Dodgers back on the road to recovery

The Mongol hordes have been repulsed at the gate of the city, evil rulers have been deposed and the dark ages seem to be over for the ever-suffering Dodger fans who have been able to only amuse themselves with memories of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale while watching Scott Erickson and Mike Venefro laboring in the same uniform. And while a pennant may be some time off, the fog seems to be lifting and here is a peek at what we might expect in 2006.

First Base
Status: B+
This position has even more talented players available than the shortstop slot. With Nomar Garciaparra determined to learn to play first base during spring training, one must realize that if this just doesn't work out, there are strong options. First of all, Hee-Seop Saenz or Olmedo Choi -- or some combination like that -- whacked 31 homers last season between them and that is a surprise to some. Saenz at 35 won't get any better and can't be used for extended lengths of time but Choi, at 27, should be just coming into his prime. Then there is James Loney, the heir-apparent of the initial sack (as they used to write in 1920), lurking around in the minors, just waiting for another chance to light up the night in spring training as he did in 2003 -- (.343) -- hoping this time it might earn him a job in The Show.

Second Base
Status: A

Jeff Kent may be just getting his second wind. He had a monstrous season in '04 but now at 38 will he be able to even sustain that? Unless he is a reincarnation of Zach Wheat, who jumped his average to .375 at about the same age in the mid-1920's you just can't expect that same numbers, but it wouldn't surprise anyone, either. Behind him at second base is Willy Aybar, just waiting to prove his September was not a fluke. Then, too, if Cesar Izturis comes back strong in the second half, there you are. Bill Mueller is also quite competent at second if the need arises.

Shortstop
Status: A+

Rafael Furcal is the king of the position and intends to demonstrate that the Dodgers didn't overpay him to change his zip code. He's as good as they get at the position -- both hitting and fielding -- and Atlanta was third in the league in 2005 in leadoff OPS (on-base + slugging). The competent Mexican, Oscar Robles, may be fighting for his life , with Izturis jumping back into the Dodgers' plans sometime in July, 21-year-old Joel Guzman waiting not-so-patiently in Las Vegas and Garciaparra available if needed.

Third Base
Status: C+

Bill Mueller is not Alex Rodriguez at third base but by comparison to the mob that filled the slot last year, he comes darned close. He won't hit as well in Dodger Stadium as he did in Fenway Park, but the is a consummate professional with a above average bat and glove and will keep the spot warm until Andy LaRoche is ready to take over. Aybar can spell him from time to time.

Outfield
Status: C

J.D. Drew was third on the team in Runs Created in 2005 despite playing only about half of the season. He is a superb batsman and a fine outfielder, with the usual caveat "if he can stay healthy." But the guy got hit by a pitch last year and it broke his wrist. What can he do about that? He'll probably start in right with the timeless Kenny Lofton in center. Lofton, at 39, will give the Dodgers more speed and a strong glove. Is he better than Repko? Marginally, but Lofton has more experience and will most probably hit better. Jose Cruz was lights-out over the final months of '05 -- 31 runs created in only 179 at-bats -- and is healthy for the first time in years but who knows if he can keep that pace up. If not, Ricky Ledee, Jayson Werth (who may start the season on the disabled list) and minor leaguers Delwyn Young and Andre Ethier could factor in. Help may be on the way in Joel Guzman who could work in right field in 2006 at Las Vegas.

Catcher
Status: C

It's not often you turn your catching over to a 22-year-old but Dioner Navarro, but he posted a .627 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 206 plate appearances, not bad for a rookie. Catcher and instructor Sandy Alomar, Jr. will sit next to him while the Dodgers bat and fill in now and again behind the plate. Russell Martin, about a year older than Navarro, will hone hit talents in Las Vegas and next year (or later in '06) should be in The Show.

Starting Pitchers
Status C-

The rotation will feature Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Odalis Perez, all of whom sometimes look like Cy Young and other times like Sayonara. None have pitched like a No. 1 -- more like a pair of threes and a four. Brett Tomko will bring durability to the staff but not consistency and it hard to know what they'll get from D.J. Houlton, who cost the Dodgers a full year and is only 26. He got less support than a pair of boxer shorts during '05, in fact, the worst on the team. Then there are the kids: Edwin Jackson (will this be the year?), Chad Billingsley and perhaps Jonathan Broxton, who was groomed for the closer role but was a starter most of the time in the minors.

Bullpen
Status: B

If Eric Gagne comes back as Eric Gagne, this could be a real strength. Rookies Yhency Brazoban and Duaner Sanchez survived their trial by fire last year and should be stronger for it. This year's rookies, Franquelis Osoria, Steve Schmoll and perhaps Broxton, could be exceptional. Lefties include Hong-Chih Kuo, one-time wunderkinder Greg Miller and Kelly Wunsch will add to the pleasant task Grady Little will have during spring training sorting them out.

Overall Assessment
Status: B-

Ned Colletti says he is still looking for a top of the line starter, but if they went to battle with what they have now, we are considerably stronger at nearly every position. They will certainly be in the NL West title race from the start. This ain't the Boys of Summer or the 1977-78 Los Angeles team but its a good start and if you can draw 3.6 million into Dodger Stadium to watch that painful struggle last year, the McCourts might want to start drafting plans to add second deck in the outfield instead of a football stadium in the parking lot.

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