De-constructing the Piazza trade

The 1998 Mike Piazza trade continues to be a “shot heard around the world” moment in Dodgers history. On one level, they traded their best offensive player, reigning matinee idol and all-around superstar for a group of players, some effective, some not so much. On a more symbolic level, it was a game changer. It was a true sign the O’Malleys were getting out of baseball as behemoth Fox was moving in. Trading Piazza was in effect trading a homegrown favorite son away for some free agent-types and journeymen, a departure from “the Dodger way” where Dodger teams were built around homegrown talent.

It was much more complicated than that. Piazza was a player disgruntled with his contract negotiations, and the Dodgers figured they would lose him to free agency in the off-season. They saw as the only choice to trade him away and get as much value as they could. The trade—Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich and minor leaguer Manuel Barrios that still leaves many Dodger fans gnashing their teeth to this day.

Many view the trade as a complete disaster that ripped the team’s heart out. Even if you take in to account the various conspiracy theories bandied about, was it really a bad deal? If you consider the expectations, motives and results of the various teams involved, you get a true picture with more gray to it than many Dodger fans would believe.

Trades, especially blockbusters that involve many teams (which this one ultimately did, considering Piazza and Zeile were shipped off quite quickly to the Mets and Rangers, respectively) often have many threads to them, so it isn’t always easy to determine who “won” or who “lost.” Many other trades, while in hindsight may look lopsided, often don’t take into account the motives of the team involved.

Take, for instance, the 1990 Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen trade. The playoff-bound Red Sox had a horrible middle-relief crew, with nobody to get the ball between their solid starters and Jeff Reardon reliably. They were desperate for a middle reliever, and while Bagwell was a pretty strong prospect, few could foretell that he would go on to have the career that he had. In retrospect, the Red Sox got swept that year by the A’s, Andersen was a Padre the next year, and Bagwell had a near-Hall of Fame career. In hindsight, it was a lopsided trade, but given the circumstances at the time, it was very defensible.

Mike Piazza, possibly the greatest-hitting catcher off all time, was entering his last year before free agency, and negotiations for a contract extension were not going well. When he complained about his situation to Jason Reid, the Dodgers’ beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, things got very ugly.

Fearing they would not be able to re-sign him, they sought a trade. The Florida Marlins came up. They has won the World Series the year before, but had responded by completely dismantling the team. While owner Wayne Huizenga was happy that he won a World Series, he knew he couldn’t afford to keep the team together, and was surely looking to sell.

On May 14, 1998, the deal was done, with Piazza and Zeile going over to the Marlins and Sheffield, Bonilla, Johnson, Eisenreich and Barrios joining the Dodgers. The Marlins, however, had no plans to keep either Piazza or Zeile around. Eight days later, Piazza was gone to the Mets for Preston Wilson, Geoff Goetz and Ed Yarnall, while on July 31 they traded Zeile for Daniel De Young and Jose Santo.

Piazza would play for the Mets until 2005, while Zeile would play for five more teams after lasting a little over a season with the Rangers. Sheffield played with the Dodgers through 2001. Bonilla and Johnson moved on from the Dodgers after 1998, and Eisenreich would retire, Preston Wilson had a good career with the Marlins, Rockies and Cardinals, while none of the other players mentioned ever had more than a cup of coffee in the majors.

So who won? Who lost? Or neither? The main teams involved were the Marlins, Mets and Dodgers. The Marlins tore apart their roster, but built it back up enough to win a World Series in 2003. The Mets, with Piazza behind the plate, made nice playoff runs in 1999 and 2000, while the Dodgers could never really get their feet off the ground with Fox.

The question is, how much did these trades impact their success or lack thereof? How much did these players bring to their new teams, and how much did their departure cost their old teams? To answer this, we must find out what the teams were looking for in the first place.

The 1997 Dodgers were loaded. Four guys hit over thirty homers, being second in the league in that department (Piazza clubbed 40, Eric Karros had 31, Zeile hit 31, and Raul Mondesistroked 30) Piazza had the best year of his career, with 124 RBI, a .362 BA, a gaudy .431 OBP, and an OPS of 1,070. Mondesi had a career year, hitting .310 and stealing 32 bases, along with a .902 OPS, and Zeile had also perhaps the best season of his career.

The pitching was also strong, finishing second to the future Hall of Fame Braves staff in ERA and WHIP, and leading the league in strikeouts. They weren’t perfect—the bullpen was shaky—and despite the huge power numbers, they were seventh in the league in RBI, which said there wasn’t always a bunch of guys on base when they hit their dingers. There were holes in the lineup at second base and left field, and the bench wasn’t strong.

They were in first place on September 1, but had a tough September where they ended up finishing two games behind the Giants and three games behind the Marlins. For this and other late-season meltdowns in 1995 and 1996 where they were both times swept out of the first round ignominiously, they were labeled underachievers, and Piazza, perhaps undeservedly, took a large share of the blame from the media, fans and even players.

In Spring 1998, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times interviewed a recently-retired Brett Butler, who was quoted as calling Piazza a “moody, self-centered ’90s player” and also said, “Mike Piazza is the greatest hitter I’ve ever been around, but you can’t build around Piazza because he’s not a leader.” Butler claimed he’d been misquoted by the often-controversial Plaschke, and many members of the team came to Piazza’s defense, but it was out there, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Piazza’s contract and impending free agency were becoming an issue. Before 1997, Piazza and his agent asked the Dodgers for a six-year, $60 million contract extension, but were turned down. They instead accepted arbitration and agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal that left Piazza bitter.

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Some former team executives now look back on that with some regret. “At 60 million for six years, it would’ve been a lot less than what he got offered later,” said Derrick Hall, the Dodgers’ former senior vice president to Steve Delsohn. “It also would’ve ended the problems right there.” Piazza was also reportedly unhappy about the Dodgers giving a multi-year deal to Mondesi.

With Fox taking over, Piazza’s meltdown with Jason Reid, and the flap with Butler, it all came to a head around Opening Day. The Dodgers offered a six-year, $80 million contract, which Piazza refused. The writing was on the wall. The Dodgers knew they had to trade him or risk getting nothing for him.

The Marlins started in 1993 with a rotation built around knuckleballer Charlie Hough, then-third baseman Gary Sheffield and first baseman Jeff Conine. Slowly but surely, young guys like Robb Nen got better and they added free agents like Moises Alou, Kevin Brown and Devon White.

In 1997, they won the wild card, swept the Giants in the Division Series and defeated the Braves the NLCS in six games. They then topped it off with a World Series victory in seven games over the Indians.

Before the champagne even got warm, Huizenga was dismantling his team. He said they were losing money, so he got rid of all the higher-paid players, and went with a very young team in 1998. The trade with the Dodgers was one of the final nails in the transition. Their whole plan was to start from scratch; they never had any intention of holding on to Piazza. Their whole idea was to get a ton of prospects for their expensive players and hopefully make a run somewhere down the line, and to possibly sell the team.

The Mets were a team looking to move from good to great. Bobby Valentine took over the team in 1997 after six straight losing seasons, and led them to an 88-74 record. While it was only good enough to get them third place behind the Marlins and Braves, it gave those in Queens something to cheer about for the first time.

They had a young Edgardo Alfonzo, who had a .315 BA, a .391 OBP, and a .823 OPS, and also John Olerud, who hit 30 home runs and had a .400 OBP. Additionally, Todd Hundley had a second straight fine year, also hitting 30 HR with a .394 OBP and a .923 OPS. Their pitching was effective, if not stellar. Rick Reed won 13 games, had a 2.89 ERA and a WHIP of 1.043. Another strong starter was Bobby Jones, who had 15 wins, a 3.89 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. John Franco anchored a decent bullpen with 36 saves.

They didn’t do a whole lot in the offseason, but early in 1998, they struck a deal with the Marlins. The Mets gave outfielder Wilson to the Marlins along with pitching prospects Yarnall and Goetz. In return, they got Piazza, who suddenly made the Mets very dangerous. It was all part of a series of moves by then GM Steve Phillips, acquiring guys like Piazza, , Armando Benitez and Al Leiter that turned the Mets from a doormat to a divisional power.

Piazza arrived with both fans and players quickly anointing him as the Mets’ savior. New York buzzed with anticipation, and Franco, a long-time Met, gave up his number 31 so Piazza would feel right at home. However, being anointed a “savior” in New York is often a kiss of death, which it nearly was for Piazza, as he was replacing favorite Hundley, who was coming off of two straight great years himself. When Piazza struggled early on, the Met fans and press turned on him.

Despite all of that, he eventually settled down. He hit .351 in the second half (including .378 in September as he carried the Mets offense through a playoff push that fell just short) to finish the year at .328, fourth in the league. Shortly after the season, he signed a seven-year deal with the Mets (for about the same money the Dodgers offered him).

With the Dodgers going through a rough ownership transition, but still trying to stay competitive, and the Marlins having a fire sale, the Mets were, under Phillips’s tutelage, trying to build up a championship team. Given these objectives, it is easier to determine who “won” and who “lost” the trade. The two main criteria to be looked at are the respective player performances and how much they helped their team.

In the Dodgers’ mind, they were primarily looking at Sheffield and Johnson. Eisenreich had a great left-handed bat, and Bonilla, although on the downside of his career, could give them some extra pop and some insurance for the 19-year-old Adrian Beltre, but Fred Claire said, “I had been talking to the Marlins about acquiring Sheffield and Johnson, but I had never mentioned Bobby Bonilla.” However, Chase Carey made the trade without Claire’s knowledge, and it set off a firestorm which eventually led to Claire and manager Bill Russell’s departure.

Eisenreich and Bonilla didn’t make notable contributions to the Dodgers in 1998, and Johnson was also a disappointment, at least offensively, hitting only .217 with a .279 OBP and a .638 OPS. This was a disappointing departure for Johnson, whose career numbers were .245/.330/.433/.762. He was still solid defensively, throwing out 30 runners in 102 games at a 43% clip. Either way, in an ironic twist of fate, he was shipped off to the Mets after the season for, among others, Hundley.

Whatever else may be said about Sheffield or the trade as a whole, he came through big time with the Dodgers, and pretty much matched or bettered Piazza’s Mets numbers. On top of this, before his rather messy 2001 departure, he was pretty much on his best behavior as a Dodger.

In 1998, he played 90 games. He hit 16 homers with 57 RBI, batting .316 with an astounding .444 OBP. In the next three years as a Dodger, he never failed to hit fewer than 34 homers (including 43 in 2000), never had fewer than 100 RBI, never had less than a .407 OBP, and in 2000-01, he had an OPS over 1.000. His great counting stats implied he stayed healthy, something Sheffield often had a problem with earlier in his career.

The trade did not noticeably make the Dodgers better, but it perhaps did not make them any worse (as many critics may think), either. With the exception of 1999, when they finished 77-85, the Dodgers won around 85-90 games and generally hung around in contention, though they never actually made it to the postseason.

It wasn’t until 2004, when they made it to the playoffs again, three years after the last vestiges of the Piazza trade were felt by the Dodgers. throughout this period Los Angeles had decent-but-not-great pitching, and the same for power, but was below average in BA, OBP, SLG and OPS, which reinforces them as the slightly-above-average team that they were.

In 1998, the group of players traded from the Marlins contributed 2.3 WAR for the Dodgers, with Sheffield supplying 3.9 and the rest of the players supplying negative or miniscule contributions. Sheffield contributed 3.0 WAR in 1999, 6.7 in 2000, and 4.9 in 2001.

The Marlins went into this realizing these trades would not make them better, at least not right away. The only certifiable major leaguer they got out of the Dodgers, Mets and Rangers trades was Wilson, a young center fielder who gave power and speed to the suddenly young Marlins. On the upside he averaged 25 HR and about 25 SB per year as a Marlin, but also struck out too much. In his career in Florida, Wilson’s numbers roughly averaged 260/.330/.485/.800, and he averaged 2.9 WAR.

None of the prospects the Marlins received in the deals added up to much. Goetz was a first-round draft pick for the Mets who never even made it into the majors, Yarnall had a cup of coffee with the Mets, but couldn’t match his minor league success, and neither of the Rangers prospects ever made it into the big leagues.

Where it could be argued the Marlins won out was with this fire sale, which helped them wipe the books clean and slowly but surely build the team that would win the World Series in 2003. The Dodgers have not won a World Series, or even been in one, since 1988, the Mets haven’t won since 1986 (they did appear in one in 2000), and the Rangers have never won one (losing to the Giants this past fall). The Marlins have earned two world titles, and were not even in existence when the Dodgers and Mets last won.

After a rough start, the Mets fans embraced Piazza, and he continued to have great years at the plate. The 23 homers he hit in 1999 after the trade combined with a .348 average, .417 OBP, and .607 SLG .607. He walloped 40 home runs in 1999, but he paid for it slightly with lower numbers elsewhere (.303/.361/.575/.936). In 2000 he proved he was not quite ready to be called a one-dimensional hitter just yet. He hit 38 that year, and his other numbers rose accordingly (.324/.398/.614/1.012).

In 2000, Piazza’s RBI fell off slightly, but that could be because his team, which was 12th in the NL in OBP, didn’t put enough runners on for him. He hit 36 HR, and although his numbers declined slightly (.300/.384/.573/.957), he was still playing at a very high level for a 32-year-old catcher. 2002 saw a similar decline, with his average falling to .280 and his OBP to .359. He did still hit 33 HR that year. He was injured much of 2003, and 2004 and 2005 saw a decline in numbers that is normal for aging catchers, but still were pretty strong for his position.

His defense was always below average. He was usually in the top five for errors, but that could be forgiven due to his heavy workload. He was also first in stolen bases allowed for much of his career, though the workload can be partially being blamed for that. One thing often ignored was that from 1998-2002, he was in the top five for Range Factor for catchers, so perhaps he wasn’t as bad as his reputation makes him out to be.

One thing the Mets did, especially during his first couple of years there, was win. In 1998, after the trade, Piazza was instrumental in them almost getting to the playoffs. They made it to NLCS in 1999 before bowing down to the Braves in six games. In 2000, they made it to the World Series, something Piazza never saw as a Dodger, where they were beaten by the Yankees in the infamous Subway Series.

Despite what anybody might say about Piazza, he put up the numbers, and the Mets were better for it. He had guys like Olerud, Alfonso and Ventura around him in the lineup, and pitchers like Reed, Leiter and Mike Hampton pitching for him. But he was the focal point, and despite a mediocre postseason hitting record (workload?), he seemed to be well liked and respected in New York.

He contributed 5.5 WAR in just over 100 games after his trade from the Marlins, another 4.3 for the 1999 playoff run and 5.2 for 2000, they year they were in the World Series, 5.4 in 2001, and 4.3 in 2002. Altogether, in his career as a Met (1999-2005) he contributed 24.2 WAR.

So strictly on a performance basis, it is almost a tie between Sheffield and Piazza in productivity. In 1999, Piazza had more homers and RBI, but their averages and slugging numbers were similar. Sheffield played in a tougher hitter’s park, which evens him up homer-wise. They both had monster years in 2000, with Sheffield having an edge in homers and OBP, but most other numbers being the same. Once again, Sheffield doing half of his hitting in Dodger Stadium gives him a slight edge.

Sheffield’s numbers in 2001 were slightly above Piazza’s, most notably in RBI and OBP. Based on 1998-2001, their numbers are similar, with perhaps a slight edge to Sheffield. What turns it around was that Sheffield departed the Dodgers after 2001. While Piazza had a productive 2002 season and decent 2004 and 2005 seasons, respectively, the Dodgers got nothing out of the trade in those years. A slight edge would go to the Mets here, but Dodger fans complaining about the horribly uneven trade are misguided.

The Mets or Marlins would win as far as playoff participation goes. The Marlins won by subtraction. They got rid of the veterans of their 1997 championship teams, and basically built up the 2003 team from scratch. Yes, the 2003 team—except for Mr. Marlin, Jeff Conine—bore no resemblance whatsoever to the 1997 team, but perhaps the breaking down of the 1997 team contributed to it, freeing up money to sign stars like Josh Beckett. The connection is admittedly a little vague. There are few direct connections between the championship teams—even the owners are different—but it is worth noting.

The Mets made it to the NLCS in 1999 and the World Series in 2000, and while you can debate endlessly about Piazza’s clubhouse presence, or you can note the fine supporting casts he had there, he was, in fact, the best and most dynamic player of the team, and his offensive production was one of the main reasons they made it there.

Perhaps his statistical contribution is similar or even slightly inferior to Sheffield’s, but the Mets and Steve Phillips made a good move in making Piazza a part of those two fine Mets teams. The Dodgers made a good move in getting Sheffield for Piazza, but were never able to put the talent around Sheffield to make a playoff run. So whether you blame Sheffield, Fox or their revolving door management, they did not get it done.

The Mets had an overall plan on how to get better, and the Piazza trade, while important, was just one of those moves. They benefitted the most out of the Piazza trade because the deal was part of a string of other moves to make the team better. You want to give credit to the Marlins for making it to the World Series five years after decimating their first championship team, but with a completely different roster and management, the connections are vague, at best.

Huizenga tore apart the team to make it a more attractive sell, and John Henry built it back up again. That is the only connection. The Dodgers, realizing they would lose Piazza, made a bold move with the Marlins,, and on a strictly statistical basis, did well, all things considered. They were never able, despite signing guys like Kevin Brown, to make a playoff run. They did make it in 2004, but the Piazza trade had no effect on that outcome.

References & Resources
True Blue, The dramatic history of the Los AAngeles Dodgers, told by the men who lived it, by Steve Delsohn

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11 years ago

You are overlooking one very important aspect of the Piazza trade, which is that Todd Hundley – who had off-season surgery after 1997 – was on the DL for the first half of 1998. Given, Hundley was no Piazza, and, for all his bloviating idiocy on ESPN, I’ll give Phillips credit for pulling the trigger when a star became available. Still, I’d have to think that, had Hundley never gotten hurt, the Mets would not have traded for Piazza. An interesting counter-factual, that – perhaps the late 90s Mets would not have been quite strong enough to make the postseason with Hundley behind the plate. I really don’t know, though.

Anyway, in July/August, when Hundley returned, the idea was to put him in LF and bat him behind Piazza. Had it all worked, that would’ve been a hell of a lineup. But, in an uncanny foreshadowing of the Mets’ ill-fated “Piazza, 1B” experiment in 2004, Hundley’s defense was atrocious. And his bat – while it had a few good-for-a-catcher seasons left in it – was never the same. So he was shipped off to LA and the Mets became Piazza’s team.

Steven Booth
11 years ago

I think if Hundley hit like he did in 96 and 97, he would’ve given much of the same pop that Piazza did, and with guys like Ventura helping him out in the lineup, they would’ve been very close to what they did with Piazza. That being said, there is something to what you are saying, so more power to Phillips on that one. Whatever his personal track record, he was a very good GM.

I tried to stay away from too many “what-if” scenarios, and deal with the actual happenings. There are a bunch of conspiracy theories as to why Piazza was upset with the Dodgers and why they traded him. If I hit every one, it would be a 500 page book. I tried to keep it on the facts that the Mets needed a catcher, and Phillips went for Piazza, it seems with little hesitation.

George Purcell
11 years ago

I think you’re making a critical mistake in valuing that trade; the ONLY WAR that should count on the Piazza side is that which was generated before he would have reached free agency in 2000.  Valuing the entire rest of his career grossly distorts what the Dodgers gave up and the value that the Mets truly received.

What the Dodgers had to sell was a year of Piazza.  They should be judged on what the got for that year only.

Steven Booth
11 years ago

Hey Geroge-

WAR was just one of the things I jedged the trade on I went over many other stats and factors.

Yeah, it was just a year of Piazza, I did take a bit of license there imaging a scenario where they would’ve held on to him, and I realized it probably wouldn’tve been that much different even if he stayed.

11 years ago

A couple things here.

1) That FOX wanted to seal a FSN deal with Florida is well known.

2) That Piazza’s demands were infinitely reasonable is well known.

3) That Piazza was and is beloved in Los Angeles is well known.

4) That there has never been that kind of sustained offensive production from the catcher’s spot is uncontested and it allowed the Dodgers to go defensive at other positions or get even more offense.  WAR doesn’t quite measure that value.

5) Piazza was highly underrated as a defensive player.  He was clearly too tall for a catcher, especially one converted from 3B, so he was slow out of the crouch, but his arm was one of the best for pure strength and he was an excellent handler of the pitching staff (he was also the rare offense-first/regular catcher who would handle the staff knuckleballer).  Further, his throwing numbers weren’t helped in L.A. by having an absolutely awful staff against the running game (Nomo, Candiotti, Valdes and Martinez were all awful at holding runners).

6. I do agree that Sheffield was a good get in that situation, because he was one of the best hitters of the era.  The paper value wasn’t bad, it was the moral and more existential value that was the problem.

7 years ago

When comparing Sheffield and Piazza’s offensive numbers, you have to consider that one was a catcher and the other was an OF. Piazza was clearly the more valuable player. Very few C’s hit like that; you basically had a catcher who hit like Sheffield. Much easier to find corner OFs who are sluggers.