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Brazoban's emergence gives Dodgers options

It's amazing how quickly things can change in baseball. Just consider the seemingly untouchable status of Eric Gagne. In the past two seasons, Gagne had arguably the best two-year run of any closer in baseball history.

When Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta signed Gagne to a two-year contract in January, with a mutual option for a third year, the GM put more than a guaranteed $19 million on the line. He essentially swore that the Dodgers would never consider looking elsewhere for a closer, at least not while they had Gagne.

"There are only a few true closers in the game,'' DePodesta told the Orange County Register on the day Gagne signed. "I don't know what the number is, but it's not nearly 30. They are special and we have one ... He's not as replaceable as some of the other guys out there. He affects the games we're supposed to win or at least games we're in position to win. That's huge.''

But this spring, Gagne experienced elbow problems shortly after reporting to camp. Second-year right-hander Yhency Brazoban took over as the closer and the Dodgers barely skipped a beat. He went 11-for-12 in save situations before Gagne came off the disabled list last weekend.

True, it wasn't 84 saves in a row, the total that Gagne rolled up from 2003 to 2004, but the odds are pretty long against anyone ever doing that again, including Gagne.

Since his amazing streak was snapped last July, Gagne has converted 24 of 26 saves, with a 2.91 ERA. That would be perfectly acceptable for any team, but it's not the total domination he had been featuring. Of course, he had only one way to go ... down.

Still, how is Gagne going to pitch with questions about his elbow? Can he maintain his intimidation factor for the rest of this season and two more?

That's a question that DePodesta and his front-office brethren must be studying as they weigh their pitching inventory. With Gagne and the 24-year-old Brazoban, they might have an elite closer to trade at midseason, either for starting pitching or another bat – perhaps a catcher, third baseman or left fielder.

There's nothing wrong with having two filthy relievers. The Toronto Blue Jays demonstrated that more than a decade ago with Duane Ward and Tom Henke, and the Yankees have had it going with Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera in recent seasons.

DePodesta committed financially to Gagne to avoid a second consecutive round of salary arbitration with the 2003 NL Cy Young Award winner. Gagne will receive $8 million this season, $10 million in 2006 and either $12 million or a $1 million buyout for 2007.

That seems like a ton of money to pay a pitcher to work one inning three times per week, but DePodesta understands the mental cost paid by teams – such as this year's Cubs – who don't have a reliable reliever to work the ninth inning.

"When you're in position to win and you know you're going to win – at least 99 times out of 100 that you're going to win – it has a huge psychological impact on the team,'' DePodesta said.

There's no way the Dodgers would trade either Gagne or Brazoban for prospects. DePodesta understands his charge from owner Frank McCourt is not only to make the playoffs but also to be a force in October.

DePodesta showed last year that he's not afraid to make big changes, even with a winning team at the trade deadline, as he dealt catcher Paul Lo Duca, first baseman Shawn Green, center fielder Dave Roberts and highly effective set-up man Guillermo Mota after they had helped the Dodgers build a comfortable lead in the National League West.

Scouts around the majors wonder if DePodesta might again use a bullpen surplus to rebuild for the stretch run, this time moving Gagne or Brazoban for a starting pitcher.

Through Wednesday, Los Angeles ranked 13th in the NL with a 4.70 ERA from its starters. Scott Erickson and Jeff Weaver are the biggest questions in a rotation that is fronted by Derek Lowe, Odalis Perez and Brad Penny.

Either of the Chicago teams could provide potential matches. Starting pitching has been the White Sox's strength, with No. 5 starter Jon Garland breaking to an 8-0 start as top prospect Brandon McCarthy waits in the wings. While their bullpen has pitched well, with Dustin Hermanson supplanting Shingo Takatsu as closer, GM Ken Williams is a believer in building teams from the bullpen forward.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have had such huge problems in the late innings that pitching coach Larry Rothschild went on the record to talk about moving Kerry Wood to the bullpen, although he later said he was talking only in theory, not for 2005. But what if the Cubs could trade Wood to Los Angeles for Gagne?

You've got to think they'd do it.

Wood, of course, has to get healthy first. And if the Dodgers didn't want him, would the Cubs be willing to trade Carlos Zambrano?

This much is for sure: If the Dodgers want to, they can get a high price for either Gagne or Brazoban. And we know that DePodesta likes to roll the dice.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.