Friday, August 27, 2004
Dodgers still high risk
By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine
Some folks who know Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta say he is unbothered by the criticism he has received for his trades before the July 31 deadline. He is sure he made the deals based on sound information and for all the right reasons, they say, and he is comfortable with that.
DePodesta should feel this way. He is in a position to have more direct and intimate knowledge of his own players than any reporter who gave a thumbs-down to his deals, including this writer. And it's good he feels this way, because if the Dodgers blow their NL West lead over the Giants and Padres, or if the Dodgers make the playoffs and their bullpen immediately disintegrates, DePodesta is going to get blistered -- and right now, a month after the trades, he looks very vulnerable.
A quick review of the Dodgers and other major pre-deadline dealers:
THE MARLINS: They were viewed as one of the big winners of the deadline deals, having upgraded their bullpen with Guillermo Mota, their catching and offense with Paul Lo Duca and Juan Encarnacion. Many -- myself among them -- predicted a big bounce.
And it never happened. The Marlins were 52-52 at the end of July, a .500 team, and they've kept playing .500 ball, going 11-10 since making the deals. Lo Duca has played well, rather than fade into the late-season swoon that the Dodgers' executives anticipated, hitting .356, but Encarnacion has hit .230 and driven in a paltry three runs in 74 at-bats.
Mota has continued to pitch well, striking out 16 in 13.1 innings, but Josh Beckett has been inconsistent and the dominant starting pitching that the Marlins needed to make the playoffs has never fully materialized. Florida is 9½ games behind the Braves in the NL East, 7 games behind the Cubs in the wild card.
THE METS: There might only be a handful of deals in the history of major league baseball that would surpass the rapid unraveling of the Mets' trades. There was Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas before the 1966 season, when Robinson went to Baltimore and immediately won the Triple Crown. And the Red Sox ascertained pretty quickly that selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees probably wasn't too smart.
With other one-sided trades, like Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell, it took some time for the deal to shake out. But in less than a month, we've already got strong indications that the Mets made serious mistakes.
They traded three of their top five-rated prospects for veteran pitchers Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson, deals that were supposed to improve the Mets in '04 and beyond. The Mets, barely within striking distance anyway, promptly lost three straight games to Atlanta and fell out of the playoff chase, meaning the trades provided not one extra hour of contention.
And what has occurred subsequently has made the Mets look like rookie fantasy league owners. Zambrano walked off the mound with a bad elbow that had been bothering him before the trade. The prospect for whom he was traded, Scott Kazmir, quickly impressed the Devil Rays, bounced from Double-A to the majors and pitched five scoreless innings in his first start. (Meanwhile, Jose Reyes got hurt and shortstop Kazuo Matsui was told to prepare for a switch to second base -- confirmation that the Mets blew a full season of position development with both players.)
Then Benson mused this week to the New York Post about the possibility of testing free agency. Earth to Mets: Pay the man. Overpay him. Give him what he wants. If Benson departs and signs elsewhere -- like Atlanta -- the public relations fallout will cost the team much more than it would to keep him.
THE RED SOX: They averaged 15 unearned runs per month through the end of July. Since adding first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, they've allowed five unearned runs in August. Cabrera is hitting .280 with the Red Sox, and he's getting more comfortable. Boston is 17-7 this month. The Red Sox are at the top of the wild-card standings. They're rolling, and while they still have weakness in their middle relief, they're dangerous.
THE CUBS: Nomar Garciaparra has played well, batting .352, scoring 15 runs in 20 games, driving in 12, compiling a .512 slugging percentage. And now all the Cubs seem to be hitting well, and winning. It was a great trade, made sense at the time, and if they make the wild card, they'll be a tough October team. Garciaparra might be more at ease in this postseason than he was with the Red Sox last year, when he looked extraordinarily anxious; in Boston, he was Nomar, expected to lead the team offensively. With the Cubs, he's just another piece.
THE YANKEES: The Yankee pitching staff's ratio of innings to hits allowed is the worst it has been since 1989 and the its strikeouts per inning ratio is the worst it has been since 1994. The Jose Contreras-for-Esteban Loaiza trade did not address their primary need for a dominant starting pitcher.
THE DODGERS: They dealt from a position of strength, standing in first place at the trade deadline, holding a 3½-game lead over the Padres and a 5½-game lead over the Giants, and that advantage is largely unchanged -- San Francisco currently trails by four games, the Padres by five.
The Dodgers felt they needed to upgrade their offense and starting pitching to compete in the postseason. Finley has helped their production, hitting .378, and the offense is better. The Dodgers scored five or more runs in 47 of their 103 games through the end of July, or 45 percent. In August, they've scored five or more runs in 58 percent of their games.
In Hee Seop Choi's small sample of at-bats, however, he has appeared to be exactly what the Cubs and Marlins found him to be: a big, powerful hitter with a slow bat. In a recent game against the Reds, Cincinnati right-hander Aaron Harang -- whose fastball will never be confused with that of Roger Clemens or Billy Wagner -- just kept pumping 90-91 mph fastballs over the outside corner, and the best Choi could do was to foul them off into the third-base stands, before he struck out. Any help Choi gives them may not come this year; right now, he's hitting .190, with no homers and five RBI in 42 at-bats.
Brad Penny, who was supposed to lead the starting rotation, got hurt in his second start, injuring his right biceps, and there does not appear any firm timetable on his return; bad luck, pure and simple.
Darren Dreifort was supposed to fill Mota's role as the primary setup man, but he hurt his right knee and is out for the year -- but the Dodgers don't get a pass on this. Dreifort's history of injury problems stretches back to the construction of Stonehenge; he had been on the disabled list seven times before this year, his accumulated DL service equaling almost four full seasons. It wasn't merely bad luck that Dreifort was injured; considering his history, you'd have to assume there was a chance for a breakdown (After he was hurt, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy sadly mentioned the surgical scars he saw on Dreifort's injured knee).
Without Mota and without Dreifort, the workload of closer Eric Gagne has increased markedly, and whether it's a direct result of his extra burden or the coincidence of a dead-arm period, Gagne has struggled in August. After throwing 33 innings in the Dodgers' first 75 games, Gagne has thrown 29 innings in their last 52 games. He's allowed 17 hits in 14 innings in August, after permitting 25 hits in his first 48 innings.
And the Dodgers' great strength -- that bullpen that had the potential to be so tough in October -- will be a question mark.
|Guillermo Mota begins the season as the last line of defense for the Marlins.|
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," was released Aug. 17, and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.