November 25, 2003

Lee for Choi

To Chicago:

Derrek Lee

To Florida:

Hee Seop Choi


It seems strange for the two teams that squared off in the NLCS last month to be making a major trade with each other, but that's exactly what happened yesterday. The Florida Marlins sent their starting first baseman from last year, Derrek Lee, to the Chicago Cubs, in exchange for Hee Seop Choi and a Player to be Named Later (PTBNL).

By trading Lee, the Marlins have come full-circle. Back when they won their first World Series, in 1997, they had a firesale, trading away essentially every good veteran on the team. One of those trades sent Kevin Brown to the San Diego Padres, in exchange for a 21-year old first base prospect named Derrek Lee.

Now, after another World Series win, the Marlins once again appear set to make some wholesale changes to the roster. It sounds as though Lee, now 28 and likely to make about $6-7 million next year, is probably just the first one out the door.

I thought it might be interesting to look back to see how the Marlins 1997 firesale went. So, with the help of (one of the best baseball websites around) I was able to find that, from the end of the 1997 season until the start of the 1998 season, the Marlins traded away the following players:

Kevin Brown (to San Diego)

Moises Alou (to Houston)

Al Leiter (to New York)

Robb Nen (to San Francisco)

Jeff Conine (Kansas City)

Devon White (to Arizona)

Dennis Cook (to New York)

Kurt Abbott (to Oakland)

In addition to those deals prior to the start of the 1998 season, the Marlins also sent Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield to the Dodgers about two months into the season. That deal netted them Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Just a few days later, they traded Piazza to the Mets for Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall, and they sent Zeile to the Rangers for Daniel DeYoung and Jose Santo at mid-season.

So, in the span of about eight months, the Marlins dismantled their entire championship team, trading away nearly every valuable veteran player, including stars like Sheffield, Alou, Nen, Brown, Bonilla, Conine, White, Johnson and Leiter.

Counting the quick turn-around deals involving Piazza and Zeile, here are the players the Marlins got in return for all those veterans:

Manuel Barrios

Oscar Henriquez

Mark Johnson

Jesus Martinez

Joe Fontenot

Mike Pageler

Mike Villano

Blaine Mull

Chris Clark

Steve Hoff

Derrek Lee

Rafael Medina

Fletcher Bates

Scott Comer

Eric Ludwick

A.J. Burnett

Jesus Sanchez

Geoff Goetz

Preston Wilson

Ed Yarnall

Daniel DeYoung

Jose Santo

That's a very long list (which is what happens when you trade away a dozen veteran players for all prospects, I suppose), but there aren't a lot of impressive names. The only guys who have gone on to have any sort of a distinguished major league career are Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett and Preston Wilson.

The relevance of this to the current Florida situation is probably less than it seems. While they have already traded Lee, a key part of their championship team last season, and appear ready to lose several other important veterans, many of them will leave via free agency and not through trades.

Luis Castillo, Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina are all free agents right now and Florida also has a few arbitration eligible guys like Mark Redman, Brad Penny, Juan Encarnacion and Mike Lowell, some of whom may be cut loose because of their rising salaries.

As for the Lee/Choi trade, I think it is a deal that works fairly well for both teams. For the Marlins, they cut payroll and get a young player who is very capable of stepping right in to replace Lee at first base next season and beyond. For the Cubs, they add an established upper-level first baseman (Lee ranked 6th among MLB first basemen in RARP last year), while taking on some salary and trading away a young player whom they appear to have soured on recently.

Personally, had I been the Cubs, I would have simply kept Choi and spent the extra $6 million on improving the team somewhere else. I think Choi is going to be a very good hitter very soon and, as good as Lee is and has been, I don't know that the difference between them is worth that much. That said, Dusty Baker didn't seem to have been a huge Choi fan and I have a feeling, had he stayed in Chicago, Choi's opportunity to blossom would have been severely limited.

Many people seem to be very down on Choi at the moment, for reasons I don't really understand. They point to the fact that he hit just .218 this year or to his 71 strikeouts in 80 games. As if no 24-year old rookie has ever struggled before. And really, if this season was Choi "struggling" (.218/.350/.421), he is in for a very good career.

In fact, I think Choi's rookie season was actually quite a bit more promising than the overall numbers suggest. He was doing very well through the first two months or so, while being platooned at first base with Eric Karros and playing on a regular-basis. Through June 7th he was hitting .244/.389/.496. That day he collided with Kerry Wood while trying to field a pop-up and crashed hard into the ground.

Choi didn't play again for three weeks and, when he finally returned, he no longer played as often. After getting 68 plate appearances in April and 75 in May, Choi got a total of just 72 plate appearances in July, August and September combined. He hit terribly when he was given a chance to play and his season-totals plummeted.

Still, this is a young player who did very well in his first taste of the big leagues this season before getting injured. He struggled when he came back, there is no doubt about it, but he also was not given a chance to play regularly during the last several months of the season. And, throughout all of that, he still managed to put up a decent rookie year. He's also got an impressive minor league track-record

Choi hit .321/.422/.610 in 79 Single-A games in 1999 and then hit .296/.369/.553 at Single-A in 2000, before moving up to Double-A. Once there, he hit .303/.419/.623 to finish the season. He moved up to Triple-A in 2001 and had a very sub par year while struggling with a wrist injury. Choi bounced back in 2002 however, hitting .287/.406/.513 with 26 homers in 135 Triple-A games. And, in 18 games back at Triple-A this season, Choi posted a .621 slugging percentage.

Hee Seop Choi will never be the defensive player that Derrek Lee is, but I think he eventually has a good chance to be just as good offensively. Whether or not that happens in the next year or two is a little less clear and I think that is why the Cubs made this move. Derrek Lee is far more of a "sure thing" over the next several seasons. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if Hee Seop Choi, assuming he gets everyday playing time in Florida, puts up very similar numbers to Derrek Lee over the next 2-3 seasons. And, after that, as Lee reaches the wrong side of 30 while Choi enters his prime, Choi should be a far better player.

It's a question of "now" versus "later." The "sure thing" versus "what might be." The Cubs have the luxury of adding to the payroll to get the "now" and the "sure thing." I think the Marlins, all things considered, did very well here, getting a very intriguing "what might be" with a potentially very good "later." And if the PTBNL turns out to be someone valuable, that's just icing on the cake.
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