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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Realignment Might Prove a Blessing for Dodgers

September 05, 1993|ROSS NEWHAN

Call it rebuilding, remodeling, recycling or rehabilitation. The label doesn't matter.

Nor is the challenge of extricating the Dodgers from the slag pile and making them competitive again as daunting as it seems.

If the American and National leagues realign into three divisions each, the Dodgers could become an instant title contender without Vice President Fred Claire making another move. Some would call that a blessing in more ways than one.

The Dodgers will play in the National League West with the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. They will only have to beat the San Francisco Giants, no easy task as illustrated by their current 18 1/2-game deficit, but easier than winning in a division of seven teams.

In the meantime, nothing gets Claire more upset than the suggestion that the Dodgers are without direction. They have a direction, he insists. There's just no name for it.

"The label doesn't concern me," he said a few days after sending Eric Davis to the Detroit Tigers, opening left field for Billy Ashley or Raul Mondesi, both of whom could be starting for the Dodgers next year if Claire doesn't pick up Brett Butler's option.

"We're trying to be competitive while bringing in our young players," he said. "If that's rebuilding, fine. Term it what you want.

"But if we were totally rebuilding, I wouldn't be talking about the importance of Jody Reed, Tim Wallach and Brett Butler. We wouldn't have a pitching staff of Orel Hershiser, Tom Candiotti, Jim Gott, Roger McDowell and Todd Worrell. How's that rebuilding?"

Rebuilding suggests collapse and starting from scratch. It suggests San Diego.

The Dodgers aren't rebuilding as much as re-emphasizing internal growth.

"As I said at the time, the Davis move is as basic as it can be," Claire said. "I mean, do you play a veteran player eligible for free agency in September (of a season in which you have no chance to win) or do you go with a talented young player who has had an outstanding year at triple-A?

"If that's not the direction we're going in, Mike Piazza wouldn't be here, Eric Karros wouldn't be here. What was the logic in keeping Davis?"

What was the logic in trading for him? What was the logic in giving up a pair of talented pitchers--Tim Belcher and John Wetteland--for an oft-injured outfielder whose ability to recapture his enormous ability seemed suspect at the time, and remains so?

"A difficult trade," Claire said, suggesting in his words and tone a disagreement within the Dodger family, particularly over Wetteland, who was 25 at the time and had the most lively of arms--but no role. He apparently was another victim of an impatient Dodger management unwilling to give him the time to shed the pressure and settle into a role.

Wetteland has 68 saves in two years as the Montreal Expos' closer, which also says something about the Cincinnati Reds, who had him for five minutes before sending him to the Expos for outfielder Dave Martinez.

"You have to go back to that time," Claire said. "No one liked Wetteland more than I did, but he was out of options. We had a primarily left-handed hitting lineup, and Tommy (Lasorda), the coaches and our major league scouts felt the thing we needed most was a right-handed power hitter.

"We felt that with our medical staff and training facilities, that in coming home, Eric had a chance to rebound. You can look back now and say the trade didn't work, that Eric didn't have the type of years we had hoped for, but those are the risks of trading.

"You can also look back and try to learn, and I think that what we learned from this again was that when you have talented young players, you have to stay with them and give them the opportunity to have success with your organization.

"There's always going to be disagreements, but hopefully you all learn something from them."

Ashley and Mondesi now provide Claire, Lasorda and the Dodgers another chance to prove they have learned.

A longtime American League scout who works the Pacific Coast League said of the two outfielders, "Both have talent, both have problems, both deserve the chance to play.

"Ashley can hit balls as far as Juan Gonzalez, but has holes as big as the Grand Canyon. He may not even foul the ball against premier pitchers, but the pitching is so bad in the big leagues, there are so many donkeys, that he may hit 20 to 25 home runs by accident. He is a bad outfielder, but they can work with him on that.

"The other kid (Mondesi) can do it all. He can run, throw, field, hit with power. He has good bat speed, but with all of that he's not a player yet. But that, too, may come."

The Dodgers will know more by the end of the season. They have to make a call on Butler's option by Oct. 31. Darryl Strawberry's felony arrest Saturday further confuses the picture. Could Ashley and Mondesi both start in '94?

"I wouldn't rule it out," Claire said.

WHO'S A SCHMO?

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