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BISONS LOSE HEAVY HITTER AT FIRST AS CASEY SENT TO REDS FOR BURBA

First baseman Sean Casey won't be coming back to North AmeriCare Park.

Casey, whose home run last September at Iowa gave the Buffalo Bisons their first championship since 1961, was traded late Monday afternoon by the Cleveland Indians to Cincinnati in exchange for pitcher Dave Burba. The Reds had planned to use Burba as their opening day starter today against San Diego.

Casey, 23, was expected to be one of the anchors of the Buffalo lineup. He was the Indians' minor league player of the year last year and their No. 1 prospect for 1998 as rated by Baseball America magazine.

Casey hit .386 with 10 homers and 66 RBIs for Double-A Akron last season before being promoted to Buffalo. He hit .361 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 20 regular-season games for the Herd, and .344 in eight American Association playoff games.

Casey was unavailable for comment. After going 1 for 4 in Monday's game against Toledo, and then being told of the trade, he checked out of his Winter Haven hotel and was en route to Cincinnati before the trade was officially announced.

"He's got the best bat I've seen in the
minors since Chipper Jones," Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden said Monday, comparing Casey to the Atlanta Braves star. "He's a great kid with tremendous makeup and character. He's a tremendous hitter. He's energetic and enthusiastic. The city of Cincinnati is going to love him."

Burba was the best pitcher in the Reds' training camp, finishing with a staff-low 2.13 ERA. Last season he went 11-10 with a 4.73 ERA.

The Indians had been talking to the Reds about Burba for several days, but the deal was likely consummated because Tribe pitcher Dwight Gooden had a setback while throwing in the Bisons' exhibition game earlier Monday.

Gooden was pulled after two innings of the Bisons' 5-3 loss to the Toledo Mud Hens in Lakeland because of recurring stiffness in his shoulder. Later in the day, the Indians placed Gooden on the disabled list and the deal for Burba was announced.

Gooden was supposed to be having a final tuneup for his start Saturday in Anaheim. The Indians' starting pitching has been a mess all spring, and Gooden's setback was apparently the last straw for Cleveland general manager John Hart.

Chad Ogea is out at least until mid-April after knee surgery and John Smiley isn't likely to pitch until July, if at all, after the gruesome broken arm he suffered last September. Ben McDonald's shoulder was so badly damaged that he was traded back to Milwaukee earlier this month without ever pitching for Cleveland.

And Gooden, a free agent signee from the Yankees, has been brutal this spring. The 33-year-old right-hander posted a 10.22 ERA and allowed 24 hits in 12 2/3 innings over his four major-league starts.

Gooden gave up a run on three hits in two innings Monday. He threw just 28 pitches (21 for strikes) and conferred with Buffalo manager Jeff Datz and pitching coach Bud Black after the second inning. He then put on his warmup jacket and was whisked out of the Tigertown complex without comment.

"He didn't feel good and I have to leave it at that," Datz said. The Indians will plug Burba into the rotation behind Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright. Bartolo Colon is the fourth starter, while the fifth spot has yet to be filled. Ogea will only miss about two starts, while Steve Karsay, who was battling Colon for a spot in the rotation, was sent to Buffalo earlier Monday.

While a major loss for the Bisons, Casey was certainly expendable for Cleveland because of the presence of Jim Thome at first base. Players such as David Justice, Geronimo Berroa and Brian Giles were also ahead of him on the Tribe's pecking order for at-bats at designated hitter.

Casey hit .318 for the Indians this spring and was a trade target of many major-league clubs who knew Cleveland had no room for him.

"Sean is a pure hitter, one we knew a lot of teams had interest in," Datz said. "From the standpoint of the Buffalo club, it's a tough trade to lose a player like him. Sean is some kind of special guy, an outstanding player and person.

"We got an established pitcher for the big club and Sean gets a chance to be in the big leagues right away. We're very happy for him on that count."

Hart agreed that Casey was a loss, but one that Cleveland could afford.

"He's a young player with a tremendous up side," Hart said from Seattle, where the Indians open their season tonight. "If you're looking to build something, he's the guy you go with. But in our situation with Thome, Justice and Giles, we had quite a group ahead of him. We were dealing from strength."

Casey's 27 days as a Bison last summer will be remembered as some of the most dramatic in franchise history.

He joined the Herd for an Aug. 14 doubleheader showdown with arch-rival Indianapolis and his Triple-A debut was spectacular.

As Buffalo posted a pair of 8-0 victories, Casey hit three home runs and drove in six runs. It was the first time in NAP history a player had belted three homers in a twinbill.

Casey hit four home runs and collected 12 RBIs in his first six games as a Bison. He was 7 for 20 with six RBIs in the five-game semifinal victory over Indianapolis and 4 for 12 in the championship series against Iowa.

The biggest hit came in the 10th inning of Game Three at Sec Taylor Stadium. Casey crushed a 1-1 fastball from Iowa's Justin Speier over the center-field fence to give the Bisons a 5-4 victory and a three-game sweep of the series.

Casey is expected to battle holdover Eduardo Perez, son of former Cincinnati great Tony Perez, for playing time at first base.

The Bisons, meanwhile, have options to plug the hole left by Casey's departure. Richie Sexson played first base most of last year while hitting a franchise-record 31 home runs, but is being converted to left field this year.

The deal means 25-year-old Chan Perry might open the season as the Herd's first baseman. Perry, the younger brother of ex-Bison and Indian Herbert Perry, hit .315 with 20 homers and 96 RBIs last year at Akron.

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