Dodgers add depth with Houston

By Jim Callis
July 23, 2002

It’s still undetermined where Tyler Houston will fit into the Los Angeles lineup. But with the Dodgers in an offensive slump, averaging just 2.8 runs per game during a 3-11 slide since the all-star break, they picked up the Brewers’ leading hitter on Tuesday in exchange for two minor league pitchers, righthander Ben Diggins and lefthander Shane Nance. Los Angeles also will receive a player to be named later.

Houston, 31, was the second overall pick in the 1989 draft by the Braves out of Valley High in Las Vegas, where he shared catching duties with current Red Sox backup Doug Mirabelli. (Valley High is also the alma mater of Greg and Mike Maddux, as well as Mike Morgan.) A lefthanded hitter who posted .302-7-33 totals in 76 games with Milwaukee, Houston could platoon with the Dodgers’ underachieving righties at either first (Eric Karros, .288-9-42) or third base (Adrian Beltre, .238-10-37). Houston also has experience in the outfield and at catcher, and at worst he adds depth to what had been a thin bench. He’s a decent hitter, though he doesn’t walk much, and an adequate defender. In 611 big league games, he has batted .267-61-232 with a .315 on-base percentage and a .429 slugging percentage. The Dodgers will assume the remainder of Houston’s $1.625 million contract for 2002, after which he becomes a free agent.

Diggins, 23, was a supplemental first-round pick of the Cardnals in 1998, but spent two years at the University of Arizona before signing for a then-Dodgers-record $2.2 million as the 17th overall pick in 2000. He has an electric arm, consistently throwing in the mid-90s and peaking at 98 mph with the Wildcats, but his velocity and command have fluctuated as a pro. He didn’t pitch well until the end of the season in his pro debut at low Class A Wilmington in 2001, and he has been inconsistent again this year. Diggins went 6-10, 3.63 in 20 games at high Class A Vero Beach, allowing 103 hits and 41 walks while fanning 101 in 114 innings. His fastball has sat at 89-93 mph this year, and his curveball and changeup are still below standard. Some scouts think he’ll ultimately wind up in the bullpen rather than the rotation, because he shows a dominant fastball at times but hasn’t been as effective with his offspeed stuff. Diggins also flashed considerable raw power as a DH at Arizona, and there’s some thought he could make it to the majors as an outfielder as well.

Nance, 24, isn’t a favorite of scouts because he’s just 5-foot-8, but he has done nothing but win in college and the minors. He set Houston career records for victories (32) and strikeouts (388), and has gone 26-10, 2.79 since signing as an 11th-round pick in 2000. He was MVP of the short-season Northwest League playoffs as a starter in his first pro summer, and since has excelled as a reliever. He pitched very well for Team USA in the World Cup last fall, pitching 6 1/3 scoreless innings with a 12-0 strikeout-walk ratio. In the past, Nance mainly had won with his ability to mix his fastball, curveball and changeup, but this year his fastball has scooted into the low 90s and his changeup has been a solid plus pitch. He went 11-3, 4.17 in 37 games at Triple-A Las Vegas, with 53 strikeouts in 58 innings. He earned the victory in the Triple-A All-Star Game.

October 16 update: The Dodgers received righthander Brian Mallette to complete this transaction. Mallette, 27, made his major league debut in 2002, getting shellacked for a 10.80 ERA in five appearances. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 3-2, 2.78 with 25 saves and a 50-17 strikeout-walk ratio in 45 innings. A 27th-round pick in 1997 from Columbus (Ga.) College, Mallette doesn’t have a high ceiling because he lacks an out pitch and relies on finesse. Yet he also has been successful throughout the minors and perhaps can contribute depth to a big league bullpen.

In retrospect, this trade did little to help the Dodgers, who fell short of the playoffs, and cost them two big league arms. Houston hit .200-0-7 in 65 at-bats with Los Angeles.