Bill Lajoie is a veteran deal-maker who even at the ripe old age of 72 has managed to put his touch on two contenders in the same season. Which is why the architect of very good Tiger teams in the '80s was sitting at home in Florida last week with rooting interests in his former team, the Red Sox, and his current employers, the Dodgers.
Acting as Boston's de facto general manager in the offseason when Theo Epstein had resigned, Lajoie engineered the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal, helped on the Edgar Renteria/Andy Marte swap with the Braves, laid the groundwork for the Coco Crisp deal, and began negotiations with agent Eric Goldschmidt to acquire Alex Gonzalez.
Lajoie, who had been hired by Epstein as a special adviser in November 2002, at first stepped down when Epstein abruptly left in late October, but he agreed to come back and help Larry Lucchino during those rudderless days last fall. But when Epstein returned, Lajoie made his recommendations and retired again in January, he said, because ``I didn't want to get caught in a struggle between Theo and Larry."
A month later, he got a call from new Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who lured him back into a senior adviser's role.
``I really didn't know Ned that well, really only to say hello to him," said Lajoie. ``But I know with Grady Little and Dave Jauss over there they put in a good word, and to be honest I wanted to go someplace where they would listen and value my opinion. And it's been a lot of fun."
Lajoie recently laid the groundwork for Colletti to pull off the Julio Lugo deal with Tampa (which he tried to do for Boston in the offseason), acquire third baseman Wilson Betemit from the Braves (another one of Lajoie's former organizations), and to acquire Greg Maddux.
``I like our team a lot," said Lajoie. ``We have the pitching we need, good arms in the bullpen, a good lineup with some pop now with Betemit. Grady does a very good job of keeping things calm and together, and Ned has been an excellent general manager who executed deals that I believe really put us in position to get into the playoffs."
Lajoie is pretty blunt; at this stage of his life, he's not about to beat around the bush. When he looks at the Dodgers organization, he says, ``I see 15 players in their system who will be on our major league roster or someone else's. That's a lot. It's a tremendous organization that does things right. They build from within."
He understands the delicate balance a team must achieve in trading prospects or keeping ones they feel are can't-miss.
``With the Braves, we always had at least three guys in our top tier we would not move," said Lajoie. ``If the right move came along with one of our next-tier guys, we would make the move."
When told that Epstein would not move his ``top tier" players, Lajoie said, ``That's the right way to do it." But he also pointed out that some teams' top tiers are better than other teams'. He's not saying whether the Sox should have pulled the trigger, but he does understand Epstein's dilemma.
He faced similar decisions in Boston. There was a committee of people discussing the Beckett deal; Lajoie was in favor of it but had reservations about at least one of the players going to Florida.
``I liked Hanley Ramirez a lot," said Lajoie, who gave Craig Shipley an enormous amount of credit for helping to steer the ship during those days. ``I know there was some discussion that maybe Hanley wasn't what a lot of people thought he was. But I thought he was all that, and he's had a very good rookie season. As far as Anibal Sanchez, the deal wasn't going to get done if he wasn't in it. So whatever we thought of Anibal, he had to be included."
And then came the other tough part: taking on $18 million (over two years) of Mike Lowell's salary.
``I'd watched a lot of Marlins games down here and I knew what was going on with Mike," said Lajoie. ``He was in a terrible slump and he was working so hard every day. He was trying different things, going to the opposite field. I knew this was a hard-working guy who wanted to get out of it.
``All along, what a glove. I thought he was worth the money because it's hard to find a veteran talent like that, and we needed a corner guy, whether it be a first baseman or a third baseman, knowing we could move [Kevin] Youkilis to third."
Lajoie said the Dodgers swooped in on the Lugo deal with Tampa Bay two days before the deadline, after the Red Sox decided they couldn't get it done through a three-way scenario. The Dodgers had inquired three weeks earlier, but at that point Toronto and Boston were heavily involved. So Lajoie watched Lugo and projected that he could play second base, even third, for the Dodgers.
``We know he wants to play shortstop, but we sold him on the fact that he could play for a contending team," said Lajoie. ``He's been terrific on our team.
``We feel we can make our run now. The team played great winning 11 in a row there and we got ourselves back in the hunt. Maddux has really stabilized our staff. He's a guy everyone gravitates to. The starting pitcher the next day is always sitting right next to him on the bench."
Funny, baseball organizations tend to gravitate toward Lajoie as well.
To praise Theo or bury him?
We asked a panel of three general managers, one special scout, and one manager: Did Theo Epstein overvalue his young talent in not pulling the trigger on a major trade deadline deal? Here are the responses.
A GM: ``I give him a lot of credit for sticking to his guns and going against the grain in Boston. That's very difficult to do in that town. There's no sentiment for keeping kids who may or may not make it. When you're a big-market team, fans want you to make a big splash all of the time. I give Theo credit for taking a longer view."
A GM: ``We're not going to know for a while. Looking at that group of players, the one guy you never trade is [Jonathan] Papelbon. But [Craig] Hansen, [Jon ] Lester, [Manny] Delcarmen? If it brings you top young veteran pitching in return, I personally would pull the trigger."
The special scout: ``Boston is developing very good pitching talent from what I've seen through their system, and I understand trying to hoard that talent and keep building on it to the point where you can maybe put a homegrown pitching staff in the big leagues. If that's your goal and you stick with it, I don't see anything wrong with it. The Red Sox just won the World Series two years ago. If there's a time in their history when they can afford to do it this way, it's got to be right now."
An American League manager: ``When your main competition is the Yankees, you've got to keep up with them. Brian Cashman has outshined Theo."
A GM: ``I think Boston is overrating some of its talent. There are more and more guys with plus arms, throwing mid 90s or better with movement out there. Are Craig Hansen and Delcarmen special? Is Jon Lester going to be a front-line guy in a few years? They have ability and tools. But like any other organization, there'll be one or two guys who make it big, one or two guys who bust. In most organizations, you make them untouchable. In Boston or New York, those guys are maybes or you give them up in the right deal. I would have given up a lot for Roy Oswalt. What I don't know is whether Theo is trying to take a stand and say, `I'm developing players.' "
Glavine comes to Lopez's defense
Tom Glavine said he had no issues with Javy Lopez's defense back in the glory days with the Braves. You can read between the lines here. Glavine didn't say he was throwing to Johnny Bench, and Greg Maddux preferred to throw to Charlie O'Brien.
``Javy actually understood what I was trying to do," said Glavine. ``He was young then, so I had to help him a little in terms of what I liked to throw in situations.
``But back then, he could throw the ball down to second, he was able to block some balls, and of course his bat was second to none in terms of catchers and he helped us win games with his bat.
``I think it's awfully tough to have someone just show up and expect him to know all of the things that a guy like Jason Varitek knows about that stuff. Javy is in a tough position. Plus, he hasn't caught that much lately in Baltimore. I think if you understand those things and just let him relax and swing the bat, he'll help you out until Jason gets back there."
Glavine said Lopez called a terrific game when Glavine shut out Cleveland, 1-0, in the clinching Game 6 of the 1995 World Series.
``I don't know how Javy catches now," said Glavine. ``I just know he always gave you everything he had and he was always willing to learn and adjust. Like I said, as a pitcher, you like what he can do with the bat. You don't mind those three-run homers."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.