In this edition of the Players You Forgot Were Astros series, we look at the career of Kenny Lofton.
Once upon a time, the Astros used a 17th-round draft pick to take a chance on a speedy outfielder named Kenny Lofton. He reached the major leagues in 1991 at age 24, playing in 20 games but hitting only .203/.253/.216. He’d hit .308 in Triple-A that year, but his first taste of the show did not go particularly well.
So what did the Astros do? They traded him of course! Following the season, they sent Lofton along with infielder Dave Rohde to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for right-handed pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Ed Taubensee. They were switching young catcher Craig Biggio to second base full time, so Taubensee filled a need.
The young Taubensee only provided below average offense and below average throwing from behind the dish. He played two full seasons in Houston and was traded to Cincinnati in April 1994 in exchange for two left-handed pitchers. One of those pitchers never reached the majors, while the other put up a 6.61 ERA with the Astros in parts of two seasons.
Taubensee would quickly blossom into an above-average hitter for his position, totaling a .286/.343/.460 line in seven seasons with the Reds. Meanwhile, Blair pitched to a 4.00 ERA in just one season in Houston before being taken by the Rockies in the 1992 expansion draft. Rohde played in only five games for the Indians, and those would be the last of his brief major league career.
The One That Got Away
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Of course the real prize of that deal was Lofton, and it didn’t take long for that to become apparent. Immediately following the trade, he led the league in stolen bases in five consecutive seasons, becoming the spark plug for those great Indians teams of the 1990s.
He made six All-Star games and won four Gold Glove Awards, compiling a .300/.375/.426 line in 10 seasons in Cleveland with 452 stolen bases and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He bounced around among several teams the rest of his career but was still an effective player, even hitting .296 in his final season at age 40.
He’s 15th all-time in stolen bases with 622 and also in outfield assists among center fielders. He finished his career with more than 2,400 hits, a .299 batting average and 68.3 wins above replacement. He’s one of the best center fielders the game has seen and it’s a travesty he only lasted one season on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Imagine, if you will, how things would have gone if the Astros hadn’t made that trade. Lofton and Biggio together at the top of that lineup throughout the 1990s would have been something to behold and would have caused havoc for opposing pitchers and catchers alike.
But unfortunately the Astros traded Lofton and didn’t get much to show for it. There are other players the franchise let get away, but this is one of the ones that stings the most.