The Dodgers' search for a center fielder and leadoff hitter ended in an unlikely place Wednesday--with a trade for a man who has spent one season in the outfield and has twice been judged unfit to bat leadoff.
In adding yet another gamble to one of baseball's most uncertain rosters, the Dodgers acquired New York Met center fielder Juan Samuel for outfielder Mike Marshall and reliever Alejandro Pena.
This was a trade dressed in compromise. In exchange for not having to trade top young pitchers Ramon Martinez or John Wetteland, the Dodgers will take a chance on a two-time All-Star who has fallen on hard times.
"It was our hope and goal to be able to do that," said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire about keeping his league-best starting rotation intact. "There were many times I didn't think it was possible. But then that door finally opened, and this was just what we were looking for. This is the best possible fit."
Samuel, 29, will bring the Dodgers speed; he has at least 33 stolen bases in each of his six major league seasons, including 72 stolen bases in 1984. He will bring power; in 1987 he had 80 extra-base hits, becoming only the third second baseman in major league history to reach that level.
But he will also bring awkwardness in center field, where he had spent only two games before moving there full time last season. His progress in the outfield was hampered by a midseason trade from Philadelphia to New York, where he took such criticism for his defense that some say it affected his hitting. Overall last season he hit .235 with 11 home runs and 42 runs batted in, all career lows.
He will also bring the Dodgers something as welcome in a leadoff man as big feet--strikeouts. Last season was the first time in six years he did not lead the National League in strikeouts. Even then, he was the only player in the league with more than 110 strikeouts (120) and fewer than 12 homers (11). That problem, coupled with an inability to draw walks, forced both the Phillies and Mets to remove him from the leadoff spot.
Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said Samuel's problems weren't anything that couldn't be fixed. He said he is already excited about an outfield of Kal Daniels in left, Samuel in center and Kirk Gibson in right, where he played when the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1984.
"This is the answer to what we've needed," Lasorda said from the Dominican Republic, where he is on a scouting mission. "We feel this (Samuel) has all the abilities to be a center fielder. And he will also make an ideal leadoff man. Just look at his speed. That is so important and something we didn't have last year. This guy can steal much more than 40 bases, and we're going to let him go."
About his fielding? "We are going to work and work and make it possible for him to be a good center fielder," Lasorda said.
And his strikeouts? "We will help him make the necessary adjustments in that, too," Lasorda said.
Samuel, at home in the Dominican Republic, could not be reached for comment.
Samuel is entering the second year of a two-year contract that will pay him $1.25 million in 1990.
"We didn't just trade for him for one year," Claire said. "We hope he will be a Dodger for the rest of his career, and we know we have to make adjustments for that."
Met Manager Davey Johnson agreed with Lasorda, and said he was sorry to lose Samuel.
"I really loved Sammy, and I really don't like to trade a player coming off a bad year. You don't get (true) value," Johnson said. "I would have liked nothing better than to have Sammy playing the way he's capable of playing next season."
And at least one Dodger player agreed with both of them.
"I think it's a fantastic trade," utility man Mickey Hatcher said from his Arizona home. "We are getting just the type of player the Dodgers need. We all know Juan is capable of playing very, very well. And I thought we would have to give up a pitcher to get him. I think it worked out great."
Especially for the two traded Dodgers, even though both have been with the organization their entire careers. Marshall had become frustrated with being forced to constantly answer for his nagging injuries, while Pena had become lost behind right-handed stopper Jay Howell. Last season, Pena entered a game with a lead only 16 times in 53 appearances.
Said Marshall in a conference call with New York: "Really, it's not that surprising. Anytime you hear your name as much as I did this winter, you're not surprised. The Mets are one of a handful of teams I would have liked to have gone to. I'm not as sad about it as people might think. This is my home, but from a baseball standpoint, it's exciting to think about playing with the Mets."
His stay there might not be for long, as he could be used in a deal with the Boston Red Sox, helping the Mets obtain center fielder Ellis Burks, who had been coveted by the Dodgers. For now, Marshall will be listed along with Met Dave Magadan as a first baseman.