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Baseball's Trade Wars

Padres' Trade Triggers One by the Dodgers

August 01, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Detroit Tiger General Manager Randy Smith had just heard about the San Diego Padres' acquisition of All-Star outfielder Greg Vaughn when he looked at the clock in his office Wednesday afternoon and grinned.

"You watch," he said, "the whole division is going to break now. I expect to get a call any minute."

Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, was on the telephone in 30 minutes. The Dodgers had to do something. They decided to acquire outfielder Chad Curtis from the Tigers for left-handed relievers Joey Eischen and John Cummings.

The Dodgers, who defeated the Florida Marlins, 3-0, behind the pitching of Ramon Martinez (8-4) in front of a paid crowd of 29,565 at Dodger Stadium, are hoping they have found a player who can be their everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter.

Yet, they realize that is no sure thing.

Curtis, who batted .263 with the Tigers, was moved out of the leadoff spot five weeks ago. He has been moved in and out of center field, and he has struck out 73 times with only 52 walks.

Although the Dodgers are desperately looking for a leadoff hitter, Curtis is batting only .245 in the leadoff spot this season with a .336 on-base percentage. Small wonder why the Dodger Manager Bill Russell concedes that Curtis probably will platoon in center fielder with left-handed-hitting Wayne Kirby.

Curtis is batting .320 against left-handed pitchers and .244 against right-handers.

"There were a number of things we were working on," Claire said, "but I saw this as our best opportunity. It fit well with what we needed and what we could afford to give up."

The Dodgers were unwilling to put top outfield prospects Roger Cedeno and Karim Garcia in any deal, and said they could not afford to acquire a high-priced player. The Tigers, who planned on releasing Curtis at the end of the season instead of offering arbitration, were grateful to be rid of the remaining $666,667 on his salary. Besides, Curtis was available all season, and no team until the Dodgers had expressed interest.

"I've heard rumors all year long," Curtis said, "but it's still a shock when you finally hear it and uproot everything to go somewhere else. I don't know much about them. I don't watch Sports Center. I only read the sports pages every now and then. All I know is that they're in a pennant race.

"It's going to be a real different atmosphere. We've struggled so much. We haven't had a whole lot of motivation to improve things. But they're trying to get me there for [tonight's] game, so that lets you know right there that they're in it and pushing for the playoffs."

The Dodgers realize this was a passive, but safe move. They desperately have been trying to trade Eischen, who last was seen giving up the game-winning homer Sunday against the Houston Astros. And Cummings only was an insurance policy in triple-A Albuquerque.

"There was a price we were willing to pay," Claire said, "and a price we weren't. I've always liked [Curtis]. He plays the game with a very aggressive fashion. He's one of those players who has had to prove himself every step of the way.

"He can be an asset to this team, and he fills a couple of needs. And we didn't tear away from the foundation that's important to us."

Certainly, Curtis was not their top choice. Despite the Tigers' efforts, they were unable to attract the Dodgers' interest until just a few days ago. The Dodgers instead had bigger things in mind, such as trying to grab center fielder Brian McRae or Luis Gonzalez of the Chicago Cubs. But everyone wanted Cedeno, including the Tigers.

Then, along came the Padres' blockbuster trade. The news broke that San Diego picked up Vaughn, who has 31 home runs and 95 RBIs, in exchange for outfielder Marc Newfield and relievers Ron Villone and Bryce Florie.

Smith's phone soon began to ring.

"I called them last week, and they had no interest," Smith said. "Their interest today came late, late. I didn't even hear from then until then.

"Hey, everyone knows he's not a pure leadoff hitter, by any means, but he's at least better than what they had. I think they realized they had to make a move.

"I mean, you look at what happened today with the two trades, and it makes the Padres the favorites to win that division. They gave up a lot, but it gives them a hell of a chance to win."

The Dodgers [57-51], who trail the Padres by half a game in the National League West, recognize that the Padres have greatly improved themselves. They're not willing to concede the division by any means, but perhaps for the first time, are ready to acknowledge that the Padres are legitimate contenders.

"They've got themselves a great, great offensive player," catcher Mike Piazza said. "That's a big bat. I thought the Padres were already a good team, but now it might be a great team. That's some lineup they've got now.

"We've got our work cut out for us."

Said Dodger first baseman Eric Karros, who hit a two-run single in the first inning: "The Padres are a first-place club and they felt they had to make a move to strengthen themselves. Maybe in their mind this will make them the team to beat in the division. All I know is that they're a better club right now.

"You've got to give them credit for making an aggressive move like that."

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