NEW YORK — The Dodgers' continual quest for a capable center fielder cost them one of their top relief pitchers Friday, when they traded veteran Tom Niedenfuer to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder John Shelby.
Also coming to the Dodgers in the trade is Brad Havens, a left-handed long reliever. Both Shelby and Havens had been playing for the Orioles' triple-A team in Rochester.
To make room for Shelby, 29, the Dodgers optioned rookie outfielder Mike Ramsey to Albuquerque.
A switch-hitter with a career .240 batting average, Shelby spent most of the last five seasons with the Orioles. He was sent to Rochester two weeks ago after hitting only .188 in 21 games with Baltimore.
Shelby, who arrived at Shea Stadium 45 minutes before game time Friday night, was in the starting lineup.
Shelby said he was surprised that he wasn't sent to the Dodgers' farm club at Albuquerque. "I heard that it (the trade) was Jim Dwyer (another Oriole outfielder) and myself for Niedenfuer," Shelby said. "That's all I kept hearing. I heard they wanted a left-handed hitter, and Jim is that. I thought I'd go to Albuquerque or wherever their minor league team is."
The departure of Niedenfuer, who made more than 60 appearances each of the last two seasons, leaves the Dodgers with the struggling Ken Howell as their right-handed short reliever.
Apparently, though, the Dodgers' need for a center fielder whom they believe combines solid defense with sufficient offense supersedes the bullpen in priority.
"I see it as a good opportunity for us," said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire, who said it took two weeks of evaluation and negotiation before completing his first trade in his new job as director of player personnel. "We're getting a center fielder, who is very good on defense, and has major league experience."
Dodger scout Mel Didier said: "Fred had me follow him (Shelby) closely and do a thorough check on his career. I think he's got all the tools to be the guy we're looking for. His problem (hitting-wise) is that he overswings. But, in Baltimore, they wanted him to hit home runs, because they play for the long ball. I think that's correctable."
It became apparent in recent days that the Dodgers were not satisfied with Ramsey, who won the starting center-field job as a non-roster player in the spring mostly because of his excellent defense. Ramsey was hitting just .232 when benched last Sunday in Montreal.
Niedenfuer once was a stabilizing force in the Dodger bullpen, where he has been a regular since early in the 1982 season. He had a 1.90 earned-run average in 66 appearances in 1983. In 1985, Niedenfuer had a career-high 19 saves. Last season, he was inconsistent and gave up 11 home runs in 80 innings.
In the first two months of this season, the Dodgers hadn't shown much confidence in Niedenfuer. After he yielded a three-run home run to Willie McGee in St. Louis on May 1, he was not used again until May 11. He leaves the Dodgers with a 2.76 ERA and one save in 15 appearances.
Niedenfuer, subject of numerous trade rumors ever since he allowed the infamous home run to St. Louis' Jack Clark in the 1985 National League playoffs, said he was neither surprised nor upset by the trade.
His name reportedly had been mentioned in trade talks with Cleveland (in exchange for center fielder Brett Butler) in spring training and, most recently, both Baltimore (for Shelby) and Boston (for Dave Henderson).
"When I was told to go to Fred's suite (at New York's Grand Hyatt), I walked in and asked--which team," said Niedenfuer, laughing. "I had heard about Baltimore and Boston last week, and I knew (the Dodgers) had some holes to fill."
He said he would have liked to stay in Los Angeles, but only if given a consistent chance to pitch. It hasn't been that way this season.
"Things started to fall off a lot," Niedenfuer said. "I just strive for consistency. How you are used is beyond your control. I want to pitch. Sometimes, you need a change of scenery.
"It's tough being a relief pitcher for this team (Dodgers), because the starters are so dang good," Niedenfuer said. "They'll pitch complete games and you don't get consistent work.
"I don't know whether it's going to work out for me. But I'm hoping it does."
Niedenfuer seemingly will be assured a lot of work in Baltimore. The Orioles have a young starting pitching staff, and top reliever Don Aase has a shoulder problem and cannot pitch on consecutive days.
Conversely, Howell now will receive the short relief work when Manager Tom Lasorda needs a right-hander. Howell has a 5.21 ERA and 10 walks in 17 innings.
Claire and Lasorda said the addition of Havens supplements left-hander Matt Young in the bullpen. Lasorda said Young, a former starter with Seattle, will remain a short reliever and not be moved into the starting rotation.
Havens, who began his professional career in the Angels' farm system, started this season at Rochester. In 6 innings with the Orioles in spring training, he gave up five earned runs and three home runs.
Originally a starter--he won 10 games for Minnesota in 1982--Havens worked long relief for the Orioles in 1986. He was 3-3 with a 4.56 ERA and one save.