Gazing Into an Ice-Encrusted Crystal Ball

With LADugout editors Shelly and LeRoux sitting smug and comfortable in tropical Florida, albeit occasionally dodging hurricanes and tornados, surrounded by deep snow and strong winds we have opened the refrigerator where we keep our crystal ball to keep it warm, and will attempt to handicap the 2007 Dodgers 25-man roster.

As always, a number of roster spots are certainties, at least to open the season, but with the remarkable stash of superior young talent crowding the minor league system, changes during the '07 will probably be rather frequent during the first two or three months.

The starting infield will consist of first baseman Nomar Garciaparra, second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Wilson Betemit. Olmedo Saenz, pinch-hitter extra ordinare will have a job, although where to put him on the roster is always a question. He can "play" both first and third base in a pinch, but in a pinch he is without peer and for the most part that is where he will perform.

Garciaparra has a great season in '06 despite injured that hampered him later. Kent's injuriec came in mid-season but he still performed well. Both are 39ish and will need constant care to keep them running. Furcal, the Dodgers' MVP, should be even better and Betemit will start at third but will be in a battle to hold on to the territory.

Behind the plate, rookie standout Russell Martin will handle much of the catching while newly-acquired Mike Lieberthal will be available to step in and spell him with the talent-level not dropping to the disaster level. Perhaps Martin will be kept fresh throughout the season with such a plan. Mike Piazza was overworked during his tour of duty in Los Angeles, an action that comes without blame attached because even a tired Piazza was much better than the rested alternative.

The outfield, considered eligible for disaster relief after J.D. Drew picked up his suitcase and took the red-eye to Boston, has changed to a more-cluttered situation. Juan Pierre, he of the many hits and few walks, should be a fixture in the middle and flanking him will be Andrew Ether, who wore down as the season went along, and veteran Luis Gonzalez, who seemingly still has the appropriate amount of gas in his tank.

The bench should be much stronger this season with a mix of quality youngsters and seasoned veterans.

First baseman James Loney will earn a roster spot; he has little to accomplish in AAA after leading the entire Minor Leagues in hitting last year. Third baseman Andy LaRoche seems poised to plant himself at the hot corner for the next 12 years or so if Betemit stumbles. Matt Kemp, who danced on the table and shot out the lights for a couple weeks before fading, turned into an RBI animal in the Winter League playoffs and must be taken into consideration.

Old friend Jason Repko is 26 and brings a lot of things to the party. A superb fielder with a strong throwing arm, he is extremely fast and talented on the bases. As a defensive replacement, he would improve any of the three outfield spots they chose to use him in. Having said that, he will have to battle to keep a spot on the roster because he has not been able to maintain a steady average when used over long periods. Injuries hurt him last year, but his hitting much improve to stick.

A number of very adequate veterans will be on hand to vie for a slot on the team.

Marlon Anderson performed very well last year (.375-7-15) over a small number of at bats (64) but at age 33 and given his career average (.267), he may have had his brightest hour as a Dodger.

The re-signing of Ramon Martinez was puzzling when he was completely pushed out of action when they acquired Julio Lugo. Martinez got a game-winning home run in the 16th inning on August 29 but reached base on only four other occasions. Other than major league experience, he is just an older Wilson Valdez, who had a strong season at Las Vegas but, while he is on the 40-man roster no-one knows why and probably won't be by the end of spring training. Newbe Damion Jackson fits into the same mold.

A number of recent acquisitions seem to be in the Acme Insurance category and will in all likelihood be starting at Las Vegas in case emergency help is needed during the season at Chavez Ravine.

Fernando Tatis had one superb season -- 1999 -- and that imbued him with semi-perpetual promise. Hasn't played much in the last two seasons, but when you issue a player uniform #6, something is afoot. Larry Bigbie, a lefthanded hitter, has pretty much the same credentials asa Tatis, although his big season was 2003.

Ken Huckaby, one of the few former Dodgers re-signed by the club in recent year, was a 22nd-round draft pick in '91. He never made it to the big club but had a bit of playing time with Toronto, Arizona, Texas, Boston and Baltimore. He will be measured against A.J. Ellis, 10 years his junior at 26, for the backup in case Martin or Liebenthal go down with an injury.

We've not mentioned Delwyn Young, a 25-year-old infielder who was switched to the outfield last year and showed good power (42 doubles, 18 homers) despite sliding to .273. A number of bad things must happen to get him a real look this year and another year in Nevada is certain.

So the position players look like this: Catchers (2) Martin and Liebenthal. Infielders (6) Garciaparra, Kent, Furcal, Betemit, Loney, Martinez and Anderson. Outfielders (5) Pierre, Gonzalez, Ethier, Loney, Repko and Anderson going either way.

The pitching staff is no easier to determine.

It looks like Jason Schmidt will be the #1 starter, followed by Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Randy Wolf and Chad Billingsley. Schmidt has been praised as a "stopper" by both GM Ned Colletti and Manager Grady Little, so he seems to be the anointed one. Lowe will fritter through the first half of the season and come to life down the stretch. Penny will go in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Wolf seems to be a 13-12 or 11-9 sort but he's lefthanded, something they have lacked. Billingsley, who has been maligned for his erratic control, nevertheless recorded a 6-4 record and a 3.34 earned run average over 16 starts and looked awful in relief (14.72 ERA) in two appearances. He has to be the #5 pick.

Hong-Chih Kuo did everything right after being converted from a reliever to a starter (where he started as a professional). He had a 3.07 ERA in five starts down the stretch. He will be in the rotation if Wolf isn't quite ready at the start.

Veteran Brett Tomko and Mark Hendrickson will be available for spot starts while working out of the pen. Hendrickson declared when he signed that he was not enthralled to be slotted as a reliever and that he considered himself a starter. We'll see.

A pair of closers are available to the Dodgers, veteran-rookie standout Takashi Saito who set records last year, much to the surprise to some of the front office brass and stopper-in-waiting Jonathan Broxton, who will inherit Saito-San's job when he can no longer do it.

That is five starters, three starter-relievers and two true bullpen types. The decision to go with 11 in the pen or 12 will skew the position-player situation and Little opted to go with 12 last year. But for this essay, we'll assume that the staff will number 11. That means the final position could go to any of the following:

Joe Beimel, he of the broken glass, who had an earned run average of 3.62 after positing 5.24, 4.68, 5.62. 44.44 and 5.80 ERAs in previous major league seasons. The question is, was 2006 just one of those things or has he finally learned to pitch?

Chin-hui Taos was once the Colorado stopper and their top prospect before injuries sidetracked his career. I know it sounds like a Monday afternoon soap opera but is he healthy? Can he regain his former prowess? Tune in for the answer in early April.

Elmer Dessens, another starter-reliever who has a slight advantage due to the fact that Kansas City is chipping in with salary due to the Odalis Perez trade. Little did they know we would have kicked in some money in the deal instead. He is an adequate pitcher but he will probably be list in the mix.

Yhency Brazoban, still only 25, is coming off a T.J. operation and should be ready by mid-season. He's a quality major league pitcher if he regains his stuff and most pitchers do if they rehab properly.

Jonathan Meloan has thrust himself into the race as a real dark-horse, coming off an injury to streak up the Dodger chain from Low-A Columbus to AA Jacksonville, leaving the field littered with strikeout victims and positing sub-2.00 ERAs along the way. He certainly could figure in the stew but with so many other options the Dodgers will probably let him simmer slowly at Las Vegas in '07.

Eric Stults, a 27-year-old lefty, did more than was expected of him down the stretch after a 10-11, 4.15 season at Las Vegas. He may be one of those who perform better in the majors than in the minors and he'll get a chance to show that in the spring.

Greg Miller, the one-time wonder boy of the club's system who was shutdown by arm troubles after blowing away Florida State batters at the tender age of 18. Now only 22, he had a solid year at both Jacksonville and Vegas before his stamina slowed him down.

Rudy Seanez started his major league career in Cleveland in 1989, displaying a 100-mph heater that delighted pitching coaches. Does he have another season in his tank after 15 years of 429 games out of the pen? His 2.76 ERA over 57 games for San Diego last year hints that he just might.

Tim Hamulak and D.J. Houlton, seem to be history, although Houlton improved after a terrible start in Las Vegas last year. Both seem to be buried under the influx of young, stronger arms. Dario Varis was originally a Dodger signed out of the Dominican Republic but hasn't been around much since 2001 and was the stopper in Taiwan last year.

Waiting in the wings for the star to turn up ill, are Scott Elbert, Zach Hammes, Mike Megrew and Justin Orenduff, along with a cast of hundreds below the AA level that we won't touch on today.

Elbert has fanned over 10 hitters per nine innings during his minor league career and is one of the top pitchers in the system. Hammes, big as a bear (6-6, 240) recorded a 1.23 ERA in the Hawaiian league last fall using a 100-mph fastball. Megrew, nearly lost in the draft, had regained his mojo and is moving up fast. Justin Orenduff, seemingly a book-end to Chad Billingsley, ran into arm troubles at mid-season in Jacksonville and was shut down. Rehabbing quickly he should show his stuff this spring.

Out prediction for the 11 member of the pitching staff are Schmidt, Lowe, Penny, Wolf, Billingsley, Broxton, Saito, Tomko, Hendrickson and Beimel.

But if you believe that change is good, you'll love the 2007 season.

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