Lots of Action at Dodgers Mini Camp

The mini-camp set up by De Jon Watson, assistant general manager for player development, not only assembled the best of the young Dodger minor league players, it drew both General Manager Ned Colletti, new manager Joe Torre and trainer Stan Conte to Dodger Stadium to watch the workouts.

Torre, fresh off having a knee replaced, admitted he hadn't talked to many of his player and certainly didn't know any of the minor leaguers assembled.

Torre did say that "obviously" Andruw Jones would be his center fielder. The rest of the outfield alignment would be sifted out at Dodgertown starting in mid-February.

He said he had spoken to two veterans whose roles on the team are especially uncertain: Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra. Colletti noted it wasn't out of "the realm of possibility" that Ethier could start ahead of Pierre.

Pierre, 30, last year's center fielder, is now competing for the two corner outfield positions with 23-year-old Matt Kemp and 25-year-old Andre Ethier.

Kemp has spent most of the off-season working out in Arizona and said he has lost 25 pounds since the end of the last season. He was one of a small group of major league players working out with the prospects who are wrapping up the two-week mini-camp.

"We'll just have to figure it out. I have had situations in the past where we had too many outfielders for three spots. The only thing (definite) is that we will start the season that will give us the best shot," Torre said.

Pierre has a 434 consecutive games streak, the longest in the major leagues. However, that will probably not be a consideration when it comes to working out the proper combination of right and left fielders.

In all likelihood, Pierre will play most of the time. He is entering the second season of a five-year, $44-million contract, a deal for which Colletti has been widely criticized even though last winter's field of free-agent outfielders was weak and the Dodgers had a glaring need for speed at the top of the lineup.

And with a team short on power, Ethier and Kemp, each of whom has less than two years in the majors, have hit 24 and 17 career home runs, respectively. Pierre, who has been in the majors since 2000, has hit 12 - including zero last season.

Pierre is owed $36.5 million through 2011. That's a lot for a part-time player, especially a player who has almost no power and thus wouldn't be a very effective weapon off the bench.

Then too, Pierre stole 64 bases last season and removing him from the lineup would leave the team with little speed beyond shortstop Rafael Furcal.

Torre mentioned if Pierre is in the lineup, he and Rafael Furcal would probably hit in the first two spots -- not necessarily in that order -- as Grady Little did and for the same reason, because their speed would distract opposing pitchers.

Colletti said rookie Andy LaRoche and six-time All-Star Nomar Garciaparra will compete for the starting third-base job and neither has an advantage at this point. The Dodgers are not pursuing free-agent third baseman Pedro Feliz or any of the other third basemen rumored to be signed.

Torre said Garciaparra had asked what position I thought we could use him and he told him that he would probably play more at third base but that he should be ready to play other positions so he would be more valuable.

The age of the bench is a concern, Torre said. They will be very young and if Garciaparra wins the third bast battle, Andy LaRoche, Delwyn Young, Tony Abreu and Chin-Lung Hu will battle for roster spots.

Colletti noted that negotiations to retain reliever Rudy Seanez and pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney have cooled, in part because of financial differences, but also in part because the Dodgers are starting to believe they have increasing depth as the youth movement advances.

"The youth off the bench is always a question mark because you don't know how they handle not playing and playing after not playing," Torre said, citing the example of the problems the Yankees had with Andy Phillips.

"Our bench right now on a given day would be a young bench," Colletti said. "We can improve that with a veteran. There's not a team in baseball that wouldn't add another pitcher, so if that opportunity presents itself, we'll follow that as well."

Torre also said he wasn't concerned about the starting rotation, which is set in the first four spots with Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Hiroki Kuroda and Chad Billingsley.

However, Colletti cautioned that although there have been no rehabilitation setbacks for starting pitcher Jason Schmidt, head trainer Stan Conte emphasized that there was a lot of work to do between now and the regular season.

"We can't be tied to the calendar," said Conte. "It was a complicated surgery and the rehab is just as complicated. We're happy where he's at."

The fifth spot likely will be filled by either Schmidt, if he is ready, or Esteban Loaiza, who went 2-4 with a 5.79 ERA after coming back from an injury of his own.

"When you have a question mark with the fifth spot, that's a pretty good place to be," Torre said. "A lot of clubs have question marks with their third, fourth and fifth spots.""

On LaRoche, Colletti compared his readiness to that of Kemp and James Loney a year ago or Russell Martin or Ethier two years ago.

"It's time to give him the opportunity to start with the club and play as much as he can," Colletti said. "He's almost going to have to not make the club, and that's a pretty good spot to be in. That said, if he has a great spring and doesn't make the club, that's not to say he wouldn't be up at some point."

Conte said all rehabilitating players continue to progress without setbacks. The list includes Rafael Furcal (ankle, back, shoulder), Hong-Chih Kuo (elbow), Jason Repko (ankle and hamstring), Yhency Brazoban (shoulder), Abreu (hernia) and Scott Elbert (shoulder).

Brazoban and Elbert are throwing, Elbert off a mound, but Conte said he isn't sure if Elbert will be 100 percent by the start of training camp.

Lefthanders Hong-Chih Kuo and Greg Miller haven't gotten much offseason attention, but they haven't been forgotten.

"Hopefully, Kuo's healthy," Colletti said. "We had the same hope a year ago, after how he pitched at the end of the '06 season. He's another one that feels fine right now, but we'll have to wait and see. We could use him. We don't have many left-handed pitchers.

"Greg Miller's another one, another lefthander that's got a chance to make this club. We're not at a point yet where we know if we're going to go with 11 or 12 pitchers, but you do the math, we don't have or 11 or 12 that we can lock in today."

Watson commented positively about Miller, who will be competing for a bullpen job.

"He was healthy all of 2007," Watson said. "We worked on the command. He was in Arizona Fall League, and he's healthy. The velocity was back last year – he was anywhere from 92 to 97 (mph) the entire year. The command was the thing we were really trying to harness through the course of the year."

Watson said the Dodgers do plan to convert 2007 minor-league relief ace Jonathan Meloan to a starting pitching role, and that's how he'll begin the season (one would think in Las Vegas).

It was also mentioned that Clayton Kershaw might see Los Angeles in 2008.

"He's not somebody that we're going to delay his arrival," Colletti said. "He'll be here when he's ready. He may be here before he's completely ready, depending on injuries. But there's still some refinement for him, still some of the finer points of the art of pitching that he's still learning. He's not 20 years old yet. But he's got tremendous ability."

Watson seemed open-minded about the idea of promoting young players, be they Kershaw, James McDonald or someone else. One of the purposes of the current minicamp is to prepare for that, by letting the Dodgers become more acquainted with the prospect and by letting the prospect become more acquainted with Los Angeles.

"I think you really need to look at the player," Watson said. "The player's character and makeup, how he handles situations, the amount of innings he's had through the minor leagues to get himself prepared to come and perform at the major league level.

"Can you rush a kid? Sure, some kids can get rushed. But for us, we want to make sure that we've done everything possible to prepare that player for coming to the major leagues, and we wouldn't recommend him to be ready if we didn't think he was ready to come here and handle it – the entire aspects on the field, off the field."

Colletti said it was too soon to discuss whether Kershaw could come up in a bullpen role. Kershaw said he had never pitched out of the bullpen, but added that "as long as you can condition your arm to get ready a little faster I think I could do it."

Watson said that even if some young players spend time on the major-league bench, they still have something to gain from the experience.

"The one thing you can't duplicate at the minor-league level is the pace of the game and the flow of the game," Watson said. "The quality of pitching that they're going to see up here or the players on the other side of the baseball on the defensive end."

Finally, Colletti talked about how Spring Training plays an important decision-making role for him regardless of the different levels of competition players face.

"Spring Training for me, instead of a movie, it's almost slide by slide," he said. "Whenever I see a hitter's at-bat, I see how they handle whoever's pitching pitch-to-pitch. Spring Training to me is a lot of chapters, a lot of individual chapters to where a player's at.

"How a young player handles himself in Spring Training really sets the tone for the thought process for a season, because there'll be some players every spring, probably three or four, that have great springs.

"They're not quite ready to play in the big leagues, or you've got somebody that's more established already playing, but teams go through so many players in the course of a year, the impression a player leaves in Spring Training lasts a long time.

"Invariably, the ones who had the solid spring are the ones who come to mind, even if there's somebody in the minor leagues that's perhaps got more experience than they do."

In addition to Young, Hu, LaRoche and Elbert, prospects attending the two-week minicamp are pitchers Mario Alvarez, Clayton Kershaw, James McDonald, Jonathan Meloan, Greg Miller, Justin Orenduff, Ramon Troncoso and Cory Wade; infielders Josh Bell, Ivan DeJesus Jr. and Blake DeWitt; catcher Lucas May; and outfielder Xavier Paul.