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Bill Plaschke

Trade Wasn't Worth a Penny

July 12, 2006|Bill Plaschke

The truth took the field Tuesday, bold and brawny and firing.

The truth stood in the middle of the baseball universe with an overpowering glare and an undeniable strength.

Two seasons after joining the Dodgers in one of the most controversial trades in club history, Brad Penny was the starting pitcher for the National League All-Star team.

And the truth is, the trade still stinks.

Stunk then. Stinks now. Smells forever.

On this muggy night in Pittsburgh, you see, the truth was not only on the mound.

The truth was also behind the plate, in the presence of catcher Paul Lo Duca, whose leadership the trade eliminated.

The truth was also in the bullpen, in the absence of Eric Gagne, whose career the trade may have ruined.

And the truth is in the standings, the Dodgers requiring a giant effort simply to reach mediocrity in a division where, two years ago, the stage was set for dominance.

The trade cleared that stage. It cost the Dodgers a manager, a general manager, and perhaps three years of legitimate championship contention.

No amount of thick-bearded, high-socked, All-Star revisionist history can change that.

"Our thinking about the trade today is the same as our thinking back then," said Kim Ng, Dodgers assistant general manager.

Then I'll say it again.

What on Earth were they thinking?

The date was July 30, 2004.

The Dodgers were leading the West with a 60-42 record.

They had smart hitting, decent starting pitching, clubhouse energy, and an unbeatable bullpen.

But Paul DePodesta had a better idea.

Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion and Lo Duca were suddenly, stunningly shipped to Florida for Penny, Hee-Seop Choi and Bill Murphy.

The news infuriated the coaching staff, stunned the clubhouse, staggered the unshakeable.

Mota was the set-up reliever who had become Gagne's most important support system. Lo Duca was the brains of the pitching staff.

Both men, gone, and for what?

For a pitcher with a history of nagging arm problems, that's what.

"We needed a front-line starter, that's what he is," Ng said.

For brief spells, yes. But while Penny has pitched well for these first three months, he has yet to survive the end of a Dodgers season.

When the Dodgers needed him for the playoffs at the end of 2004, he was physically unable. Last September and October, he pitched only 18 2/3 innings.

A testament to his worth will not be found on a mound in Pittsburgh in the middle of summer, but on a mound at Dodger Stadium at the end of autumn.

And, in any event, is anybody worth the Career Over of Game Over?

Reading between the transaction lines, that's the real story of this trade.

While the Dodgers essentially went 1 1/2 seasons without a catcher, Russell Martin ensures that they will eventually overcome the loss of Lo Duca.

But how about the loss of an identity? What if Gagne is never Gagne again?

By ridding themselves of Mota, the Dodgers gave up a solid veteran eighth-inning pitcher who could bridge the gap to Gagne.

Darren Dreifort lasted two weeks before his knee broke down. Yhency Brazoban was solid, but untested and eventually tired.

Jim Tracy, then Dodgers manager, didn't know who to ask.

So Gagne was asked to bridge that gap himself.

Two days after the trade, he pitched three innings. That is not a misprint.

Five days later he pitched 2 2/3 innings.

By the end of the season, Tracy was acknowledging the overuse.

"With Mota out of here, did I do things slightly different?" Tracy said. "Yeah, you had to."

In the last two months, Gagne pitched multiple innings on seven occasions.

He had pitched multiple innings only nine times in the previous two seasons.

He never complained, but his arm is still barking.

In 2004, he pitched 82 1/3 innings. In the two seasons since, he has pitched 17 1/3 innings.

He pitched the Dodgers into the playoffs, but he may have pitched himself into oblivion, all because of a trade that left neither him nor Tracy feeling like they had a choice.

DePodesta, now an assistant in the San Diego Padres front office, said Tuesday his severance agreement with the Dodgers prohibits him from talking about his work there.

Ng stood firm in her belief of the trade.

"Brazoban was very, very effective," Ng said. "I thought he did everything to allow Jim to trust him."

In the end, though, the trade eroded trust from all corners.

A year later, Tracy was fired because he didn't trust DePodesta.

Soon thereafter, DePodesta was fired because his ability wasn't trusted by owner Frank McCourt.

At the time of the trade, the Dodgers were 60-42.

Since then, they are 117-133.

Tuesday night, two innings, Brad Penny looked that good?

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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