May 19, 1998
Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!
The Marlins Get Serious
The almost universal gnashing of teeth over what the Marlins comes from several sources: Marlins fans who, having recently discovered their team, seem to want to hide away their '97 memorabilia. The predictable cavalcade of righteous pronouncements from a media determined to make its bones by reducing baseball to a 'can you top this?' story of woe.
But the trade for Mike Piazza isn't a crystallizing or defining moment, or even symbolic of some big problem within baseball. The trade for Mike Piazza is only another development in what the Marlins already made it clear they were shooting for: dumping salary, and rebuilding the organization.
The Marlins gambled last year with a slew of veteran signings, some less advisable than others. The gamble paid off, although it took the existence of the wild card to do so. That same constellation of signings that paid off in the short term wasn't guaranteed to crank out any kind of near or long-term success. Was that a good idea? I'm undoubtedly prejudiced by the long, slow, death spiral that the A's franchise had to endure after their last World Series visit in '90, where bad investments in veteran players and ill-advised trades for stretch drive pickups for dead-end stretch drives perpetuated a long slump that they're only now really coming out of. In this decade, we also have the example of the Blue Jays, who have made equally unfortunate commitments to veteran talent that wasn't going to get them back to the World Series. The Cardinals are running the risk of becoming that sort of team, and the Orioles are that team right now.
Having already cast aside the inclination to keep the team together, there's little sense in rebuilding the team in a half-assed manner, or keeping expensive roster trinkets from last year's glory. Even before claiming that they couldn't afford to keep much of last year's team around, the Marlins regretted giving Gary Sheffield everything he claimed he'd want into the far future, and Charles Johnson's prickly relationship with the organization had collapsed to non-negotiable posturing and large salary demands. Most of the players shipped off were over 30: the only ones who aren't are Sheffield (29), Johnson (26), Kurt Abbott (29), Ralph Milliard (24), and Barrios (23). Abbott, Milliard, and Barrios are all pretty replaceable commodities: useful second basemen, utility infielders, and right-handed relievers do fall out of trees, so trading them away isn't worth much comment. What about Sheffield and Johnson? Sheffield's track record, glovework, and injury history all combine to make it unlikely that he'd give the team play equal to the value of a contract that lasts until 2003. Johnson was Marlins property for two more seasons, after which he'd subject to the franchise to a public relations drama of "I would have signed if they had given me all I wanted," followed by the inevitable "agonizing" decision to go to the highest bidder or highest-bidding perceived contender. This would leave the Marlins with a fan base already unreasonably bitter by the memories of what are now current events. The rest of the deal? Bobby Bonilla, at 35, wasn't going to be part of the next good Marlins team, and the next four months of Jim Eisenreich's time (since he's a free agent after this season) aren't worth much to a bad team in terms of talent, playing time, or compensatory draft picks. They're throw-ins, like Barrios, in exchange for Mike Piazza and the rights to Todd Zeile through 1999.
If the central goal for the Marlins is to assemble as much talent as possible as quickly as possible, to make the transition from champion to floormat to champion as brief as possible, then getting the most valuable commodity in baseball represents a daring risk. Unlike the pathetic mismanagement of the Chuck Knoblauch deal, where the Twins negotiated themselves into a corner and did not get value, if there's a GM in baseball who may be able to turn this situation to best advantage, it should be Dave Dombrowski. If my two cents mean anything to Marlins fans, I'd tell them to enjoy a franchise that's giving them the best of both worlds: a championship, plus the willingness to build for another one instead of rewarding yesterday's heroes.
The Marlins won a championship, and they're right to acknowledge that as history. The organization is still built around what made it successful in the first place: the outstanding management team of Dombrowski and minions like Gary Hughes, and the talent that brain trust has assembled in the farm system from day one of the organization's history. The critical issue will be whether Dombrowski's gang is running an operation they plan to be a part of, or if they're about to cut and run. That, more than any other move, may lead to defining if this team is being turned into a cheap buy for Don Smiley, or if they've gone back to trying to build a good team that isn't built around Wayne Huizenga's whims. Otherwise, there is no defining moment for the franchise's current fortunes that make this situation any different from historic sell-offs that the game has tolerated both with and without a strong commissioner.
What does the deal mean for the Dodgers? The deal strengthened a lineup that was previously a brittle combination of Piazza and mediocrities. The trade should make an impact in the number of runs they score, but it doesn't help them greatly on defense. Although Charles Johnson gets his healthy dose of happy adjectives for his glovework, Piazza has always called a solid game, and the differences between their ability to control the running game may not translate into that many runs saved. What's particularly interesting is the decision to shift Raul Mondesi to center, with Sheffield in RF and Todd Hollandsworth in LF. Hollandsworth is marking time until the Dodgers follow up on two related potential outcomes of the trade: whether or not Mondesi can handle center, and if so, whether Paul Konerko should just come up and play left. A Konerko-Mondesi-Sheffield outfield calls up memories of those grisly seasons where Pedro Guerrero, Ken Landreaux, and Mike Marshall would circle the wagons and coordinate damage control, but it's obviously capable of putting up a ton of runs.
If Mondesi can't play center well enough to satisfy even the Dodgers (who have remarkable patience with defensive shortcomings), then the question becomes one of Hollandsworth vs. Roger Cedeno, which Cedeno would win handily in a fair fight. Unfortunately, it isn't a fair fight, since Hollandsworth has some media award on his mantelpiece. If Mondesi goes back to right, that creates another bit of ugliness: Sheffield in left? All in all, I doubt the Dodgers will back down from putting Mondesi in center. Because Konerko and Bonilla can both play 3B, 1B, and the outfield, the Dodgers have some flexibility in how they put together their all-elephant outfield, with the eventual solution being to trade Eric Karros so that whichever one is playing third moving over to first to make room for Adrian Beltre.
So who on the Dodgers loses out in all of this? Between Eric Karros, Paul Konerko, or Adrian Beltre, somebody's probably going to wind up elsewhere by Opening Day '99. Karros would be the best choice to send away, of course, and with Piazza gone, that won't generate much criticism. There's still the chance that they'll sign Mo Vaughn next winter, which could in turn mean that either Konerko or Beltre gets to cool his heels in the minors or get traded. The losers for right now: Roger Cedeno has been reduced to an insurance policy. He's still very young, so he may get a chance to have a real career somewhere else. Todd Hollandsworth will do what he does, and that will be enough for the Dodgers to see him off. Guys like Matt Luke and Treni Hubbard get to see their playing time evaporate, since they won't start much any longer, and pinch-hitting duties will probably get thrown to Eisenreich. Wilton Guerrero got optioned to Albuquerque, after being relegated to glorified utility duty. He's asked for a trade, and seeing him off to Montreal to play with his brother Vladimir would help the Expos considerably, both in terms of getting someone like Derrick May or Shane Andrews off the field, and in terms of potentially freeing the organization to trade Mark Grudzielanek, which they're less willing to do with Orlando Cabrera struggling at Ottawa.