Saturday, July 31, 2004
Updated: August 4, 2:05 PM ET
Marlins make out like bandits
By Jayson Stark
Well, another trading deadline has come and gone. And who'd have believed that while we were all waiting for Randy Johnson to get traded, it turned out to be Nomar Garciaparra, Brad Penny, Guillermo Mota and Paul Lo Duca who called the moving vans?
So let's take a look at the winners and losers in another frenzied deadline swapfest:
|Guillermo Mota brings a quality arm to the Marlins' bullpen.|
It may have been viewed as some kind of fluke when the Marlins made all the right moves this time last summer and turned them into a World Series parade. But after their flurry of eye-popping moves this time around, it's now clearer than ever:
Larry Beinfest is one of the best general managers in baseball.
"All he traded was his fifth starter (Brad Penny), a platoon guy (Hee Seop Choi), a bench player (Abraham Nunez) and two minor leaguers (Bill Murphy and Travis Chick)," said one NL front-office man. "And he got the best setup man in the league (Guillermo Mota), one of the best catchers in the league (Paul Lo Duca), a decent fifth starter (Ismael Valdez), a starting right fielder (Juan Encarnacion) and a useful arm (Rudy Seanez). And he got the Dodgers to pay them to take their best player (Lo Duca). How 'bout that?"
"I didn't know Larry too well when he got that job," said another NL executive. "But that guy does some tremendous things. He's a very creative guy."
The Marlins didn't do the standard we'll-trade-you-some-prospects-for-a-rent-a-player kind of deals. And in the end, that's why they succeeded while others grumbled about the state of the market. They thought outside the box, traded players they didn't have to trade and came away filling every hole they had. Nobody did it better.
Speaking of creative GMs, the Cubs' Jim Hendry is another guy who always seems to find a way to make moves no one thought he could make.
On Saturday, he gave up a shortstop he didn't want (Alex Gonzalez) and two useful, but hardly stardom-bound young players (Francis Beltran and Brendan Harris) -- and wound up with Nomar Garciaparra, plus an excellent young outfielder (Matt Murton).
All of which inspired one NL executive to say, "The Cubs kicked everyone's butt."
With an hour to go until the deadline, the Cubs were still trying to trade for Orlando Cabrera. Next thing they knew, they were able to deal for Garciaparra without trading away Matt Clement -- which would have been a deal-breaker for Hendry from the beginning.
To make this succeed, Garciaparra has to view his change of scenery as a chance to go from a team he'd stopped believing in last winter to a place where he's wanted and needed. But it would be impossible for him to be any less productive than the shortstops who preceded him in Chicago -- who ranked last in the big leagues in average (.222), slugging (.331) and runs scored (32).
3. Red Sox
With just minutes left until the deadline hit, the Red Sox appeared to have no deals of significance looming. Then GM Theo Epstein turned on the jets and came away with Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts.
It was the Red Sox who turned a simple little Cubs-Expos deal into a four-team fireworks show by connecting the dots that were keeping Montreal from getting the prospect it wanted (Brendan Harris) and finding the last piece (Cubs pitching prospect Justin Jones) that allowed Minnesota to move an unhappy Mientkiewicz.
It all happened so fast, and the names were flying so furiously, said an official of one of the clubs involved, that "when it was over, we were thinking, 'What did we just do? What did we trade?' "
Roberts and Mientkiewicz will be very useful parts. And subtracting Garciaparra will remove a source of constant tension for the Red Sox. But for this deal to work the way the Red Sox need it to work, Cabrera has to be better than the guy who was puttering along with four homers, 31 RBI and a .298 on-base percentage.
"I think he'll be great there," said one NL executive. "He's an every-day player who plays every day. He loves to play. He's the type of guy who wants to stay in the game even if he's losing, 10-0. He's a very good player who wasn't hitting very well. But he's still a very good player. He plays hard. He hustles. And he's a very good shortstop. Put him in front of those 34,000 people in Fenway every day, and I bet he'll be energized by the whole experience. And it won't hurt that he's playing for a contract."
True, they were seven games out of first place. True, they've never been more than two games over .500 at any point all season. So we understand why people looked at the Mets' two deals -- for Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano -- and thought, "Have they lost their minds?"
But in the end, we bet, they'll wind up looking smarter than many people think -- as long as Rick Peterson lives up to his reputation as Best Pitching Coach on Earth, and as long as Scott Kazmir doesn't go on to win 12 Cy Youngs.
It's up to Peterson to tap the magic in Zambrano's arm. To do it, he's going to have to make a whole bunch of walks and hit batters disappear. (Had Zambrano not been traded, he was on track to join Randy Johnson as the only American Leaguers in the last half-century to lead the league in walks and HBPs in back-to-back seasons.)
But this is also a guy who throws 96 miles an hour and was holding opposing hitters to a .230 batting average. So he's eminently salvageable. In fact, Peterson reportedly told the Mets he could get Zambrano straightened out "in 10 minutes." And if he's right, that Mets rotation just got very dangerous.
Peterson is also the big reason Benson immediately told the Mets he wants to sign and stick around. Benson and Tom Glavine share the same agent (Greg Clifton). So Benson is well aware of what the pitching coach did for Glavine this year.
Obviously, Benson's 43-49 lifetime record doesn't make you think, say, Tom Seaver. But scouts who have been following Benson say he's cleaned up his delivery, figured out how to pitch and made himself a far more attractive commodity than the numbers on his baseball card might suggest.
So if that's his real self, and the Mets can get him signed, this potentially gives them maybe the NL East's deepest rotation for the rest of this year and beyond.
But what people are wondering is: At what price?
On paper, the three minor leaguers they traded -- Kazmir, pitcher Matt Peterson and catcher Justin Huber -- looked like their three best prospects. But there are mixed reviews on all of them.
Peterson was described by one scouting director as "a No. 5 starter" and by another as "a No. 4, at best." The same scouting directors questioned Huber's instincts and projected him as no better than a backup catcher in the big leagues.
So it's Kazmir who will ultimately determine the wisdom of these deals. And one scouting director called him "the best prospect traded by anyone this year."
But two other scouting directors we surveyed had their doubts. Both think he'll wind up as a relief pitcher. And, given his size (6-feet, 170 pounds), he'll draw comparisons to Billy Wagner -- not necessarily for the better.
Wagner, said one scouting director, "is much stronger physically than Kazmir. So to me, the best he'll be is a poor man's Billy Wagner."
Kazmir could prove everybody wrong -- or right. But you know there will be a lot of people in baseball -- and in New York -- watching him try.
|The Mets took a gamble in trading for Victor Zambrano. Now he must deliver for them.|
The most-asked question in baseball, after the transaction wire had finally settled down Saturday night, was: "What did the Dodgers do?"
It's hard to question the intentions of GM Paul DePodesta. He felt he had a team capable of getting to the playoffs as constituted -- but wasn't sure it was capable of beating anybody in the playoffs without another impact arm and impact bat.
But when his prospective trades for Randy Johnson and Charles Johnson crumbled like the Roman Empire, all of a sudden the master plan didn't look quite as masterful.
"To me," said one NL executive, "the only way the Dodgers could do that deal with Florida is if they were assured of two things: 1) They were going to get Charles Johnson to come there. And 2) they were going to get Randy Johnson to come there. Otherwise, there's no reason to do that deal."
But the Dodgers did it -- and then made three more deals Saturday. In the end, they did add an impact bat, in Steve Finley. And Brad Penny was certainly an October dominator in the final week of last October. But he's no Big Unit.
So was the cost really worth it? There's no doubt the Dodgers' Most Valuable Part all year has been their bullpen. And they subtracted the best setup man in baseball (Mota) and their best situational left-hander (Tom Martin) from it, without replacing them in other deals.
But maybe the biggest loss was Lo Duca -- an All-Star, a leader and a face of the franchise.
"I believe in intangibles," said one NL front-office man. "And I believe Lo Duca is that kind of player. That team fed off his energy. I just wonder if they outsmarted themselves by trading him."
If Finley gets hot, and Penny turns into Curt Schilling West, and the Dodgers win the World Series, it will all have been worth it. But try real hard to think of a first-place team that messed with the fabric and chemistry that got it there at the deadline. We can't. So what the Dodgers did represents a monumental, and dangerous, gamble.
|Trading Paul Lo Duca could turn into a painful memory for the Dodgers.|
For a month, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield dangled Kris Benson out there as if he were a car salesman and Benson was the only car on the lot. There seemed no doubt that when Deadline Day rolled around and Benson was gone, the Pirates were going to come away with a young, cornerstone-type position player to build around.
Instead, the Pirates turned down the Twins' offer of slugger-in-training Michael Restovich for a Mets-Royals package of Ty Wigginton, pitching prospect Matt Peterson and a third baseman the Pirates had lost last winter in the Rule 5 draft, Jose Bautista.
So was that enough? People we surveyed weren't so sure it was.
"In my opinion, I don't think so," said one scouting director. "Given their options, I don't think they did that great. I would rather have gone for someone like Restovich, reached for the talent and taken the risk that things fell in place."
Wigginton can really hit. But much like Craig Wilson, he has no true position. Peterson has an average fastball, has trouble throwing strikes with his breaking ball and isn't projected as a top-of-the-rotation starter. And Bautista has played for four teams this year -- which says something about his talent, but also something about how big a project he is.
So is there a building block in there someplace? Only if Bautista puts it together. And even that is no sure bet.
A week ago, the Yankees were supremely confident they were going to go roaring into August with Randy Johnson in their rotation. Instead, they wound up with Esteban Loaiza.
Not that there weren't sound baseball reasons for sending Jose Contreras (and $4 million) to the White Sox for Loaiza. Clearly, Contreras was never going to find that New York state of mind that allowed him to win the big October baseball games the Yankees live for. And Loaiza is a two-time All-Star.
But he's also "not throwing very well," warned one AL scout. "He's lost velocity since last year."
And another scout, asked to compare Loaiza's stuff to Contreras' stuff, said: "Not only does Contreras have better stuff. It's two grades better. Contreras has No. 1 stuff if he can ever figure out a way to be more consistent. If I'm the Yankees, I wouldn't feel real good at all about running Loaiza out there in October. He's a guy who has had one good year. And it just happened to be his contract year."
The Yankees knew, heading for the deadline, they didn't have a win-the-World Series kind of rotation -- not unless Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina make a remarkable return to health. And now that the deadline has passed, they still don't have a rotation to rival the ones they brought to their previous half-dozen World Series.
But what really makes them a deadline-day loser is that, if they'd just had a couple of big-time prospects, they would be sitting there with the Big Unit right now. Instead, we asked one scouting director to run through their system, level by level. And he couldn't find even one potential impact player.
But that's the price the Yankees pay for constantly living for today -- until unhappy tomorrows like this one finally arrive.
|2004 SEASON STATISTICS|
This is a team that's probably good enough to make the playoffs without making any kind of move. But after all those weeks of feeling as if they were in the driver's seat to deal for Kris Benson, they wound up dealing for, well, nobody (except marginal pitching prospect Justin Jones).
The Twins also had to go out of their way to move the useful and popular Doug Mientkiewicz -- mostly because he'd felt so unwanted after learning they were trying to include him in the Benson deal, and had turned into their unhappiest camper.
Oh, we understand that, because of economic realities many teams can't relate to, the Twins felt they had no choice but to hold onto the Justin Morneaus and Jason Kubels who loom as their future stars. And it's certainly possible this team will find answers and fill holes in one of the best farm systems in baseball.
But every time Benson wins a game these next two months, there will sure be a lot of people in Minnesota wondering what might have been.
Question: It's no secret that Greg Maddux leads all active pitchers with 16 seasons of 15 wins or more. But only five other active pitchers even have half that many 15-win seasons. Can you name them?
Roger Clemens (12), Tom Glavine (9), Mike Mussina (9), Randy Johnson (8) and David Wells (8).
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.