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A Defining Moment Revisited

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On July 30, 2004, a major trade was made, one that defined a general manager and led to one of the loudest outcries in recent memory: the Los Angeles Dodgers traded Paul Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion and Guillermo Mota to the Florida Marlins for Hee Seop Choi, Brad Penny, and Bill Murphy.

The statheads lauded this deal. Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus' Transactions Guru and one of the best in the business, wrote, "It looks like a slam dunk for the Dodgers... [for the Dodgers], getting Choi and Penny are... real gems," and, for the Marlins, the "moves might look contention-minded, but they might end up as disastrous in the short-term as they are for the future."

My initial impression was highly in favor of the Dodgers as well.

The general reaction to this deal from the mainstream was highly favored towards the Marlins. I have been unable to dig up some of Bill Plaschke's articles criticizing the trade, but I do remember that DePodesta got hammered by some and absolutely was adored by others.

Needless to say, this trade and the reaction from it was most likely one of the reasons why Mr. DePodesta lost his job in the 2005 offseason. DePodesta was "Ivy League" and a "computer geek," and the Dodgers needed to go back to being "old school." Depodesta was a casualty of this, and there was no greater indication of Depo's mindset than this trade.

We often look at things in hindsight when we evaluate them, but there are two different lenses through which we can and should evaluate trades retrospectively.

  1. Where is the perceived value advantage? Essentially, if you were to assign a number value to each trade chip, who got the higher total?
  2. Which players produced more after the trade?
Both ways are important. It's almost the same as the distinction between "process" and "outcome," where improving the process is more important for future success than strong outcomes are.

Here's an example:

From the first perspective, there was no way that the Victor Zambrano/Scott Kazmir trade could have been a success for the Mets. Why? Because they failed to maximize return on the value that was Scott Kazmir. Even if Victor Zambrano had emerged as a Cy Young candidate perennially, he was not worth the chip that was Scott Kazmir, because, theoretically, the Mets should have been able to acquire him for less than Scott Kazmir, or the Mets should have acquired a better player for Scott Kazmir.

From the second perspective, though, if Scott Kazmir blew out his arm and Zambrano emerged, it's a great trade for the Mets.

I'll stand by my initial analysis. Hee Seop Choi was a top flight prospect in 2004 and was considered the Cubs' #1 prospect by Baseball America, a scout-heavy venue, in 2003. Furthermore, Choi had done nothing but hit in the majors in 2004, posting a very productive line of .270/.388/.495 at the hitter hell that is Dolphins Stadium. Brad Penny was a starting pitcher with good strikeout rates and great stuff. LoDuca was an average catcher whose stats notoriously dipped in the second half, Guillermo Mota was a middle reliever having a good season, and Juan Encarnacion was nothing to write home about.

My opinion on the deal is that the Marlins overvalued Paul LoDuca and Guillermo Mota and undervalued the chips that they traded.

But what actually happened? I decided to look at the Wins Above Replacement Level (WARP) that the traded players have accumulated since the deal was completed almost two years ago. This is a proverbial "back of the envelope" style calculation for this type of comparison.

Dodgers WARP Marlins WARP
H. Seop Choi 2.8 P. LoDuca 5.1
B. Penny 9.8 G. Mota 2.5
B. Murphy 0 J. Encarnacion 5.2
TOTAL 12.6 TOTAL 12.8

Amazingly, after all of that, the value of the deal has been roughly the same.

What happened here? Well, just about everything as expected. Encarnacion is right around league average, maybe a little below. Lo Duca is a good player, just not the huge asset that he often gets credit for being. And Guillermo Mota was a middle reliever in the midst of a very short peak or just a good couple of seasons as a middle reliever. Like many other prospects, Murphy has not yet reached the majors. Penny was the best player in the deal, a starting pitcher who is probably a "second starter."

I omitted Hee Seop Choi from the discussion.

If things had played out the way I expected, it would look something more like this:

Dodgers WARP Marlins WARP
H. Seop Choi 12.8 P. LoDuca 5.1
B. Penny 9.8 G. Mota 2.5
B. Murphy 0 J. Encarnacion 5.2
TOTAL 22.6 TOTAL 12.8

Yet, for some reason, Hee Seop Choi has yet to develop.

John Sickels over at MinorLeagueBall.com wrote a great prospect retrospective on Choi, who still has a few years before I'll call him a real, bona fida bust. Sickels wrote, "Active comps include David Ortiz, Carlos Pena, Erubiel Durazo, and Travis Hafner. You can see from the comps that Choi could still go either way, having a fine career like Thornton, Ortiz, and Hafner, or fading quickly like Horn."

I think Choi was horribly mismanaged in his career. Playing under the Tracy/DePo philosophical difference could not have been easy, and, while Epstein in Boston is probably supportive of Choi, there are so many guys there on that end of the spectrum defensively who are better players than Choi that Choi will probably not get a chance anytime soon. Moreover, he's battled injuries this year.

Choi's already 27 and does have an old player skillset, so we might have simply missed the boat on his years of peak productivity. But I'm not convinced. Choi deserves one full season to prove his worth. A year in a place like Tampa would do him well, I think, but Choi's failure to develop is the reason why this trade did not work out as anticipated for the Dodgers.

To bring the post full circle, though, the big thing is that trades are about maximizing return for the value that you trade. The Dodgers did an excellent job of this in the Penny/Choi trade, even if it hasn't worked as well as they would have hoped.