Penny ante

Sox pay for talented arm, hoping to hit jackpot

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009
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A year ago, Brad Penny was coming off the best season of his career, one that landed him third place in the Cy Young Award voting, and an Opening Day start for a Dodgers team that would go on to the postseason. He had a likely $9.25 million payday coming, as long as Los Angeles picked up his option for 2009, and for a player who had won 32 games the past two seasons, that looked like it might be a deal.

It wasn't, not after a season in which Penny couldn't shake a sore right shoulder, and barely took the field after the middle of June. He had a dispute with management over that option and a contract extension that wasn't offered, according to the Los Angeles Times, but he wasn't on the field enough to back up his side of the argument, his performance tanking and his tendinitis acting up.

"He had some shoulder issues he could never get comfortable with," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "He never got right again. He's a power guy; he's not a finesse guy. He needs to feel strong. He kept feeling something that they never were able to actually locate. He never could get 100 percent, seemed like."

So that was how he ended up willing to agree to terms (pending a physical) with the Red Sox, as a 30-year-old No. 4 starter looking to return to good baseball graces with a $5 million deal that could go to $8 million based on performance bonuses.

"In today's game, there's very few aces," Honeycutt said. "There's just very few out there, [who] when matched up against another top quality guy can just go match zeros. Brad has that capability.

"In '07, you saw those capabilities when he was very dominant [16-4, 3.03 ERA]. He still has to want to be that guy - that can't be just when everything's going right. You still need to take your average stuff out there and produce innings and zeros. He's still a young guy and he's still learning."

He did become that ace in 2006 and 2007, when he turned his personal maturity and a maturing repertoire into the promise the Dodgers had traded for in 2004. He hadn't immediately returned their investment, as a nerve-damage scare two weeks after the trade left him reeling with injury and focus issues. But things changed, and the results changed the next two years as he fashioned himself into a top starter.

"There would be games where he would throw 18 or 20 straight fastballs, and you just can't overpower everybody," Honeycutt said. "He had the mentality of 'I'm just going to blow through this.' You can't do that. He switched from changeup to split-finger. It was still a hard split, but it fit for him. It was still a good difference in speed, and movement was there, and the deception was there."

Penny took the split and used it to get ground balls instead of relying on the strikeout. He had the confidence to pitch to contact, rather than trying to blow his fastball past every hitter.

The Oklahoma-born jokester in the clubhouse, the guy in the Chewbacca costume who allowed the young prospects just called up to live at his house, also had become the one they could rely on on the field.

"He enjoys life and enjoys the game," said Orioles bench coach Dave Jauss, who was the Dodgers bench coach in 2006 and 2007. "He's a bull. He's strong. He did a good job pounding the strike zone, taking advice from Rick Honeycutt, becoming a horse that he always had projected out to be, but commanding and controlling himself better."

After struggling through that right shoulder tendinitis for much of last season, making only four appearances after June 14, Penny offered to come out of the bullpen at the end of the year to prepare himself to start in the postseason. He made two relief outings before being placed on the 60-day disabled list, ending his season and his tenure with the Dodgers.

It was odd. In side sessions, his velocity was there, his stuff was there. But when it came to game situations, it wasn't.

"The last time before he was activated [in September], he actually threw more than one ball at more than 97," Honeycutt said. "He was averaging 93, 94. For some reason, put him back into a major league game and he would start out sometimes just around 90, 88 to 90. Not that that's not pretty good, but that's not what he's used to.

"Probably tried to force the issue, so [he would have] command issues, be pitching behind in the count. It was just strange. You do everything, work up. He said he felt fine, was ready to get back activated. Just never got back to the point where he was himself again."

Even though they were desperate for pitching, the Dodgers declined his option, buying him out for $2 million. The Times reported that Penny's calls for an extension or for his option to be picked up as early as spring training turned the relationship with the Dodgers sour. Penny followed up by saying he pitched through pain last season, which exacerbated the problem, with unnamed club officials questioning his work ethic in the Times.

Former Dodgers manager Grady Little, though, said he never doubted Penny's desire to get on the mound.

"A couple of times over the course of those two years he pitched for me, he went out there hurting and still had some success on the mound," said Little. "That speaks for itself."

"He could get himself back to a point, the velocity was there, but not sustainable for a period of time," Honeycutt said. "It was frustrating for us. We kept waiting to get him back. We had a young staff. Here's a guy who pitched Opening Day for us. We needed his innings and his power arm to get back out there."

The Red Sox will count on nothing of the sort. Instead, with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka ahead of him in the rotation and Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden getting ready behind him, the Sox will not be relying on Penny. They will, though, take what they can get, especially if that resembles at all the Penny of 2006 and 2007 rather than 2008.

Penny is the type of potentially low-cost, high-ceiling signing the Sox love. Instead of delving into the large contracts for free agent pitchers that so often don't work - see: Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Carl Pavano - Boston would prefer to augment its young and established talent with short-term deals. And that is what the Penny signing gives the Sox, though they still could add another low-cost starter.

For now, the team has five, not including Buchholz and Bowden. The Sox have the ability to watch their young talent continue to develop, provided Penny can find what he once had, leaving the injuries in the past and reverting to his two seasons of dominance.

"Brad's had success," Honeycutt said. "It's an offensive club where he's not being counted on to be the No. 1 or 2 on the staff. I think it's a good fit."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at

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