Five months ago, when the Dodgers initially plucked Vicente Padilla from baseball's scrap heap in hopes of bolstering their starting rotation for the stretch run, they weren't entirely sure what they were getting. By the time they signed Padilla again this morning, this time to a one-year, $5.025 million contract to be their fourth starter, that much hadn't changed.
What had changed in the interim was this: Padilla, a veteran right-hander with a career mark of 98-85 and a respectable 4.33 earned run average, had proved to Dodgers officials that he can still pitch at a high level in the heat of a pennant race and beyond.
And that given the right circumstances, he could do it while conducting himself with complete professionalism in the clubhouse.
"He pitched very well for us,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "He was as good a pitcher as we had until the end of the season, both the regular season and the postseason. Some of the chatter on the personal side that everybody had heard, we didn't see.''
The fact Padilla was even available last summer had more to do with his conduct than his pitching. He had gone 8-6 for the Texas Rangers, but they finally released him because of the growing perception that he was a clubhouse cancer.
The Dodgers, however, saw no signs of such a problem. Even better, Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in eight appearances, seven of them starts. He then turned in two stellar performances in the playoffs before getting lit up in Philadelphia on the night the Dodgers were eliminated from the National League Championship Series.
The skeptic would suggest Padilla was on his best behavior because he was nearing the end of his contract -- a three-year, $33.75 million deal with a $12 million option for 2010 that by that time had no chance of being exercised -- and was pitching for his next job. If that were true, the Dodgers protected themselves by signing him to only a one-year deal, ensuring that he will spend all of 2010 in exactly the same situation.
In doing so, the Dodgers might have re-established themselves as the favorites in the National League West, a status they had arguably lost to Colorado because of a lack of depth in their starting rotation. By signing Padilla, they have shored up that depth, adding him to a group that already includes holdovers Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw. The rotation will now be rounded out by whoever emerges from a several-man free-for-all, a group that is now competing for one spot, not two, at the back of the rotation.
"Larry Bowa had managed him before [in Philadelphia] and had a pretty good knowledge of him,'' Colletti said of the Dodgers' third-base coach. "Halfway through [Padilla's] time here, I talked to Bowa and asked how Vicente was doing here. He said he seemed to be in a different place in how he was approaching things. Larry said, 'He is working harder than I have ever seen him work, and we have had nothing but a solid guy here.'"
If Padilla pitches at anything close to the level he did for the Dodgers last season, this will have been a sound investment. If he stays healthy all year, he could earn up to an additional $1 million based on innings pitched.
History would suggest, though, that there could be a leveling off, if only a slight one. Padilla had a walks-to-strikeouts ratio of 3.17-1 with the Dodgers, far better than it had ever been at any previous point in his career. His walks-plus-hits per innings pitched for the Dodgers was 1.22. That was better than he has achieved in any full season of his career except 2002, when he went 14-11 with a 3.28 ERA for the Phillies.
He also averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings while with the Dodgers, a full strikeout better than any full season of his career.
The one thing Padilla did seem to show a knack for was pitching in big games. He turned in seven shutout innings in the Dodgers' division series clincher against St. Louis, then got no decision in another stellar, seven-inning effort in their only victory over the Phillies in the NLCS.
And big games are something the Dodgers figure to play plenty of this season. Especially now that they have finally found their fourth starter.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.