All winter Danys
Baez had braced for the phone call telling him that he'd been traded by the
Devil Rays, for whom he had played two seasons and developed into an All-Star
closer. Long rumored to be heading to the Mets, Baez was stunned to hear in
January that he had been acquired by the Dodgers in a four-team deal. "I
was shocked, a little upset," says Baez, who knew he would have to be the
setup man in Los Angeles for closer Eric Gagne. "To go back to [setting up]
after working so hard to prove I could be a closer is not easy, but I think the
Dodgers thought they needed me badly. And now I'm going to do everything I can
to help them win."
Baez, who had 41
saves for Tampa Bay last season, may not be finishing games at Chavez Ravine
this summer, but he will nevertheless find himself in a pivotal role. The
Dodgers hope he can upgrade a staff ( L.A. ranked 12th in the NL with a 4.38
ERA) that was a big reason they went from a postseason berth in 2004 to their
worst finish since 1992 a year later. The staff's woes were exacerbated by the
absence of Gagne, the '03 NL Cy Young winner, who appeared in only 14 games
because of injuries before getting shut down for the season in June following
elbow surgery. Baez and a full-strength Gagne give the Dodgers the best
late-inning bullpen duo in the league; Baez also provides much-needed
ninth-inning insurance should Gagne falter or suffer another injury.
"Health is a
top concern for this team," says new general manager Ned Colletti, who paid
a steep price for Baez and righthanded reliever Lance Carter, trading prized
pitching prospects Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany to Tampa Bay.
"Everyone's feeling good right now, but so many of our key players-- Gagne,
J.D. Drew, Brad Penny--have had [health] issues."
Players went on
the disabled list so frequently last season that L.A. used 20 rookies, the most
in the majors, and only second baseman Jeff Kent made enough plate appearances
to qualify for the batting title. The team, though, is encouraged by Gagne's
recovery; in camp he threw his entire arsenal of pitches and hit the mid-90s on
the radar gun. But new manager Grady Little will keep the three-time All-Star
on a short leash: He's already decided that Gagne, who in September '04 went
two innings four times as the Dodgers were chasing a pennant, will be
restricted to the ninth inning.
Baez is a
similarly hard thrower who relies primarily on a 96-mph fastball. Even if he
plays second fiddle to Gagne this year, Baez may find himself getting the final
out soon enough: Gagne is in the final season of a two-year, $19 million deal.
" Grady Little and I sat down with Danys [early in spring training], and
immediately he told us he would accept whatever role he was given," says
Colletti. "Obviously, ideally he'd be a closer, but he also just wants to
do what's best for the club."
To improve its
lineup, Los Angeles made a splash in the off-season with the signing of
free-agent shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Furcal (who swiped 46 bases last
year; the Dodgers had 58 total). But its most intriguing move was signing Nomar
Garciaparra to a one-year, $6 million deal. The former Red Sox and Cubs
shortstop, who hasn't had an injury-free season since '03, is slotted to play
first base. "So far he looks fine," says Colletti. "Offensively
there's no question he can still produce. He's only 32. He should be in the
prime of his career."
reunited with Little, the folksy former Boston skipper who is most famous for
leaving in Pedro Martinez too long in a 2003 ALCS Game 7 loss to the Yankees.
"This game has a way of humbling," says Little, who was let go by the
Red Sox after that season. "When I went to spring training in 2003, they
picked me up at the airport in a limousine. In 2004 when I went to camp with
the Cubs [as a minor league roving instructor], the travel secretary told me I
could go to Budget and pick up my Ford Focus."
Having moved on
again, Little finds himself in an enviable situation. The NL West is baseball's
worst division, so as long as his new charges stay healthy, he should be on his
way back to the postseason.
Dodger Stadium is regarded as a haven for pitchers, but the last L.A. starter
to win more than 16 games was Chan Ho Park (18 in 2000). The last to win 20 was
Ramon Martinez in 1990.
a modest proposal