EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 22, 2009

A Penny for his thoughts

Pitcher may have found a home here in Boston

Bill Burt

BOSTON — Brad Penny doesn't want to be traded. Penny feels Red Sox trainers are the best in baseball and deserve credit for his faster-than-expected turnaround. And, last but not least, Penny hasn't been this happy on a baseball team in several seasons.

I think.

I say "I think" because Penny has intimated all of the above to friends and teammates, but he doesn't want to talk about it one-on-one to a reporter.

"I'll talk baseball; I'll talk about my start; I have nothing to say about the other stuff ... I have to go," said Penny on the third base line during the first game of the series against the Florida Marlins last week.

Ahhh, the "other stuff."

Penny is smart. He's 31-years-old. He's been around the major league block, going 8-7 as a 22-year-old with the Marlins in 2000, pitching in two all-star games and finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting just two seasons ago with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The "other stuff" is the rampant trade talk with his name in the middle of it, the six-man rotation, John Smoltz's return and his future.

Of course, that's exactly what was on my mind.

Too often, we treat professional athletes like commodities. They come and they go. If they aren't up to snuff (see Julio Lugo), we want replacements and we want them now.

What has struck me about the Penny talk is the fact that he has quickly become one of those commodities.

And I have one particular question pertaining to that issue: Why?

Among Theo Epstein's finds since he took the job in late November of 2002, the Penny signing might end up gaining consideration in his Top 10 moves, including the 2004 trade deadline deal (Nomar Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera), the 2008 trade deadline deal (Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay), signing a no-name middle reliever named Hideki Okajima before the 2007 season and trading for and signing Curt Schilling over Thanksgiving Dinner in 2004.

The best part about Penny was the risk. The Red Sox had none, other than the $5 million salary (which includes about $3 million in bonuses).

Penny came here as damaged goods. After a 16-4 season (3.03 ERA) in 2007, he suffered from tendonitis in his shoulder in 2008 and was a shell of himself, barely hitting 90 mph on the radar gun while struggling to a 6-9 record and bloated 6.27 ERA.

The same for Smoltz, who had thrown one inning since April of 2008. The Red Sox guaranteed him $5.5 million, expecting him to be ready in late June, which is exactly what has happened as he gets his first start against the Washington Nationals on Thursday.

But as of now, Penny is the proven guy.

After a so-so beginning in April in which Penny didn't get past the third inning on two of four outings, he has gone 4-1 over his last eight starts, with a decent 3.58 ERA.

Better yet, he has hit 97 mph hour on the radar gun his last three games and hasn't allowed an earned run over his last two starts.

"I just think the shoulder program they got me on here when I came over ... these guys worked their butts off," said Penny to the media after his start last Wednesday. "I finally just watched them and followed what they're doing. It's incredible. I really believe if I hadn't signed here I wouldn't be pitching."

Penny has quietly — and I mean quietly — fit in. Unlike much of his time with the Dodgers, when he was "The Man," Penny has been able to coast under the Josh Beckett-Jon Lester radar. The fact that knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, now 9-3, and the Red Sox bullpen is pushing legendary status also has allowed Penny some obscurity in one of baseball's most crazed environments.

"I don't know if a lot of guys around here realized how good Brad was in the National League," said Bay, who also fell into that category before going on his post-Manny tear on the Red Sox. "I did."

Bay says he has noticed the extra pop on his fastball from his place in left field.

"I've seen him throw it 97 (mph) in the later innings, just like he's doing here his last three or four starts," said Bay. "Brad is a throwback. He's a good-old country boy. You pretty much know what you're going to get. He's coming after you. I love seeing him pitch this way."

While Penny's "old" fastball has earned him some recent press, his shining moment in a Red Sox uniform came on June 11, when one of his 96ers hit Alex Rodriguez on his rear-end.

It was "payment" for the incessant pitches coming Bay's way this season from Yankees pitchers. It was his best pitch of the season.

It brings me back to the original premise: Why, barring some 30-homer guy as an offering, would the Red Sox trade this guy away?

If Theo Epstein decides to do anything with Penny over the next three weeks, a better idea might be to sign him to an extension.

I'm not sure, but I think Penny would sign.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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