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Just shortly before the Witching Hour on Saturday morning, the Dodgers and
Marlins consummated their historic deal: Florida dispatched RF Gary Sheffield,
C Charles Johnson, 3B/OF Bobby Bonilla, OF Jim Eisenreich, and RH reliever
Manuel Barrios to the Dodgers for C Mike Piazza and 3B Todd Zeile.


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.

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