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Perez turns out to be big surprise in 'Sheffield trade'
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05/06/2002 5:46 pm ET 
Perez turns out to be big surprise in 'Sheffield trade'
Lefty having Cy Young-caliber season
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com

Only an infield single prevented Perez from an April no-hitter against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. (Jon Soo Hoo/Dodgers)

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves haven't dominated their division for a decade by giving away great, young pitchers.

But in Odalis Perez, both of those streaks might be coming to an end.

Initially known as the "Gary Sheffield trade," the Jan. 15 deal between the Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers may be remembered as the "Odalis Perez trade," less because of Sheffield's nagging injuries that have limited his work to 21 of 32 Braves games, but more because Perez is looking like a 23-year-old steal for the Dodgers.

All-Star ballot Dan Evans, the new Los Angeles general manager, was set on landing an extra left-handed arm when he had the Braves include Perez with outfielder Brian Jordan and minor league pitcher Andy Brown in the winter deal for Sheffield. But five weeks into the season and Perez is looking like the Dodgers' best young acquisition since they fleeced the Chicago Cubs out of a 25-year-old Burt Hooton in 1975.

    Odalis Perez   /   P
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 195
Bats/Throws: L/L

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Perez is 3-1 with a 1.75 ERA, opening the season as the No. 3 starter in the deepest rotation this side of Leo Mazzone. He has two complete games, matching the total of the entire Dodger staff for all of 2001, and would have had three with better defense behind him. Opponents are batting .159 against him and he has allowed only three walks in 46 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, Sheffield and Jordan are dueling disappointments, with Sheffield holding the early lead. He's batting only .230 with three homers and 10 RBIs -- with all of the homers and seven of the RBIs coming in the first three games. Since then, he is 13-for-74 with three RBIs and one extra-base hit.

Jordan is batting .248 with three home runs and 13 RBIs while plagued by patella tendinitis that is likely to require knee surgery in the winter. A native of Atlanta, he feels out of place at Dodger Stadium, homesick for his family and looking forward to the three-game series between the third-place Dodgers and the fourth-place Braves that starts Tuesday night at Turner Field.

"I can't wait," he said. "You definitely want to beat your former team, but you don't want to try too hard. I've been doing a lot of that lately."

    Brian Jordan   /   RF
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 205
Bats/Throws: R/R

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Oddly, while proven veterans Sheffield and Jordan have struggled in their new surroundings, the unproven Perez has blossomed.

"When they told me I would be the No. 3 starter, that was a lot of responsibility and it makes you feel good that they believe in what you can do," said Perez, who was never more than a contender for the fifth spot in the Braves' rotation. "Right now I'm so confident."

Confident enough to predict in the spring he would win a spot in the rotation, confident enough to pitch a complete game in Coors Field, confident enough to dance and sing along with the Latin music he blares through the clubhouse in the hours before he takes the mound. It is a time when most pitchers emotionally withdraw to focus on the task at hand, but not Perez, who is the life of the clubhouse in a way that wasn't appropriate around all of those Cy Young winners in Atlanta.

"I wasn't feeling comfortable enough to do it there," he said. "Maybe I was scared, I don't want nobody to shut down my music. But I play music and dance and it makes me comfortable. I knew sometime soon I would be the pitcher I am right now. I just needed the opportunity."

Perez, who pitches Wednesday night against Kevin Millwood, said he never really took to the Braves' approach of living on the outside corner of the plate, not that it hasn't worked for Cy Young winners Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

"I have my own style, and I like to pitch inside and outside," he said. "I wasn't comfortable in that situation. And I didn't want to be a No. 5. I want to prove I can be a No. 1."

Not even the Dodgers expected Perez to be their most impressive starter, but when the trade came under immediate fire in Los Angeles, Evans mounted an aggressive defense by reminding critics that it was never just Sheffield for Jordan.

    Gary Sheffield   /   LF
Height: 5'11"
Weight: 190
Bats/Throws: R/R

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"We said all along it was not just Brian for Gary, it was always also Odalis and a prospect, but people weren't listening because they didn't have an awareness of Odalis," said Evans. "Our scouts did. (Senior vice president) Dave Wallace was raving about Perez. (Senior scouting advisor) Don Welke loved him. You have to trust your scouts and your guts when you make a deal like this."

Evans refused to confirm reports that he had the choice of Perez, Kevin Millwood or Jason Marquis. He did say he zeroed in on Perez, in part because of the recommendations of Wallace and Welke, in part simply because Perez was left-handed.

"At the time, we didn't have Kazuhisa Ishii. We already had Omar Daal and Hideo Nomo and we had made the decision (not to re-sign) on Terry Adams and James Baldwin. One focus point for us over the winter was to add left-handed starting pitching, and we thought Perez could be the second left-handed starter for us."

Evans, reiterating he "did not try to dump Gary," said talks with Atlanta started in November but the trade was not finalized until January because all four players involved had medical issues and the clubs wanted late updates before pulling the trigger. The player names were agreed upon early, said Evans, except, ironically, for the minor leaguer Brown.

"He was the one who held things up. They didn't want to give him up," said Evans. "It was one of the all-time serve-and-volleys between me and John (Schuerholz, Atlanta's general manager)."

Said Frank Wren, Atlanta's assistant general manager: "Obviously, it was tough for us to give up those guys. But when you have a chance to get a guy like Sheffield, you have to give something up."

Wren said the Dodgers insisted on including Perez in the trade, that it was not a case of the Braves giving up on a pitcher 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery.

"Odalis' elbow surgery did not equate in the trade," he said. "It was not a factor at all. We had not lost faith in Odalis."

Perez said he cried when he learned of the deal, but realized it would finally provide him the opportunity to show his stuff.

"Maybe now you guys see the trade different," he said to reporters. "I can be the guy to take the team to the World Series."

For all that Sheffield did offensively after arriving in 1998 in the controversial Mike Piazza trade, the Dodgers never reached the postseason with him. He often feuded with management and repeatedly made trade demands. In the end, the club even saved a few million dollars in the exchange of salaries.

All of that sets up an interesting reunion this week, but Dodgers manager Jim Tracy cautions that his team has enough issues to focus on that Sheffield shouldn't be among them.

"We're not going to see Gary, we're going to play the Atlanta Braves, and that's the way we have to approach it," he said. "There are no vendettas here. We're playing the Atlanta Braves, not just Gary Sheffield."

Ken Gurnick covers the Dodgers for MLB.com. This article was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.





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