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ON BASEBALL

Baldwin Is More Than Shot in Arm

July 27, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

This was not a deadline deal to compare with the Houston Astros acquiring Randy Johnson or the Arizona Diamondbacks getting Curt Schilling.

James Baldwin is not headed to the hall of fame and may never win a Cy Young Award.

At 30, and coming back from October shoulder surgery, his fastball doesn't prompt opposing batters to beg out of the lineup.

But for the Dodgers, with their October hopes resting, perhaps, on what they did in July to improve their injury-riddled rotation, what Baldwin isn't may not be as critical as what he is--which, according to most accounts, is a dogged competitor and positive presence--the "heart and soul" of the Chicago White Sox, shortstop Royce Clayton said of his departing teammate.

And more than that, in a limited market comprising generally pitchers who are significant physical risks and/or carried a hefty price tag, interim General Manager Dave Wallace and assistant Dan Evans . . .

* Gave up virtually nothing in the three players traded to Chicago.

* Talked the White Sox into contributing $500,000 of Baldwin's remaining $2-million salary, only slightly inflating their industry-high payroll of $110,000 million.

* Sent a message to their players that the front office recognizes their competitive effort and supports their playoff bid.

* Responded to the moves by division rival Arizona, in getting pitcher Albie Lopez, and San Francisco, in landing Andres Galarraga.

* Acquired a possible alternative--or, at least, leverage--in negotiations with Chan Ho Park, a prospective free agent who could demand $20 million in annual salary.

Baldwin is also eligible for free agency at the end of the season, but his possible re-signing figures to be much easier and more reasonable than that of Park's, particularly since he has a long relationship with Evans, the former White Sox executive.

Of course, it all depends on how Baldwin performs, and while he doesn't guarantee a playoff berth, he helped pitch the White Sox to a division title last year, fills an obvious need with Andy Ashby and Darren Dreifort out for the season and Kevin Brown possibly joining them, can string wins together as evidenced by his 7-0 start last year and five wins in his last six starts this year--and helps address Park and all those other intangibles.

"I think it's great," first baseman Eric Karros said. "Everybody is working to get us in position to have a chance at the postseason.

"We're in a good situation and management is doing its best to help us. I mean, it hasn't been any secret that we've been in the market for pitching, and Baldwin has thrown well of late."

Said an American League scout working at Dodger Stadium Thursday night:

"I think this was the best deal of any that have been made so far. The Dodgers didn't give up anything, and if Baldwin's arm keeps coming back, then they've got a hell of a pitcher. As it is, his fastball is good enough to keep hitters honest and enhance his other pitches, and that's all you need. He knows how to pitch. He knows how to compete."

Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn saw Baldwin early in his career "when he had great stuff but didn't know how to pitch" and in last year's playoff with the Seattle Mariners "when he didn't have his best stuff but his competitiveness stood out. We've had the mind-set that we'll take on anyone with what we have, but to get reinforcements is really exciting."

Reinforcement or reinforcements?

The non-waiver trade deadline is Tuesday.

Wallace suggested that he and Evans may not be through in the arms race--"I'm a pitching guy and I don't think you can ever have enough"--but with the deal for Baldwin, the belief is that the Dodgers will now focus on a middle infielder, possibly Kansas City Royal shortstop Rey Sanchez, who lost his starting role when the Royals acquired Neifi Perez in the three-way trade with Oakland and Colorado Wednesday.

Sanchez would be an offensive improvement on the Dodger platoon of Alex Cora and Jeff Reboulet, but he is more steady than spectacular with the glove, and Manager Jim Tracy reiterated Thursday that "I'm not interested in sacrificing defense for offense in the middle of the field. Games are won and lost on quality gloves there, and we've been seeing ongoing improvement [with what we have]."

The Dodgers may also be hesitant to tamper with their clubhouse chemistry any more than needed. Wallace said that was a major consideration in the acquisition of Baldwin.

"Everyone we talked to said he has great character," Wallace said, "and, of course, Dan [Evans] was very familiar with him from his years with the White Sox."

In Chicago Thursday, a disappointed Clayton said of the heart and soul Baldwin: "He did a lot more than take the ball every fifth day. It's a big void to fill."

For the Dodgers, with Ashby, Brown and Dreifort sidelined, finding someone to take the ball every fifth day was the real imperative.

Given that they were operating in a pitching market loaded with more questions than answers, Baldwin should fill that bill at least--and maybe more.

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