Breaking Down a Deal

A few days ago, Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta “gutted” (in the words of some journalists) a team that had been among the hottest in baseball, going 20-6 in July. Most of the articles I’ve read have scored this as a big win for the Marlins, the Dodgers’ trading partner. Sure DePodesta gave up some talent: Paul LoDuca, Juan Encarnacion, and Guillermo Mota. And in return, the Marlins sent Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi, and Bill Murphy packing. It’s often said that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” but let’s begin our analysis by looking at the individuals.

Paul LoDuca
LoDuca shot to fame in 2001, hitting .320 and slugging 25 homeruns while giving the Dodgers a legitimate thumper at catcher to replace Mike Piazza, who was traded away a few years before. He compiled an OPS of .917 and struck out just 30 times in 460 at-bats. LoDuca hit, hit for power, and seemed to have great command of the strike zone. A couple of red flags become evident in retrospect though. Despite his good eye, he walked just 39 times, a rather low number and oftentimes an indicator that the offensive performance will be hard to repeat. (Yes, exceptions abound, but this is merely one indicator, not a hard-and-fast rule.) More significant was the unexpected power surge. LoDuca had never hit more than 8 dingers in a minor league season. But most damning was his age. The Dodgers’ catcher was 29 when he enjoyed his breakout year. In a position where players wear down rather quickly, his long-term prospects weren’t great.

Indeed, LoDuca’s subsequent seasons seem to be more representative of what he brings to the table. In 2002 and 2003, he compiled an OPS of .732 and .712 respectively. In those years, he kept company with Jimmy Rollins (.707 in 2003) and Kevin Young (.730 in 2002, his last full year in MLB). This year LoDuca seemed to show a bit of a return to form, however, hitting .301 with 10 homeruns for Los Angeles at the time of his trade. But looking deeper at the numbers, he posted a .795 OPS, which puts him just ahead of A.J. Pierzynski at his position. By no means is LoDuca a bad player. In fact, he’s a major upgrade over Mike Redmond, who had done the bulk of the catching for the Marlins. But despite of what the media reports about his locker room presence, he’s a piece, not a cog. And considering that he was acquired after the All-Star break, the Marlins would be wise to temper their expectations. LoDuca seems to wear down. In his career, he has posted an excellent .869 OPS before the break, but an anemic .680 after it. At 32, with his best years are likely behind him, LoDuca’s move from one pennant race to another should cause little more than a ripple in the standings.

Juan Encarnacion
In 1999, this 5-tool player enjoyed his first year with the Detroit Tigers. With power, speed, and a propensity to swing at anything close to the strike zone, many in the baseball world were reminded of a young Sammy Sosa. Now 28 and a veteran, Juan Encarnacion has established himself as an adequate player. Florida opted not to re-sign him this past off-season after a year-and-a-half stint, and the outfielder moved west for a little over $3.5 million. However, after deciding to move Hee-Seop Choi, the Marlins needed to do some roster shuffling; Encarnacion was a warm body who filled a need in the outfield. The .706 OPS compiled (I acknowledge that he played half of his games in a pitcher’s park) would rank him ahead of only the Expos. Put another way, a team with a batting order 1-9 of Juan Encarnacions is better offensively than only one team in the National League. Factor in the fact that NL teams don’t have the luxury of the DH and his offensive value is downright frightful. Though not terribly expensive, he’s due to make more than he’s worth and the Marlins are stuck with his contract through 2005.

Guillermo Mota
In New York, Mets fans remember Mota not as a player who was originally signed by their team, but as the guy who ran away from Mike Piazza. NL players probably have something else come to mind when they hear his name: mid-90s heat and a step closer to the inevitability that is Eric Gagne. There’s no doubt that Mota can chuck it, but he can really pitch too. A converted position player, he has emerged as one of the top setup men in the majors. In Florida, he’ll likely close for a while as an injury to Armando Benitez has left the 9th inning fair game.

Mota is a young 31. He didn’t arrive in the majors until he was 26, and due to his position shift and status as a relief guy, he hasn’t put that much mileage on his arm. He’s a bargain at just under $1.5 million, but his contract expires after this season. If he holds up in the closer role, conventional wisdom indicates that he’ll receive a lucrative offer to finish games elsewhere, rendering him a short-term, but inexpensive rental.

Brad Penny
Let’s make sure one issue is clear: Brad Penny is no Randy Johnson. He’s almost 15 years younger, has cartilage in his knees, and is due to make close to $12 million less than The Big Unit. I can understand how Dodgers fans, sensing a window of opportunity to win the World Series, are upset about not acquiring Johnson. He’s a living legend and is still among the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Having said that, Brad Penny is a pretty good consolation prize.

Expendable only because the Marlins are very deep in starting pitching (although I would argue that they’re not deep enough), Penny is a 26 year-old horse who was regularly projected to bust out and become a front of the rotation-type starter. The second half of last season, he seemed to find his groove and rode that into the World Series where he beat the Yankees, winning both his starts and posting an ERA of 2.19. In fairness, he was roughed up a bit in the NLDS and NLCS, but I would attribute that to a small sample size. (Remember when Barry Bonds just couldn’t hit in the postseason? He changed people’s minds fairly quickly.) The point is that with GMs and managers placing such an emphasis on using players with postseason experience, Penny’s work last year should be acknowledged.

Most importantly, he fills out the Dodgers’ rotation. Rather than running the deceptively ineffective Jose Lima or the surprisingly effective Wilson Alvarez out to the mound on a regular basis, Jim Tracy can ink Penny’s name into the lineup card. The righty is more than just an innings eater though. He’s having his best year to date, posting an ERA of 3.15 while holding opposing batters to an OPS of .691. Florida is a good pitcher’s park, but Dodger stadium is a veritable hurler’s haven. He’s a solid number two starter or a fantastic number three and he comes relatively cheap to boot. Penny is arbitration eligible this year, however, and will probably be due a big raise.

Hee-Seop Choi
At just 25 years of age, Choi is already being referred to by some as a journeyman. The Dodgers are the first baseman’s third team in as many years. Last season, just as he was getting comfortable in the big leagues, he suffered a concussion in a bad collision. Choi’s numbers fell from an .844 OPS before the All-Star break to just .485 thereafter. He was never quite right after the injury though, and registered only 43 at-bats after the midsummer classic. Choi is big — at 6’5″ and 240 lbs, he’s roughly the same size as Jim Thome — and strong, solid defensively, and has excellent plate discipline. In fact, Choi seems to project as a poor man’s Jim Thome. His high walk totals and strong power numbers date back to the minor leagues. Choi’s age also is a strong indicator as he’s likely not yet reached his prime; he should have another four years or so of improvement.

I maintain that Choi is actually the key to this deal. Brad Penny, though young, is a known quantity. On the other hand, Choi has fewer than two years of experience in the major leagues. Despite having played most of the year in a pitcher’s park, Choi’s numbers put him in the company of Lyle Overbay (who is enjoying a breakout season), Derrek Lee (the man he replaced), and Paul Konerko (who is on pace for a career year). Years away from free agency, the young first baseman should emerge as an integral part of the Dodgers’ young foundation and will probably put up a few All-Star caliber seasons before he is through.

Bill Murphy
Murphy is a young left-handed starting pitcher who was in the Oakland organization (where DePodesta likely has a hand in drafting him) before being traded to Florida. Reports are that he has good stuff and features a low 90s fastball with good movement. It’s particularly difficult to project pitchers, but there are worse chips to have than a talented southpaw.

The Dodgers bolstered their outfield production as the struggling Shawn Green replaces the really, really badly struggling Juan Encarnacion. Choi is an upgrade offensively and defensively over Green at first base. And the starting pitching is substantially improved with the addition of Brad Penny. Encarnacion’s loss is essentially meaningless as his value was negligible and there was no room for him with Green’s return to the outfield. The loss of Mota and LoDuca sting a little bit, but the improved rotation somewhat mitigates the loss of a setup man. Where the catching situation is concerned, the Dodgers had to expect that LoDuca’s numbers would drop off substantially anyway making a Brett Mayne/Dave Ross combo comparably effective. Not to be overlooked is the payroll flexibility that DePodesta created. He saved money while improving his team.

The Marlins reacquired an outfielder that they didn’t want to re-sign, moving Jeff Conine — who should be a fourth outfielder — to first base where he represents a significant downgrade from Hee-Seop Choi. They’re better at catcher with LoDuca’s replacing Mike Redmond, but would have been wiser to try to finagle a deal earlier in the season so as to enjoy LoDuca’s typically strong first halves. They’ve also improved their bullpen, but at the expense of their starting rotation. While Penny might only make 10-12 starts and Mota could conceivable appear in 40 more games, the former will probably pitch more than twice as many innings as the latter. With Josh Beckett’s struggling through blister problems and lingering uncertainty about when A.J. Burnett will hit a dead-arm period in his return from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins were not in a position to weaken their rotation.

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