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Monday, December 5, 2005
Mets add catcher, turn attention to other needs

Associated Press

DALLAS -- Growing up in the Phoenix area, Paul Lo Duca didn't have a local major league team. So he rooted for the New York Mets, who played nearest to his Brooklyn birthplace, and he vividly remembers the final out of the team's last World Series title.

Florida Marlins

132 6 57 45 .334 .283

"When Jesse Orosco threw up his glove in '86, I was jumping up and down on my bed," Lo Duca said Monday after the Mets acquired him from the cost-cutting Florida Marlins.

Florida gets two players to be named from the Mets, and the players won't be announced until after Thursday's winter meeting draft. Officials familiar with the trade have identified one as 19-year-old right-hander Gaby Hernandez.

Having added slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado and closer Billy Wagner last week, Mets general manager Omar Minaya said he would be happy to start the season with the roster he has now. But more moves could be ahead.

New York and Boston are expected to talk this week about Manny Ramirez, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Mets dealt disappointing Kaz Matsui, perhaps choosing to replace him at second with a free agent such as Mark Grudzielanek.

It's quite different from a year ago, when the Mets had difficulty attracting players before Pedro Martinez agreed to join them.

"We were being turned down by backup catchers and backup infielders," Minaya said.

Lo Duca followed ace right-hander Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, Delgado and second baseman Luis Castillo out of Miami. Under orders from owner Jeffrey Loria, who has failed to gain financing for a new ballpark, Florida general manager Larry Beinfest has cut about $38 million from the club's 2006 payroll. The Marlins were at $60 million at the start of last season.

"I know deep down this is what he didn't want to happen," Lo Duca said, referring to Loria.

With the three acquisitions, the Mets might have transformed themselves into the division favorite heading into spring training.

"I think it would be a disappointment if we didn't win the NL East," Lo Duca said.

Lo Duca is owed $6.25 million in each of the next two seasons, which will be paid by the Mets, and Florida remains responsible for the final $1 million of his signing bonus, which is due to be paid Nov. 30, 2008.

Minaya envisions the three-time All-Star as a No. 2 hitter. Lo Duca, who turns 34 in April, batted .283 last season with six homers and 57 RBI.

"He makes contact. We wanted to get more guys to make contract. We struck out too much last year," Minaya said. "This guy's a gamer. This guy's a guy that is going to give you that leadership quality, not only on the field but also in the clubhouse."

Before acquiring Lo Duca, Minaya made offers to free agents Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez. Minaya had a sense where those negotiations were headed.

"It was going to be more years, more dollars if it was going to be a free-agent signing," Molina said.

Florida also could deal center fielder Juan Pierre as part of a purge that could drop next year's opening-day payroll below $20 million.

"Paul Lo Duca did an outstanding job for the Marlins," Florida general manager Larry Beinfest said. "He did a terrific job handling our pitching staff and consistently produced clutch hits."

Hernandez, a 19-year-old right-hander, was 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA for Class-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League, then went 2-5 with a 5.74 ERA for Class-A St. Lucie of the Florida State League. He had a combined 131 strikeouts in 135 innings.