|Thursday, February 13
Updated: March 14, 5:15 PM ET
McGriff, Hundley will do little to help Dodgers
By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com
Talk about an eternal optimist.
Dan Evans is the kind of upbeat young executive who finds positives in every situation. An open mind is a valuable thing to have. Evans proved that a year ago by declining to acquire a proven closer, which left an important job open for Eric Gagne, who was squeezed out of the starting rotation.
But Evans has gone too far this time.
Needing to improve a flawed lineup that kept Los Angeles from making the 2002 playoffs, the Dodgers general manager turned to a most unlikely source for talent -- the supporting cast that had failed Sammy Sosa.
Evans, who was hooked on baseball watching the Cubs at Wrigley Field in the 1970s, imported first baseman Fred McGriff and catcher Todd Hundley in his most notable offseason moves. The odd thing is Evans spent a little time working for Andy MacPhail in 2001 yet is entrusting his new team to two guys who badly failed his old boss.
He says he wanted to balance a lineup that leaned to the right. By acquiring left-handed hitters McGriff, Hundley and Daryle Ward, he's done that. But what about the ex-Cub factor?
Evans offers sound explanations about how he came to fall for McGriff and Hundley.
"McGriff's slugging percentage last year was 100 points higher than our first basemen,'' Evans said from the Dodgers' camp in Vero Beach, Fla. "He outhomered them, 30-14. We're not looking for him to do anything more than he's done the last few years ... An average season from Fred McGriff will be a big difference for us.''
"One thing we wanted to do was improve our bench,'' Evans said. "We think with Ward and Hundley, we have. Hundley outhomered Eric Karros (16-13) in (258) fewer at-bats.''
Evans decided he wouldn't hold his old favorite team against McGriff and Hundley. He ignored what happened to the Cubs after McGriff arrived in a July 31 deadline trade in 2001.
Sosa's best-ever performance and a run of overpowering pitching had Don Baylor's team in first place in the National League Central. The Cubs had scuffled for runs all season, however, with black holes at first base, catcher and center field.
It seemed an ideal situation to add a proven run-producer like McGriff, who came to Chicago on July 29, with the Cubs 3½ games ahead of Houston and 7½ ahead of St. Louis. But it turned out to be a zero-sum move.
McGriff put up numbers, but the Cubs sunk to third in the Central, going 28-31 after the deal. That formula was followed again in '02.
McGriff, who will be 39 when he reports to Dodgertown, hit 42 home runs and drove in 144 runs in his 195 games with the Cubs. Yet the team that had a .583 winning percentage when he arrived played .430 baseball with him on the roster.
This follows four seasons when he was The Man for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, willing them to a 235-354 record. That's a personal .407 winning percentage for the last five years. This is a one-man tribute to the Cleveland Spiders. And he's the guy Evans is adding to the middle of his lineup?
"I don't think you can blame Tampa Bay or the Cubs' situation on Fred McGriff,'' Evans said. "He's been a part of some great teams, part of a club (Atlanta) that won the world championship.''
When 2002 ended, Evans knew there was little point to tinker with his pitching staff. After all, Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort were due to rejoin the cast that had ranked third in the NL in ERA without them. The additions of Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii, along with the job switch for Gagne, had more than compensated for the absence of the two guys with the biggest paychecks.
They gave the Dodgers a chance to win and Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca and their teammates got enough timely hits to make it a most interesting season at Chavez Ravine. Under second-year manager Jim Tracy, Los Angeles won 92 games despite outscoring the opposition by only 70 runs overall.
"The credit has to go to the manager and his coaching staff,'' Evans said. "We got as far as we did because of their work ethic and the approach that they brought to the park every day.''
Because of a 33-15 record in one-run games, the Dodgers remained in contention until the end. They led the West at the All-Star break and were tied with San Francisco for the wild-card spot as late as Sept. 16.
A pretty impressive feat for a team with a .320 on-base percentage -- only four teams (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Detroit) were worse. Not to mention the .729 OPS, which ranked 22nd in the majors. If the Dodgers are again going to contend for a playoff spot, they will need another vintage season from Green, better first halves from Brian Jordan and Adrian Beltre along with help elsewhere. It fell to Evans to make things better. He says he's one of the rare few general managers who was allowed to increase his payroll, but the increase will be only about 10 percent.
So Evans had to think creatively. That led him to Wrigley Field.
Not wanting to sacrifice the glove work and highly professional approach of young shortstop Cesar Izturis, who helped the Dodgers set a club record for fewest errors, Evans decided his best bet was to overhaul the right side of the infield.
In one move, he was able to find a taker for Karros and unhappy second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, veterans of a combined 18 seasons in Los Angeles who will be paid a combined $13.5 million in the final years of their long-term contracts. But nothing comes free.
Evans had to take Hundley in return. His four-year, $23.5-million deal with the Cubs had taken its place alongside the signing of Jose Guzman to replace Greg Maddux as one of the worst moves in the club's sad history. And he has two years left on that deal.
Everything Hundley touched in his two years with the Cubs turned out badly. He had become a target for fans in the ballpark where his father remains respected for his professionalism. Perhaps things will be better in Los Angeles, where he won't carry such high expectations.
It's a good sign that he's talking about a willingness to work out at other positions. He refused Baylor's request that he take grounders at first base in case he was needed there.
The trade of Grudzielanek opens a spot for rookie Joe Thurston, or "Joey Ballgame,'' as he was known while climbing up the ladder in the farm system. He's a 23-year-old who brings another left-handed bat, this one with top-of-the-lineup skills. He needs to take more walks (only 25 in 626 Triple-A plate appearances) but nevertheless is counted on to improve the .313 on-base percentage the Dodgers received from their No. 2 hitters last season.
It was easy to write Thurston into the tentative lineup. After all, he hit .334 and stole 22 bases for Las Vegas, which went 85-59 to win its division of the Pacific Coast League. But to count on McGriff is a true leap of faith.
Despite the endorsement from Evans, who says he did a thorough background check, he's a player that only a Rotisserie league owner could love. McGriff is 22 home runs away from 500. But since the Braves gave up on him after 1997 -- and that says a lot in itself -- he has put up only the most hollow of numbers.
Sure, he's the only guy to ever have 30-homer seasons for five different teams. But is this a good thing?
And consider this: When the Cubs acquired him for a playoff push in 2001, MacPhail had to use a crow bar covered with $100 bills to pry him away from the comfort zone that was swinging at the Tropicana Field fences. The lack of crowds, not to mention expectations and excitement, was just fine for a player happily coasting to the finish line.
MacPhail should have taken no for an answer. But he couldn't get his eyes off the stat sheet, so he kept pushing until the Tin Man was a Cub. Now Evans has made the same mistake.
You figure McGriff would have rather signed somewhere else, like Kansas City, Detroit or Milwaukee. But teams on dead-end streets didn't want him and he couldn't say no to the Dodgers' offer of $3.75 million.
"He really wanted to play for us,'' Evans said. "When we expressed interest in him, he indicated there was a lot of interest in him for us.''
But McGriff wasn't motivated by the Dodgers' chance to rise again in the league they once dominated. He just wanted to go someplace where he would get some guaranteed at-bats and continue to make his career tote board spin. The truth is that Los Angeles, where he's never hit well and cannot hide his diminished defensive skills, is a forced fit, at best.
McGriff is a career .250 hitter with only five homers in 184 at-bats at Dodger Stadium. The push toward a 500th homer could turn into an extended, unpleasant march. It won't help if a few April and May games slip through his hands, which is a distinct possibility given his play in the field last season.
Don't be surprised if Ward or rookie Chin-Fing Chen (who for the moment is moving back to left field) is playing first base for the Dodgers in August -- after Evans has moved McGriff on down the road to the next sucker.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.