By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - The Cleveland Indians figured they had no chance to win this season, even with ace Bartolo Colon. For the Montreal Expos, this might be their last chance.
The disappointing Indians traded Colon to the surprising Expos for first baseman Lee Stevens and top prospect Brandon Phillips in a six-player deal Thursday night.
Cleveland sent Colon (pictured, above) and a player to be named -- said to be minor league pitcher Tim Drew -- and cash to the Expos for Stevens and three prospects: pitcher Cliff Lee, outfielder Grady Sizemore and Phillips, a shortstop.
"I hope it sends a message to our fans and players that we are trying to be competitive and trying to make the playoffs," Expos general manager Omar Minaya said.
The Indians, who had great expectations after starting the season 11-1, have faded ever since in the AL Central. They are 36-41 and in third place, seven games behind Minnesota.
"It's a big blow to us, a shock," said C.C. Sabathia, now the Indians' top pitcher. "Bartolo was certainly the best pitcher on the staff. He carried the load for this team."
The Expos, who escaped baseball's plan to eliminate them in the offseason, have been one of the majors' best success stories this year. Despite a team thrown together in spring training, the Expos are 41-36 and in the middle of the NL wild-card race in what might be their final season in Montreal -- or anywhere.
The Expos were taken over by major league baseball this spring, but Minaya and the front office were given freedom to run the club.
"I hope this sends a message to people who wondered whether we could make deals," Minaya said.
Cleveland announced the trade after being rained out at Boston.
The teams began discussing this deal about three weeks ago.
General manager Mark Shapiro said the deal signals a new phase for the once-powerful Indians.
"This very clearly and very definitively demonstrates that we are moving into a formal rebuilding process with players that we all feel are going to be here in the '04 and '05 seasons which are when we feel we can start to emerge as a contender again," he said.
At 29, Colon had finally blossomed into the consistent No. 1 starter the Indians had long coveted.
Colon was 10-4 with a 2.55 ERA in 16 starts and was on his way to making the All-Star team for the second time. He was leading the AL in innings and complete games, and was ranked among the leaders in wins, ERA, strikeouts and shutouts.
Colon was signed through this season, with the cost-cutting Indians holding a $6 million club option for 2003. Now, the Expos hold that option -- provided baseball doesn't fold them.
On Wednesday, Colon was sent home from Fenway Park to get an MRI exam for soreness in his right side. He was to miss his scheduled start against Arizona on Friday night at Jacobs Field.
Instead, he's expected to join the Expos in Toronto this weekend.
"Now there are a lot of guys that are very disappointed," Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "It's hard to see the best pitcher on your team go like that. We felt Bartolo was the next Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians."
The trade also was unpopular with Indians fans, who still haven't recovered from the big deal that sent All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets last December.
"It's a good thing the Indians are on the road tonight," a caller on a local sports talk show said shortly after the trade was announced, "or there would be a riot in Cleveland."
The Indians, who have won six of the last seven division titles and are the defending champions, have a history of making major trades before the July 31 deadline to bolster their chances of winning a World Series.
This time, though, the Indians were the team that traded away a star player. And there still is a chance they might also deal All-Star first baseman Jim Thome, who can become a free agent after the season.
Colon will join a team that many people wrote off long before opening day. But with Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and pitcher Javier Vazquez, the Expos are looking more and more like a club that could reach the postseason.
While the player to be named was not officially identified, a club source speaking on condition of anonymity said it was Drew.
Drew, 23, is 8-4 with a 3.27 ERA at Triple-A Buffalo. The right-hander, the younger brother of St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew, went 0-2 with a 7.97 ERA in eight games for Cleveland last year.
Stevens, 34, was hitting only .190 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs. He will fit in well with an Indians team that can hit some home runs but is last in the AL in batting with a .238 average.
Stevens had already left the Expos on Thursday night.
Phillips, who turns 21 Friday, is considered perhaps the Expos' top prospect. He hit .327 with nine homers and 35 RBIs at Double-A Harrisburg before being promoted to Ottawa. At Triple-A, he's hitting .257 with a homer and five RBIs in 10 games.
"I know where I'm going I'll have more opportunities," Phillips said. "It was probably the best thing for me."
Said Minaya: "He dominated Double-A. I think he has chance to be an All-Star player someday."
Lee, 23, was 7-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 15 starts at Harrisburg. In 86 1-3 innings, the left-hander leads the Eastern League with 105 strikeouts and has walked 23.
Sizemore, 19, is hitting .258 at Class A Brevard County, with no homers and 26 RBIs in 256 at-bats. He has nine steals.