What if Mike Piazza was never traded to the Marlins? Would the Dodgers have been better in the long-run keeping him in Dodger blue?
When Mike Piazza was traded to the Marlins in 1998, there’s no Dodgers fan, anywhere, who was happy about it, and it still stings thinking about the best hitting catcher in baseball being sent east in the prime of his career.
Sure, Piazza was set to become a free agent, contract negotiations were at a standstill, and the team acquired a fierce slugger in Gary Sheffield, but this was not how Dodgers fans were used to the team doing business. Homegrown talent wasn’t supposed to end up on the trading block, especially a player who had grown up in the organization under godfather Tommy Lasorda.
It’s almost like the impossible happened when Piazza was traded.
But what if that dark day had never come. What if the Dodgers kept Piazza and he spent the rest of his career in Chavez Ravine, entering the Hall-of-Fame wearing a Dodgers cap?
To imagine Piazza finishing out the 1998 season in Los Angeles requires a guess about how his contract negotiations would have worked out before the 1999 season. After reaching immense popularity, perhaps unseen from the fan base since Fernando Valenzuela, Piazza heard some jeers from the crowd after it was reported that he turned down a six-year, $80 million extension.
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But let’s carry on the idea of Piazza staying in Los Angeles and assume he would have come to terms on a contract eventually.
Piazza continued his elite level of play for four more seasons after leaving the Dodgers. From 1999-2002, the slugging catcher produced 19.6 wins above replacement level, 23rd most in baseball over that period of time.
Interestingly, one of the players acquired in the deal that sent Piazza to Florida produced similar results in that time.
When the Dodgers finally agreed to part ways with the Hall-of-Fame catcher, they sent him, along with Todd Zeile, to the Marlins for Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield.
Sheffield, who spent three seasons with the Dodgers following the trade, accumulated the 27th highest WAR between 1999-2002, the same period Piazza continued to dominate in New York (where he was traded after arriving in Miami).
But if we reduce the comparison to the seasons Sheffield spent in Los Angeles (he was later traded to the Braves in 2002), the similarities with Piazza in production are striking, if not almost identical.
Sheffield hit one less home run and drove in 21 less RBIs than Piazza between 1999-2001, but he hit for a slightly higher average and reached base more often. Whichever way you cut it, the production between the two right-handed hitters was close to the same following the trade.
The major difference being the positions they played. It’s more difficult to find a catcher who hits like Piazza than it is an outfielder who slugs like Sheffield, which explains why Piazza’s WAR value over that time is slightly higher, even if Piazza was far from a reliable defensive backstop.
Ironically, the catcher who would replace Piazza’s role for the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000 became former Met, Todd Hundley, who had broke the single-season record for home runs by a catcher with 41 in 1996. Hundley struggled upon arriving in LA, and wasn’t able to keep himself in the lineup over a full season, battling with elbow issues, but he did hit 48 home runs in 204 games, and produced a respectable 3.0 WAR in 2000 despite only playing half the season.
After Hundley was deemed too expensive to keep around, Paul Lo Duca emerged and became an All-Star catcher for the Boys in Blue.
So while Mike Piazza was having his last few productive seasons in New York, the Dodgers had found a replacement in Lo Duca, after Hundley had helped bridge the gap. They also turned Gary Sheffield into a productive season of Brian Jordan in 2002. Jordan hit .285/.338/.469 with 18 home runs and 90 RBIs after being acquired in a deal that sent Sheffield to Atlanta.
So how does all of this help us answer the question of what would have happened had Piazza never been traded?
Well, I think it tells us the results might have been pretty much the same; it just would have felt more pleasant having Piazza lead the middle of the Dodgers lineup instead of an outsider, like Sheffield.
Mike Piazza was an incredibly popular player, his poster adorning walls across Southern California in the late nineties. It’s unfortunate how it ended. But with a new ownership group taking over, and contract talks reaching an ugly conclusion, it was possible they could have lost him for nothing.
Had he stayed with the Dodgers, as the numbers prove out, the results on the field might not have been very different in comparison to the players they acquired to replace his production.