had turned down a $40 million, 5-year contract extension from the Indians, prompting a mid-season trade to the Braves. The cash Lofton had declined was nearly four times the biggest contract the Brewers had ever given out with an annual salary twice anything the club had ever spent on a single player. Bando downplayed the meeting, saying it was just a friendly chat, but it started the kind of off-season buzz around the Brewers that hadn’t been seen in years.
Lofton was the top free agent available after the 1997 season.
Finances aside, Lofton was an obvious target for the Brewers. They had been kind-of/sort-of contenders in 1997, hanging within a few games of first-place Cleveland until the final month of the season. Their primary center fielder that year was Gerald Williams, who sported a hot-garbage .253/.282/.369 slash line. The Brewers were also about to shift from the AL Central to the NL Central, baseball’s most moribund division, which had been won with a record of 84-78 in ’97. Lofton would give the team a much-needed leadoff hitter and the franchise’s first legitimate superstar since Robin Yount retired in 1994. He also might be able to spark a surprise pennant contender.
Of course, there were the financial issues. The Brewers had been pleading poor for years, trading away players like Greg Vaughn and letting the iconic Paul Molitor leave while blaming the constraints of their small market. For the Brewers to outbid teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox, also rumored to be interested in Lofton, was almost laughable. But the with the shift to the NL, the Brewers expected an attendance bump – some within the organization thought they might draw as many as two million customers, which would be their second-highest total of all-time. The team would also being seeing a significant increase in revenue-sharing cash and, with a back-loaded contract, could rely on funds from the opening of Miller Park, scheduled for 2000. Word was that the Brewers might push their payroll as high as $40 for 1998 – nearly double that of 1997.
On December 4, the Brewers made a formal contract offer to Lofton, rumored to be worth $45 million over five years. Although the deal would have been back-loaded, its average annual salary would have placed Lofton among the game’s highest-paid players. The formal offer was a shock to many, including Brewers skipper Phil Garner, who had longed for a contact-speed-defense player like Lofton to top his lineup. “The payroll is going to be a lot higher than I thought they’d go,” Garner said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think they would or could go that high.”
Unfortunately, Lofton-mania in Milwaukee was not long for this earth. Just days after the Brewers’ offer, ESPN reported that Lofton had agreed to a deal with Cleveland. Although he and his agent denied the rumor, Cleveland newspapers were reporting that the Indians had suddenly begun to shop Marquis Grissom, the centerfielder whom the team had acquired from the Braves for Lofton. Grissom going out could only mean Lofton was about to head back to Cleveland. Seeing that their hopes for the grand prize were dead, Bando immediately jumped in on Grissom. On December 8, Lofton signed with Cleveland for $24 million over three years and the Brewers sent Ben McDonald, Ron Villone, and Mike Fetters to the Indians for Grissom and pitcher Jeff Juden.
The failure to sign Lofton was a bit of blow to the Brewers’ pride. He took less money and fewer years to return to Cleveland, but it was a city that Lofton felt at home (he returned there a third time in 2007 at the end of his career) and he saw a chance to win in Cleveland that he did not in Milwaukee (he returned to the playoffs with the Indians in ’98, ’99, and 2001). With the Grissom trade, the team actually shed payroll and got an established centerfielder signed to a long-term deal. But they clearly ended up with the lesser player. Over Grissom’s three season in Milwaukee, he was essentially a replacement-level player, while Lofton racked up nearly 15 wins above replacement, per baseball-referance.com. Aside from a cursory offer to CC Sabathia after the 2008 season, the Brewers have not attempted to land such a top-flight free agent since.
And as a follow-up to my posts earlier in the year about the best and worst Brewers free agent signings ever, Lofton would have been far and away the greatest signing the Brewers had ever made. He ran up a 20.5 WAR over the five years they could have had him, double that of any other Brewers free agent. In fact, if you combined EVERY free agent the team signed between 1998 and 2008 – 19 players who earned nearly $150,000,000 – their combined WAR is 21, only a half-win better than Lofton over half that period and at less than one-third of the money.