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July 31, 2004
Around 3 p.m. PDT yesterday, it looked like I was going to have to squeeze a thousand words out of Brad Fullmer being traded to the Padres. Fortunately, the word got out about some sort of upcoming deadline, which spurred a number of teams into action.
The big story…well, the big story hasn't been finalized yet. The biggest trade on Friday occurred between the Marlins and Dodgers, a six-player swap that the Dodgers hope will enable them to acquire Randy Johnson from the Diamondbacks using two of the players they picked up from the Fish.
The focus on what might happen has obscured what did happen: Paul DePodesta made a hell of a trade. Getting Hee Seop Choi, who immediately becomes the best Dodger hitter since Gary Sheffield, makes DePo the big winner (although not the day's biggest winner). Brad Penny is an upgrade, so even if the Dodgers can't flip him for the Big Unit, they've improved their rotation. Left-hander Billy Murphy has a live arm and considerable trade value, although his major-league future isn't assured.
The Dodgers just didn't give up that much. Juan Encarnacion is a stiff who never should have been signed. He and his .300 OBP will be a big letdown for the Marlins, who opened a big hole in their lineup with this deal. Guillermo Mota has been a lights-out set-up man for nearly two seasons now; he's also 31, on the brink of becoming expensive, and has quietly shown signs of fatigue. All of his peripherals are down from last season, and his in-season trends are downward--less command and power as the season has progressed. I think DePodesta traded him at just the right time, and if the Dodgers fill part of the hole they created by using Eric Gagne more aggressively, they won't notice any difference.
Losing LoDuca is harder to wave off, although the acquisition of Charles Johnson would mean that the real cost is more financial than anything else. As good as LoDuca has been this season, he's not an impact player. Most of his value is in his batting average, which in most seasons isn't high enough to make him a star. More significantly, Lo Duca was an awful player after the All-Star break in both '02 and '03. His first-half/second-half splits reveal a player who cannot hold up over a full season, and so far in '04, he'd been struggling since the mid-season classic (.222/.327/.333). Clubhouse issues-which can and will be ameliorated by the next three-game winning streak-aside, I think it's possible that the Dodgers are better off today at catcher than they were yesterday.
Paul DePodesta swapped two players near the peak of their value just in time, and he brought in one undervalued player with massive upside. You just can't do it any better than that.
The positives for the Marlins are that even less-than-peak Mota and Lo Duca could help them. They've had all kinds of problems in the bullpen this season, and with Armando Benitez suffering elbow pain, the situation had become dire. Even the last-two-months iteration of Mota will be an upgrade on Billy Koch and Josias Manzanillo, while Lo Duca's lousy second halves are right in line with what the Fish have gotten from Mike Redmond and Matt Treanor. Lo Duca's line-drive, gap approach is actually a very good fit for spacious Pro Player Park. They're going to miss Choi, though; he provided OBP and left-handed power on a team that lacks both, and the direct replacement of Choi with Encarnacion is going to be a major blow to the offense. They've also taken a big gamble that both Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett will stay in the rotation for the rest of the season. I don't think the Marlins are a better team today than they were before the trade, and unlike the Dodgers, they have no way of making this trade look better.
Obviously, if the Dodgers can leverage this into Johnson and Steve Finley, they'll have pulled off a terrific coup. The latest word is that Penny, Jayson Werth, Edwin Jackson and at least one other pitching prospect (Murphy or Chad Billingsley) would go to Arizona for the two, and that Johnson will go if the teams can agree to a deal. That's not a bad package for the D'backs, who have a lot of hitting coming through the system but less pitching, and could use a couple of high-risk, high-ceiling arms like Jackson and Murphy. Given the barrel Johnson has had them over this month--his refusal to go to Anaheim cost them a nice package of talent--this would be as good an outcome as they could have hoped for.
The deal would only make the Dodgers the prohibitive favorite in the NL West, while making them as dangerous as any team in what should be a wide-open NL playoffs. They don't need to complete the cycle to win the deal, but doing so would give them the best chance possible to win a lot more than just a trade.
The other big-market team making a lot of noise yesterday didn't come out nearly as well. The Mets traded two top prospects to land a complete back of the rotation that comes over with the following seasonal line:
260 1/3 IP, 192 K, 140 BB, 20 HR, 4.32 ERA.
OK, let's be generous and concede that Kris Benson has pitched very well over the last couple of months, with improved command, a sign that he's finally healthy following Tommy John surgery in 2001. Let's also grant the premise, which I heard from a few people yesterday, that Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson is just the guy to get Victor Zambrano straightened out.
Does having these two guys for the next eight weeks make the Mets that likely to leapfrog three teams and win the NL East? Does the small chance that it does make it worth giving up two of their best prospects, plus three other guys with value?
The answers are "no," and…well, something stronger than "no." The Mets, who did such a great job last winter of not getting caught up in short-term returns, tossed all that progress out the window with two ridiculous deals that did nothing but give the tabloids back-page material on a Saturday. I'm as big a TNSTAAPP guy as anyone, but there's no way that you can justify giving up on Scott Kazmir--who had just started to put it together this summer--for Zambrano, who is 28, has thrown a million pitches the past two years, and will make good money in arbitration. That's an awful decision, and understand that I'm the last guy to defend a 20-year-old pitcher or the hype attached to him. The Devil Rays, already having a pretty good year, added another high-upside talent to their impression collection of same. Even if Kazmir ends up on the Billy Wagner path, that's a great return on a guy the Rays would likely have non-tendered this winter.
The Mets' other deal was better than the Zambrano acquisition, but not by much. Originally announced as Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson for Benson, the deal actually was a three-team swap that involved Justin Huber being sent to Kansas City (with the Royals completing Jose Bautista's long, strange trip by returning him to Pittsburgh).
Huber has a number of marks against him: he's from Australia, which has produced more disappointments than major leaguers, and at 6' 5", there's not much chance he'll stay behind the plate. However, he's established himself as an OBP guy, following up a strong 2003 season with a .271/.414/.487 line at Binghamton this year (and a recent promotion to Triple-A). He's just 22, and was in line to join Jose Reyes and David Wright as the core of some great Mets teams later this decade.
Using him to get two months of Kris Benson isn't as silly as trading Kazmir for Zambrano, but it's not smart, either. These two deals reflect an inexplicable change of heart by the Mets, a shift from building around a core of potential stars for an extended run of success to a seat-of-their-pants effort to make a quick score. The happy talk about how they'll sign Benson to a multi-year deal and reinvent Zambrano doesn't salvage the trades; their money would have been just as good in November, and they'd still have a good chance to get Zambrano.
What I find most peculiar is this: if you really wanted to trade Huber and Kazmir (not to mention Peterson, who I'm not a big fan of--I mixed him up with the Blue Jays' Adam Peterson last week-and Jose Diaz), wouldn't putting the two together in the same deal have opened the door to a much better return? That offer would certainly have been the best one on the table for Randy Johnson, although Johnson's no-trade clause would still have been a barrier. Heck, I can't think of many teams, even ones in contention, who would have been able to resist that kind of package. The A's might have turned loose Barry Zito, or the Brewers Ben Sheets. Heck, I think the Mets would have been better off trading for Kip Wells than his teammate.
The Mets made some terrible mistakes yesterday, and have positioned themselves to again need to use money to make up for the errors in decision-making. They still won't reach the postseason this year, and they're less likely to do so in the future.
The big winner of the day? Allard Baird, who picked up a terrific prospect in Huber for the cost of a waiver claim on Bautista. Even if Huber moves out from behind the plate, he's shown enough offensive potential that he could be an asset in an outfield corner or perhaps as a replacement for Mike Sweeney at first base.. Think a younger, better Jayson Werth, and credit Baird for being opportunistic.
In other deals Friday:
The Devil Rays and Royals were the two biggest winners of the day. That's going to be hard to top, but let's see what happens. I'll be back tomorrow with more.