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Choi to the World
2004-08-26 09:01
by Jon Weisman

Everybody knows that the Dodgers never intended to end up at the July 31 trading deadline with both Brad Penny and Randy Johnson on their roster.

But did they mean to come away with both Jayson Werth and Hee Seop Choi?

When the Dodgers acquired Choi and Penny on July 30, there was a chance that Werth would be accompanying Penny and others to Arizona the next day in trades for Johnson, Steve Finley or Brent Mayne.

But on the 31st, when the Johnson trade was falling through, the Dodgers went on to acquire Finley - without losing Werth.

Make no mistake, Finley has had a superb Dodger debut, with an OPS of .971. But having both Finley and Werth on the roster minimized the value of the Penny-Choi acquisition - even before Penny injured himself a week later.

Before the trades, the Dodgers had six relative constants in their lineup: Paul Lo Duca, Shawn Green, Adrian Beltre, Cesar Izturis, Milton Bradley, and the platoon of Alex Cora and Jose Hernandez. The departure of Lo Duca for Florida didn't change that number - it only replaced him with Dave Ross (soon to be augmented by Mayne instead of trade-vetoing Charles Johnson of Colorado).

When the Dodgers landed Finley, that upped the list of lineup constants to seven.

That meant that the most impact Choi could have upon his arrival, barring a slump or injury to Green, Bradley or Finley, was to augment the lineup slot held mostly by Werth (who had essentially usurped it from Dave Roberts).

Here are some numbers on Werth:

June OPS: .868
July OPS: .954
August OPS: .685
vs. lefties OPS: 1.054
vs. righties OPS: .724
2004 total OPS: .837

Werth has not had a good August (though as slumps go it's pretty mild), nor has he torn it up against right-handed pitching this year. But he's still having a solid year. Meanwhile, here's Choi:

June OPS: .868 (yep, same as Werth)
July OPS: .823
August OPS: .611
vs. lefties OPS: .593
vs. righties OPS: .885
2004 total OPS: .853

For 2004, Choi and Werth are about even as hitters - Choi slightly better, especially considering he has had more at-bats and is thus more tested. It appears, though, that Choi has the ability to give the Dodgers an extra edge against right-handed pitching by playing in place of Werth. (This edge would be mitigated by the dropoff at catcher with Lo Duca gone - but keep in mind that Florida doesn't give up Penny without getting Lo Duca. Werth and Mota for Penny and Choi wasn't an option.)

A few things have happened, however:

1) The Dodgers faced a string of left-handed starters in the immediate aftermath of the trades.

2) In his desire to keep his bench fresh, Dodger manager Jim Tracy has taken away starts from Choi against right-handed pitchers so that Robin Ventura and Jason Grabowski could play.

3) Tracy has also had the confidence in Werth to continue starting him against right-handed pitching on occasion.

As others have noted already, Choi has fewer complete games as a Dodger this season than Kazuhisa Ishii - even when he starts, he usually doesn't finish, instead coming out for a pinch-hitter. A Dodger for 26 days now, Choi has only 47 plate appearances - even though Werth, Bradley, Green and Finley have all suffered from nagging injuries in August.

As the Dodgers move down the stretch, Choi's playing time may increase for several reasons. The imbalance of lefty pitching opponents could recede - although Randy Johnson remains on the horizon. Finley could cool off or need more rest. The occasional start that still goes to Werth against right-handed starters could disappear. Green or Bradley could go down to injury, making the depth Choi provides invaluable.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Choi can have a great deal of influence on the Dodgers' chances of winning in 2004 - or that he could have much more influence than Dave Roberts, who was discarded to Boston, would have had.

Perhaps what's most interesting is this. In recent years, as the Dodgers have teetered on the edge of competitiveness, the question has come up at the trading deadline: Should Los Angeles be sellers or buyers. Even in 2004, this was true for much of the summer, until the Dodgers got red-hot in July.

Sellers or buyers? Buyers or sellers?

This year, Dodger general manager Paul DePodesta answered the question this way: How about both?

Acquiring Choi, Penny, Finley and Mayne, on paper, gave the Dodgers an edge in 2004 over Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, Koyie Hill and the other minor leaguers they traded away. The fact that Penny got injured altered the intended outcome, at least for now, but not what the reasonable expectation should have been. (By the way, Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports Weekly reported this week that Penny had several clean arm examinations while with Florida this season.)

By themselves, Choi and Penny more than make up for Lo Duca and Mota - though with Penny out, since Choi doesn't pitch or catch, Dodger blue is in the red on that individual trade for now. Of course, combine the Choi-Penny trade with the acquisition of Finley for spare parts, and even with Penny hurt, things start to look better.

For the future, the Dodgers have players that can help them much more than Lo Duca or Mota could. The potential for a young power hitter like Choi (who is a mere 65 days older than Werth - and 22 days older than Beltre, for that matter) to have an impact on the Dodgers increases with each passing day, month and year - he is a reliable commodity on a roster where other players are getting older or free-agenter.

No doubt, judgment will be rendered on the Dodger trades in October. If the Dodgers don't make it - whatever the reason - many will blame Lo Duca and Mota's departure. And even among supporters of the trade, disappointment over how the season played out would be profound.

But we can't fairly render judgment on the trade for years to come. And there's every reason to remain optmistic that DePodesta made the right move.

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