Teams exchange first basemen in trade
CHICAGO -- The breakup of the Florida Marlins has begun.
More deals could follow.
This trade could be just what Derrek Lee's fantasy owners were looking for. Lee's a good player already; no first baseman is capable of 20-plus steals and a 30-100 season like Lee. Now Lee leaves a tough hitter's park for the Friendly Confines, where he could hit right behind Sammy Sosa. Note that Lee has 51 homers on the road over the last three seasons, and only 28 at Florida, and his slugging percentage is similarly much stronger away from home.
Lee's been a steady fantasy first baseman the past four years, close to a top 10 guy. Now, he should break into that group with the power numbers you demand consistently from the position.
As for other players affected here, this ends (thankfully) the Eric Karros/Randall Simon era in Chicago. No big fantasy loss there. In Florida, Hee Seop Choi does have potential, but he is no more guaranteed a job now. Remember, Jeff Conine remains a Marlin and he's staying, and his best position is first base. When Choi did play in 2003, he struck out nearly once a game, and batted .218, and he might be more of a doubles hitter than a 30-homer guy. Now he's in a tough park. Choi's not a fantasy worthy first baseman until he proves more, and don't be shocked if he ends up spending 2004 in the minors.
The Marlins insist their offseason changes won't be as drastic as the ones after they won their first World Series title in 1997. That team wasn't just broken up, it was blown up, with the best pieces stripped and sold to the highest bidder like so many spare parts.
But Florida does have to watch its budget. It won the World Series with a $54 million payroll, and it would cost more than $80 million just to keep the current squad intact.
Second baseman Luis Castillo, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and closer Ugueth Urbina are all free agents. Third baseman Mike Lowell, right fielder Juan Encarnacion and starting pitchers Brad Penny and Mark Redman are among a long list of players eligible for salary arbitration.
Lee also is eligible for arbitration, and his salary is expected to go from $4.25 million to at least $6 million. By trading him, the Marlins said they were able to offer right-hander A.J. Burnett a contract.
"I don't think this situation is anything like '97. We just have so many guys due for big pay jumps," Lee said. "You knew there was going to be one, two, maybe three guys that would have to be traded. You didn't necessarily know who.
"I was hearing all the rumors and my name seemed to be in every one, so I wasn't shocked to be traded."
In fact, Lee almost went to the Baltimore Orioles. He even went to Camden Yards this week to talk about a contract extension, but the deal fell through.
"They're a good organization and they're headed in the right direction," Lee said. "It didn't feel right for me."
That's when the Cubs came into the picture. With Lee, the Cubs added power, speed and sure hands to their lineup.
"We think it makes us a lot better," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who has already talked to Lee's agent about a longterm deal.
"We got a quality performance out of Eric Karros and Randall Simon, collectively," Hendry said. "But this is, we think, really one of premier corner players in his 20s in the game."
With good reason. Lee hit .271 with 31 homers, 92 RBIs and 21 steals last season and had a slugging percentage of .508. He has 20 homers in each of his last four seasons and 40 steals over the last two years -- the most by any first baseman in the majors.
He's also a Gold Glove winner, something the Cubs haven't had -- at any position -- since Mark Grace in 1996.
And Lee's numbers can only improve away from Florida's Pro Player Stadium. Lee's power traditionally has been to the alleys, which are a very long 385 feet in Miami.
Of Lee's 130 career homers, 89 came on the road.
"I'm trying not to think about that," Lee said, laughing. "But Pro Player is definitely a pitcher's park. Hopefully I can take advantage of the small confines at Wrigley."
While Lee said he'll miss the Marlins, he's excited to be coming to Chicago. He knows just how good the team can be after playing the Cubs in the NL championship series, and he's always wanted to play for Dusty Baker.
"Chicago, you can't ask for better place to play baseball," Lee said. "It's a real good situation."
Lee's father, Leon, is also a longtime scout for the Cubs -- and the one responsible for signing Choi, the first Korean-born position player in the majors.
On the opening day roster for the first time this year, Choi was hitting .244 with seven homers in 22 RBIs when he had a scary collision with Kerry Wood on June 7. Choi was on the disabled list for three weeks with a concussion, and struggled to regain his hitting stroke when he returned.
He was 11-for-67 with one homer after he was activated, and was sent to Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 17 after the Cubs acquired Simon. He was recalled in September and hit .218 with eight homers and 28 RBI for the season.
"He's not proven yet, but we think he's going to be an outstanding player," Beinfest said. "We think he's going to be an above-average first baseman."
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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