Catcher didn't want to leave Dodgers
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.
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."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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