Eric Gagne Gets Another Shot

As you’ve no doubt heard by now in many other places, former hero Eric Gagne is returning to the Dodgers on a minor-league deal. For obvious reasons, this minor-league deal stands out just a bit from among the John Koronkas, Luis Ayalas, and Scott Dohmanns we’ve seen so far this winter.

For a non-guaranteed minor-league deal to a pitcher who’s unlikely to ever see a big-league mound again, there’s actually a lot to think about here. I tend to think that he’s completely and totally done, though since the Rockies were offering a deal as well, it’s possible that this isn’t just a publicity stunt. On the other hand, Jim Tracy does have a hard-on for his former Dodger players, even offering the corpse of Paul LoDuca a contract for 2010.

Gagne can say all he wants about how his arm feels better than it has in years, but the fact remains that in 2009 he gave up more than a hit per inning and struck out barely more than one man every other inning. Think about how unimpressive that is, and then remember that this took place in the unaffiliated Canadian-American League. If you’re wondering about the skill level of the Can-Am League, note that just one other member of Gagne’s Quebec squad ever played in the major leagues, and even that was only the 68 unimpressive games spread over three season by catcher Pete LaForest, also a Canadian native. Gagne’s last trip to the majors was 50 awful games for the 2008 Brewers, when he put up a 5.44 ERA while walking 4.3/9.

With most guys, you’d say “he’s cooked,” but with Gagne there’s more to it. Without getting too deep into that conversation, he was named in the Mitchell Report and has all but admitted to PED use.  As someone who was a mediocre pitcher who became a star for a short time, then completely broke down with injuries, he sure fits the profile. The point here isn’t to point fingers or rehash the past; just that there’s a difference between “he’s lost it” and “did he ever really have it in the first place?” If it’s the latter – and his performance in the Can-Am League last year isn’t a good sign – then his time in camp is going to be limited.

There’s also the issue of how much of a chance he’s really going to have to make the club. Clearly, the Dodger bullpen is stacked. Barring injury, the top 5 are set (Broxton, Sherrill, Kuo, Belisario, Troncoso), and with the Dodgers likely to take 12 pitchers, that leaves 2 more spots, but there’s thousands of pitchers ahead of Gagne. Based on last year, Jeff Weaver likely has the inside track to one, and I’d be shocked if the other didn’t go to one of the runners-up to the 5th starter job, particularly James McDonald if he’s not in the rotation. It’s not hard to see Scott Elbert in the mix, or Charlie Haeger if they don’t want to expose him to waivers, or the two Rule 5 guys, plus young guys on their way up (Josh Lindblom) or fallen guys trying to make it back (Cory Wade). The chances of Gagne breaking through that, to me, seem minimal at best.

But there are some positives here. As always, there’s the normal NRI caveat of “there’s no risk involved”, so there’s no complaints about finances. And let’s say he does make the club. It would almost certainly be as the last man out of the bullpen, which would not only be an amazing turn from his status in his previous stint in LA, it would raise an interesting question:

Can you really enter to Guns N’ Roses when you’re running to the mound in the 6th inning?

I think I’d pay double just to see that. Imagine the situation: the bullpen doors swing open, the first chords of “Welcome to the Jungle” blare, Gagne jogs out… and everyone looks at him like he’s a douche because the Dodgers are down 7-2 with 4 innings left.

If he’s on the club, what’s also going to happen is we’re going to be put in a situation both hilarious and sad: the first time Jonathan Broxton blows a save, or even has slight difficulty in converting one, the casual fans are going to start calling for Gagne to get his old job back, which would be ridiculous. But you know it as well as I do – that would happen, and it would just be another front in the battle between educated fans and the “Juan Pierre was the 2009 MVP!!” crowd.

I’ll leave you with one last thought on this, though. Each year for the last few years, the Dodgers have picked up an old-and-busted pitcher off the scrap heap who ends up contributing, and for the last three years it’s been former Dodgers. Hell, in 2009 I even came up with an award and gave it to Jeff Weaver. In 2008, it was Chan Ho Park, 2007 was Rudy Seanez (both former Dodgers), and 2006 was Aaron Sele.

Unless you’re hitching your ride to the Russ Ortiz bandwagon, there’s no good candidate for this year’s crown, and no former Dodgers in the running unless we want to bend the rules and let Weaver repeat. Every year, the fates align to revive one deceased pitcher’s career in LA; why couldn’t it be Gagne this year?

(Right. And maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot.)