Lopez joins Arizona rotation

By Jim Callis

July 25, 2001

The National League West-leading Diamondbacks were looking for another starter. Their expansion brethren, the Devil Rays, own the worst record in baseball and their main goal is to save money. So on Wednesday Tampa Bay sent righthander Albie Lopez and catcher Mike DiFelice to Arizona for lefthander Nick Bierbrodt, outfielder Jason Conti and a reported $750,000. In addition, the Devil Rays will save approximately $2 million after shedding the remainder of Lopez’ $2.975 million salary and DiFelice’s $1 million salary for 2001.

Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar described Lopez, 28, as easily his club’s most marketable player. An Arizona native who was born in Mesa and pitched at Mesa Community College, Lopez has bounced back from a 10-game losing streak to go 2-1, 2.79 in his last three starts. Overall, he’s 5-12, 5.34, though the Diamondbacks are hoping he’s regaining his 2000 form. If he can, he’ll give Arizona the solid No. 3 starter it needs behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Last year, the first time he was used extensively as a starter in the majors, Lopez went 11-13, 4.13 to rank eighth in the American League in ERA. His true ability probably lies in between his performances the last two years. Lopez throws in the low 90s but never has overwhelmed hitters. His career record is 38-45, 4.84 in nine seasons with the Indians and Devil Rays. He can become a free agent at season’s end.

DiFelice, 32, has been a backup catcher for most of his major league career. He’s not much of a hitter but he has a decent arm. DiFelice is hitting .208-2-9 in 149 at-bats this year and .245-21-110 in 339 career games with the Cardinals and Devil Rays. He has thrown out 31.7 percent of basestealers in 2001, which would rank fifth in the American League if he had enough attempts to qualify. DiFelice likely will replace Rod Barajas as Arizona’s reserve catcher.

Though the Devil Rays’ main motivation in this trade was money, they did pick up the 23-year-old Nick Bierbrodt, the most advanced lefthander prospect in a depleted Diamondbacks system. Bierbrodt was Arizona’s first-ever first-round pick in 1996, and his bonus nearly doubled from $525,000 to $1.046 million because of a since-banned escalator clause that tied his bonus to other first-rounders’. A product of Millikan High in Long Beach, Bierbrodt has a plus fastball but the Diamondbacks found him wanting after adding him to their rotation. He has gone 2-2, 8.22 in his first five major league starts after opening 2001 with a 6-2, 1.84 combined record between Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Tucson. He’ll probably replace Lopez in Tampa Bay’s rotation.

Conti, 26, also was a product of Arizona’s first draft. A 30th-rounder out of the University of Pittsburgh, he hit .367 in his pro debut in the Rookie-level Pioneer League to immediately attract attention. He’s a tweener as an outfielder, not really fast enough to play center on an everyday basis or strong enough to provide the power required of a regular corner guy. Conti went 1-for-4 in five games this year with Arizona, boosting his career totals to .232-1-15 in 95 big league at-bats. He was hitting .330-9-50 in 91 games at Tucson, raising his minor league career average to .315. Tampa Bay immediately assigned him to Triple-A Durham.

The most interesting part of this trade from the Devil Rays’ standpoint was that they finally promoted Toby Hall to the major leagues to replace DiFelice. Tampa Bay’s catcher of the future, the 25-year-old Hall batted .335-18-71 in 93 games at Durham.