Wrong Place, Wrong Time for Giles
By Craig Gifford
If there was ever a case of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time it was outfielder Brian Giles with the Cleveland Indians in the 1990s.
Giles, drafted out of high school by the Tribe in the 17th round of the 1989 amateur draft, was a five-tool player with loads of potential. However, Cleveland had an outfield full of all-stars throughout the 90s and Giles odds always seemed long in making it with the club that drafted him.
By 1994, Giles was hitting his stride, at the age of 23, in Triple-A. He blossomed into a power hitter who could hit for a high batting average. Unfortunately, for him, Cleveland was not going to be able to add him to the big league roster any time soon. That season, the year Cleveland began its eight-season run of success, established all-stars Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton were already roaming the Jacobs Field outfield. Manny Ramirez, a minor leaguer to start that year as well, was about to join them.
Those three had a strangle-lock, and rightfully so, on the outfield for the next three seasons. No one was going to replace a pair of 40-homer threats in Belle and Ramirez or a 60-steal, .300 batting average guy like Lofton. It would have taken the second coming of Willie Mays for the Tribe to replace one of them with a rookie.
Meanwhile, Giles was putting up heady numbers in Triple-A Buffalo. He did get his breakthrough in the second half of the 1996 season. The Indians traded veteran Eddie Murray to the Baltimore Orioles for pitching depth in Kent Mercker, in July of that year. Giles was called up to be an extra bat and fill in at Murray’s designated hitter spot. He responded with five home runs, 27 RBI and a .355 batting average in 51 games. It was proof Giles belonged in the majors.
Some thought Giles would get his shot as an everyday outfielder in 1997. Belle was a free agent after the 1996 season. Even then, Cleveland was not known for anteing up the money to keep their superstars. However, in a surprising move on March 25, 1997, the Indians shipped Lofton off to Atlanta for power-hitting David Justice and speedy center fielder Marquis Grissom. Justice, who missed most of 1996 due to injury, was brought in to replace Belle’s power in the middle of the batting order. Grissom, a downgrade from Lofton, could still provide close to Lofton’s skills at the top of the lineup. With Ramirez still in tow, Giles was again the odd man out in the outfield.
Despite a crowded outfield, again full of all-star players, Giles was kept on the major league squad. He played all over the outfield and allowed Justice to be the designated hitter in a lot of games to ease his way back to every day baseball. Giles responded well in his first full season, collecting 17 homers and 61 RBI in 130 games. He helped Cleveland get to the World Series that year.
In 1998, Giles again was a utility outfielder and had 16 long balls with 66 RBI in 112 games. Both full seasons, he hit in the .260s. After the 1998 campaign, Giles, despite having success in the majors, was deemed expendable. The Tribe brought back Kenny Lofton and added power-hitting Wil Cordero as an outfielder/DH. Eying a need in the bullpen, Cleveland dealt Giles to the Pittsburgh Pirates for left-hander Ricardo Rincon.
Rincon was a steady arm in the pen for several years. Giles, a forgotten man in Cleveland due to the stars around him, blossomed into the face of the Pirates franchise, immediately. A superstar player was just what the Pirates needed as they were set to enter a new stadium, PNC Park, in 2001.
Giles paid dividends right away as he hammered 39 taters, to go with 115 RBI and a nice .315 average in his first season with the Pirates. In four full seasons for the Bucs, Giles never hit less than 35 homers or drove in less than 95 runs. He was a .298 or better hitter throughout his Pittsburgh tenure.
However, much like the Indians, the Pirates have never been able to keep their high-priced stars when the team struggles. Pittsburgh sent Giles to San Diego in August of 2003. It might have been perfect timing, as Giles, twice an all-star in Pittsburgh, never put up the same power numbers in spacious Petco Park. He finished out his career with seven seasons for the Padres, never hitting more than 23 homers. He remained a constant .280 hitter, but never an all-star in San Diego.
The questions regarding Giles and his time with the Tribe were always loaded with what if’s. As in what if Giles had gotten then chance to play every day for Cleveland when he was 22 and not 26? Might he have blossomed into a star on the shores of Lake Erie? The way Giles performed in Pittsburgh, some think he might have put up near Hall of Fame numbers if given a longer opportunity. As it was, he hit 287 homers and .291 average despite the late start and finishing his career in a very pitcher-friendly stadium.
Questions also were raised about whether the Indians received enough in the trade with the Pirates. The Tribe might have tried keeping Giles with the thought of losing another player to free agency or injuries.
As it was, the Indians enjoyed only three more seasons of success after trading Giles. It was before the 2002 season that Cleveland slashed payroll and began its rebuild that has seen more seasons of futility than success to this point. Giles could have been the face of an Indians team that sorely needed one in the early and mid-2000s when the stars of the 90s were being traded or signing elsewhere.
It is funny to think that now Giles would have no problem breaking in with Cleveland. A hitter like Giles would look awfully good in the middle of today’s Cleveland batting order. Alas, he came around at the wrong time to be a star with the Indians and his time as true superstar was much shorter than it might have been.