Are small upgrades enough in loaded NLW?

The Dodgers look better on paper to start 2011 than they did ending the 2010 season. The question is how much better. The organization feels the team underachieved a year ago, so if the Dodgers return to their level from 2008 and 2009, that instantly makes them better.

Juan Uribe is an upgrade at second base over the Blake DeWitt/Ryan Theriot combo from last year.

Once Jon Garland returns from an oblique injury, which should happen in mid-April, the Dodgers have five dependable starters. Last year, they had four and sometimes only three.

Once Vicente Padilla returns from a forearm nerve surgery, probably in late April, he'll join newcomers Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth in an improved bullpen. Of course, bullpens are always the hardest to forecast year to year, and the Dodgers incorrectly thought their bullpen was a strength last year.

A big question mark is left field. What will the Dodgers get from the platoon of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames and Tony Gwynn Jr.? They received virtually nothing from Manny Ramirez, Scott Podsednik and others last year in left field, so the bar isn't high.

The other big lineup issue is third base. Casey Blake is 37, already on a noticeable decline, and now 50-50 for Opening Day after suffering a back injury while bunting March 12. Through March 18, he was just 1-for-13 with no RBI in eight spring games.

The final uncertain position is catcher. Russell Martin is gone, a sad saga in which he went from two-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone to a non-tender after 2 1/2 bad years and a hip injury. The Dodgers aren't expecting dramatic results from Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro, but they believe they should get more than what Martin and Brad Ausmus provided last year.

Even if everything goes right, is that enough to beat the defending champion Giants, the always tough Rockies, last year's surprising Padres, and the last-place Diamondbacks? The early schedule makes a quick start difficult. The first 20 games are against teams that were in playoff contention to the final weeks of last season.

A lot must go right. It's not impossible. But the Las Vegas futures odds of just over a .500 team appear to be accurate until the question marks get answered.

--C Rod Barajas isn't in a hurry to go home once he's removed from Cactus League games. While most players head to the clubhouse once they're removed from the game and are home before the game ends, Barajas has routinely stayed at least a few more innings -- if not the rest of the game. Barajas figures his family isn't in Arizona, so he would just be in an empty room, he loves baseball, and it's a way of learning more about the younger players in Dodgers camp.

--LF Jay Gibbons is hopeful his vision problems have cleared up after leaving camp for two days (March 15-16) to visit an eye doctor in San Francisco. Gibbons had Lasik surgery in 2004, then a cleanup in the offseason. He was wearing a contact lens that kept popping out of his eye, including during at-bats. He was fitted for a new contact in his left eye, and he will go without a contact in his right eye.

--CF Matt Kemp posted good offensive numbers in spring training, but his smile and attitude were even more encouraging for the team. New manager Don Mattingly likes the hustle that Kemp has showed in games, as Kemp was thinking triple on any ball in the gap. Kemp was animated and enthusiastic as the team worked on relay drills, shouting encouragement to his teammates after a runner was out at the plate.

--RHP Rubby De La Rosa, the Dodgers' minor league pitcher of the year in 2010, made a strong impression in his first big-league camp. The 22-year-old pitched two scoreless innings in a start at Las Vegas against the Cubs on March 12. Then he fired four innings of no-hit, no-run ball against the Giants on March 18, while also laying down two sacrifice bunts. De La Rosa likely will start this season where he ended last year: Class AA Chattanooga. Besides his pitching education, De La Rosa spends most days getting an English tutorial with team translator Kenji Nimura, who is fluent in English, Japanese and Spanish.

--RHP Hiroki Kuroda donated $50,000 to the relief efforts in Northern Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami devastated his native country. Kuroda took the rare step of addressing his teammates before a morning meeting, asking them to join him in donating money to the relief efforts as well.

--INF Juan Uribe received a mix of cheers and boos, with slightly more cheers, when he faced the Giants for the first time March 18 at Scottsdale Stadium. Uribe, the former Giant who signed a three-year contract with the Dodgers in the offseason, didn't play in the heated rivals' first two games of the spring.

-- Slugging percentage of OF/1B Jerry Sands, the Dodgers' 2010 minor league player of the year, in spring training. Sands was reassigned to minor league camp March 17, but he left quite an impression by hitting .364 with two home runs and five RBI in 16 games. Sands split last year between low-A and Double-A, and while it's possible the Dodgers might need him during the season, they hope he will spend an entire season in the minors, dominating the competition.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Night and day. It was the first pitch I was able to lock in on this spring." -- OF Jay Gibbons, after getting a single in his first at-bat March 17, after getting a new contact lens a few days earlier. Gibbons was 2-for-22 and often had the contact falling out before going to see an eye specialist.

The Dodgers came to camp believing the depth of their pitching staff would compensate for the lack of star power. They started camp with six proven major league starters and will begin the regular season with four.

RHPs Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland went down early in camp. Both are expected back within the first month of the season, though. Garland might only miss one or two starts because of days off, and Padilla will be brought back from forearm surgery quicker as a relief pitcher. Combine those two injuries with the absence of reliever Ronald Belisario, whose agent doesn't expect him to enter this country all season due to visa problems in Venezuela, and the Dodgers suddenly had three holes to fill in what was supposed to be their strength.

At this point in time, here is what the rotation, bullpen, starting lineup and reserves falls into place. This, of course, is subject to change before the opening gun.

1. LHP Clayton Kershaw
2. RHP Chad Billingsley
3. LHP Ted Lilly
4. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
5. RHP John Ely

Kershaw is poised to join the upper echelon of starting pitchers in the majors. Billingsley is looking for his first season with six months of consistency. Lilly gives up a lot of home runs, but he keeps his team in most games. This could be Kuroda's final season in the United States.

The Dodgers don't need a fifth starter until April 12, the 11th game of the season. Ely is more likely than RHP Tim Redding to take injured RHP Jon Garland's place in the rotation. Ely could be a long reliever or get a start in the minors before making that start. The Dodgers hope Garland will only miss two starts.

RHP Jonathan Broxton (closer)
LHP Hong-Chih Kuo
RHP Matt Guerrier
LHP Kenley Jansen
RHP Blake Hawksworth
RHP Ramon Troncoco
RHP Mike MacDougal

Two bullpen spots opened up when RHP Ronald Belisario once again never showed up for training camp and RHP Vicente Padilla went down with an injury. Troncoso is likely to take Belisario's place in the bullpen. MacDougal had the early lead for the final spot out of a group that included RHPs Lance Cormier and Travis Schlichting and LHPs Ron Mahay and Scott Elbert. MacDougal has closing experience, but the issue with him has always been control.
Broxton begins the season as the closer, but after losing his job last year and losing the confidence of the fan base, each bad outing will be heavily scrutinized. New manager Don Mattingly vows to only use Broxton for three-out saves, and that will help. Mattingly also vows to not use the oft-injured Kuo on back-to-back days. That means if Broxton falters, Kuo is the first choice to fill-in, but Jansen or somebody else will be needed in the ninth inning at times.

1. SS Rafael Furcal
2. 3B Casey Blake
3. RF Andre Ethier
4. CF Matt Kemp
5. 1B James Loney
6. 2B Juan Uribe
7. LF Jay Gibbons/Marcus Thames
8. C Rod Barajas

If Blake isn't available on Opening Day, which is possible, then Uribe moves to third base and Jamey Carroll starts at second base and hits second. The other option is Ivan De Jesus Jr. at second base. The Gibbons/Thames combo was originally thought to be a straight left-right platoon, so Gibbons would start Opening Day against Giants RHP Tim Lincecum. But a strong spring by Tony Gwynn Jr. gives Mattingly additional options. When a lefty starts, Uribe will hit fifth and Loney sixth. When a righty starts, it's the other way. For all the question marks about third base and left field, however, the keys to this lineup are Ethier, Kemp and Loney. The "young core" is now the "core" of the lineup and needs to produce.

C Dioner Navarro
INF Jamey Carroll
INF Aaron Miles
OF Tony Gwynn, Jr.
OF Marcus Thames/Jay Gibbons

Navarro needed a really bad spring, and A.J. Ellis needed a really good spring, for a change to occur at the backup catcher position. That didn't happen, although a team rarely goes through a season without needing a third catcher. Ellis has a minor league option remaining, so he's the odd man out. Miles was in competition with Juan Castro and Ivan De Jesus Jr. for the last infield spot. Miles is the favorite because he's a veteran who doesn't need to play every day. The Dodgers prefer their good prospects to keep developing in the minors, rather than sitting on the bench.

OF Xavier Paul is out of options, so the Dodgers could keep 11 pitchers and six outfielders to begin that spring. In that scenario, Paul makes the roster, and it buys time until the fifth starter is needed a couple of weeks into the season. Gwynn probably earned additional playing time with a strong camp, but his value will mostly be as a late-inning pinch runner and defensive replacement.

--3B Casey Blake (back tightness) left the March 12 game and had not returned to action through March 18. He was questionable for Opening Day.

--RHP Jon Garland (strained left oblique) was hurt March 9. He hopes to avoid opening the season on the disabled list, but it's doubtful that he'll be healed in time. Mid-April is a more realistic target.

--RHP Vicente Padilla (nerve problem in right forearm) underwent surgery Feb. 24. The team expects him to be able to return in late April.