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Catcher didn't want to leave Dodgers

MIAMI -- Paul Lo Duca no longer is disappointed to play for the Florida Marlins.

Lo Duca agreed Wednesday to an $18 million, three-year contract
with the Marlins, who acquired the two-time All-Star catcher in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer.

"When Jeffrey Loria said publicly not too long after we acquired Paul that he was not a summer rental, he meant it," said
Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest, referring to the team's
owner.

Lo Duca, a fan favorite in Los Angeles, was shocked and teary-eyed when the trade was announced in July. But he soon
became enamored with catching the Marlins' crop of young, talented
starters -- Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis -- and
decided Florida was the right place for him. They are joined by
veterans Al Leiter -- who threw a no-hitter in 1996 -- and Ismael Valdez.

"It is a lot of fun catching these guys," said Lo Duca, who
avoided salary arbitration by accepting the deal. "You have four
guys who can throw a no-hitter at any time. That makes it
interesting."

Lo Duca, who turns 32 April 12, hit .258 with three home runs
and 31 RBI in 53 games last season with the Marlins. He's a career
.285 hitter, with 60 home runs, 306 RBIs and 133 doubles in 640
games.

"He really came as advertised," Beinfest said. "Clutch
hitter, strong leader and just a very, very tough player."

Lo Duca quickly made an impact with his new club -- he homered as
a pinch hitter on the first pitch he saw as a Marlin. He
acknowledged that he could have perhaps made a bit more money in a
one-year deal had he gone the salary-arbitration route, but opted
instead to take the security of a longer contract.

"It was an easy decision," Lo Duca said. "Going into this
offseason, my mind was set on coming back. It was never an issue.
It was just a matter of getting the X's and O's basically done."

The Marlins made it clear last summer that they wanted to keep
Lo Duca for at least two more seasons, and now with his contract
status squared away, Beinfest said the blueprint for the 2005 team
is complete.

Florida lost starter Carl Pavano to the New York Yankees, but signed Leiter away from the New York Mets.

Gone is closer Armando Benitez, with Guillermo Mota -- another
part of the trade that sent Lo Duca to Florida -- ready to assume
the job. And the team got more bullpen help by signing Antonio Alfonseca, Todd Jones and Matt Perisho over the winter.

"We could go as-is today," Beinfest said. "Our desire is
always to try to improve and look at every possibility that's out
there, and we'll continue to do that."

One possibility is free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado, who
has talked to several teams -- including the Marlins. Delgado has
averaged 36 home runs and 114 RBIs in nine full major league
seasons.

Delgado or no Delgado, Lo Duca said he believes the Marlins
enter this season as the best in the NL East, even though 13-time
reigning division champion Atlanta has improved its pitching staff
and the Mets made one of this offseason's biggest moves by signing
outfielder Carlos Beltran to a seven-year deal.

"If we stay injury-free with Josh, A.J., Dontrelle and Al,
we're going to be right there," Lo Duca said. "If we do stay
healthy, we have the best team in the East."