If all goes well, Milton Bradley will be that long-awaited impact hitter, stirring a dormant Dodger offense to life and displaying his supreme talent for the hometown fans. If not, he’ll be the guy who displaced an entire outfield on the eve of the season opener, a volatile personality injected into the clubhouse of a manager whose contract expires at the end of the season.
New owner Frank McCourt promised a big bat before the season started, and new General Manager Paul DePodesta delivered with 24 hours to spare, but only after the Cleveland Indians basically fired Bradley for misbehavior. The Dodgers gambled on him Sunday, trading their best outfield prospect for one of the most explosive players in the game, in every sense of the word.
“I don’t think the solution lies in just one player,” DePodesta said. “But if anyone is close to being that one player, he’s probably the guy.”
Bradley, who flew to Los Angeles on Sunday night, will bat third and play center field in this afternoon’s opener against the San Diego Padres. Shawn Green, whose tentative move from right field to first base was scrapped halfway through spring training with no trade for an outfielder in sight, met with DePodesta and Manager Jim Tracy during Sunday’s game and agreed to play first base.
“If Shawn wanted to play right field, Shawn would have played right field,” Tracy said.
“I said I’d feel comfortable either way,” Green said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a work in progress.... Milton is going to help our team. That’s the bottom line. We’ll be better off than we were.”
Dave Roberts moves from center field to left, Juan Encarnacion from left field to right and Robin Ventura from first base to the bench. In exchange for Bradley, the Dodgers traded outfielder Franklin Gutierrez and a second minor leaguer to be selected by the Indians by June 30.
The Indians can choose from a list of three “solid prospects,” DePodesta said. He declined to identify them but said the list did not include the top remaining prospects, pitchers Greg Miller and Edwin Jackson and first baseman James Loney.
Bradley, 25, hit .321 last season, with 10 home runs, 34 doubles, 17 stolen bases and a .421 on-base percentage. He sat out the Indians’ final 61 games because of a bone bruise in his lower back, but DePodesta said Bradley appeared sound and the Dodgers did not make the trade contingent upon his passing a physical examination.
During the winter, one American League general manager compared Gutierrez, 21, to “a young Moises Alou.” The Dodger trade talks for first baseman Richie Sexson -- a proven slugger who hit 45 home runs last season and has no citizenship issues surrounding him -- fell apart when former general manager Dan Evans refused to include Gutierrez in the deal. Gutierrez was ticketed for double A this season.
“The goal here is to win major league games,” DePodesta said. “We haven’t won enough of them in the last 10-15 years. This organization deserves better than continually waiting for the future.”
Bradley will earn $1.73 million this year and cannot file for free agency until after the 2007 season.
“Like Encarnacion, he’s a player on the rise,” Green said. “He’s not someone who has peaked or who is on the downside of his career. It’s really exciting.”
Such a young, skilled and affordable player is rarely available in trade without extenuating circumstances. The Indians had made Bradley their cleanup hitter, but after he failed to run out a popup last Wednesday and subsequently argued with Manager Eric Wedge, they announced they would trade him.
“The majority of his time here he was a good teammate and a good member of our organization,” Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro told reporters Sunday. “There were moments in time that he compromised the standards and expectations that we communicated to him -- not one time, but a pattern of times.”
Said Bradley: “I had a wonderful experience in Cleveland. I don’t regret a minute of it. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.”
In February he was sentenced to three days in jail after failing to pull over as ordered by Ohio police last year. In 2001 he was taken to a hospital after refusing to leave a restaurant when drunk.
He put baseball cards of Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca and New York Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi above his locker this spring, after incidents with each player last season.
Tensions between Lo Duca and Bradley erupted in an interleague game last June, when Bradley unfastened his batting gloves before commencing a home run trot, an act considered by Lo Duca as showing up the pitcher and the Dodgers. Later, after Bradley took a called third strike, Lo Duca hollered, “Take your gloves off for that one.”
Said Bradley: “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He has the intensity you want in a teammate and a ballplayer. It was pretty minor. I don’t think about it anymore.”
Said Lo Duca: “I overreacted. I apologized to him the next day.”
Roberts, a former teammate of Bradley’s in Cleveland, said young players sometimes make mistakes and get labeled as bad guys. He called Bradley “a good person and a very good player.”
DePodesta said Bradley had gotten “a bad rap” and said he had performed more community service than any other Cleveland player.
Bradley, who grew up in Long Beach and attended Long Beach Poly High, said he always wanted to play for the Dodgers. In speaking on a conference call Sunday, he virtually recited Vin Scully’s call of Kirk Gibson’s legendary home run in the 1988 World Series, when he was 10.
“I remember jumping up and scraping my knuckles on the ceiling,” Bradley said.
Lo Duca said he would welcome Bradley with a hug and an invitation to join him for a beer.
“I’ve played with a lot of guys I didn’t like until I played with them,” Lo Duca said, “and then they were the greatest guys in the world.”