Dodger Inside Pitch - February 13

The Dodgers have deepened their rotation and lengthened their formerly power-challenged lineup by adding just one player to each. Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, a Japanese import whom the Dodgers beat out as many as 19 other teams to sign, probably will slide into the fourth starting spot, behind Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley.

And the addition of Andruw Jones to the probably in the cleanup spot in the batting order should have a trickledown effect.

The fifth spot in the rotation going into spring training is the question. If Jason Schmidt can prove that his right shoulder is sound, that job would be his. If not, it would go to veteran Esteban Loaiza, who may be challenged by a couple young Dodger rookies, including former relief ace Jonathan Melon who will be converted to a starter.

Jones will allow new manager Joe Torre more freedom to adjust the order with a combination of James Loney, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and all-star Russell Martin. The third base slot is up for grabs with veteran Nomar Garciaparra and promising rookie Andy LaRoche competing in spring training.

There is also the thought that Torre may choose talent over salary and use Ethier instead of overpaid and under appreciated Joan Pierre. Rafael Furcal, is his Caribbean World Series efforts are any indication, will be back in form at the top of the batting order and the aging but still dangerous Jeff Kent should protect or be protected by Jones.

The bullpen will be even stronger. Takashi Saito, beginning his third season in the majors, is back at closer, where he has become one of the most reliable in Dodger history. Fireballing youngster Jonathan Broxton --a stopper in waiting -- will continue to set up and wait for Saito to finally show signs of aging. Joe Beimel will again be the situational left-hander, with righty Scott Proctor returns as well.

If relievers Yhency Brazoban and Hong-Chih Kuo return to form from injuries in time to make the Opening Day roster, that leaves just one spot for a flock of big-league veterans -- Rudy Seanez, Chan Ho Park, Mike Myers, Tom Martin, Mike Koplove and Tanyon Sturtze -- plus rookies Meloan (if they decided to leave him in the pen) and seemingly recovered Scott Elbert to compete for in camp.

As the Dodgers stumbled to a 33-40 second-half and finished the season just 82-80, much was made of rift between the veterans and the stable of promising young players. Since then, several Dodgers have gone on record as saying the matter was overblown by the media, including second baseman Jeff Kent who made it public immediately following a four-game at Colorado on Sept. 20.

Whether the mysterious managerial change of Grady Little to Joe Torre -- club officials still claim Little resigned, rather than being fired -- had anything to do with the perception Little had lost the respect of his players remains unclear.

The Dodgers figure to have a young bench overall, but it will be bolstered somewhat by the fact that either Ethier, Kemp or Pierre will be on it most nights and rumors of Mike Sweeney, major league pinch-hit leader, will help youngsters Tony Abreu and Delwyn Young adjust.

Where and When: Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 vs. Atlanta.
Wukesong Stadium, Beijing (March 11-17, split squad). First exhibition game is March 15 vs. San Diego.
Phoenix Municipal Stadium (March 19-26). First exhibition game is March 20 vs. Chicago White Sox.

Candidate to Question: 3B Andy LaRoche has never delivered a good performance in big-league camp and is a notoriously slow starter. He will be given the chance to earn the everyday job in the majors. LaRoche batted .226 overall in his first two career big-league stints last year, but he draws a lot of walks, which is something of an anomaly on this roster.

Candidate to Disappoint: 2B Jeff Kent, who will turn 40 during spring training, is obviously be slowing down. Although he continued to produce offensively in an otherwise-toothless lineup last year, his range on the infield had dwindled to virtually nothing. One television observer noted, "Kent has the range of a rose bush." That is a little strong and some felt the $11 million guarantee waiting for him might have been the only reason he came back this year -- but those critics underestimate his will to win.

Authority Figure: Joe Torre (2,067-1,770, 26 seasons) took the New York Yankees to the World Series five times in his first eight seasons with the club. His is a big name, to be sure, but critics point out his track record as a National League skipper includes just one playoff appearance and no postseason victories. The same thing was said about another manager who couldn't win in the National League but found happiness with the Yankees -- Casey Stengel. Torre might be hindered further by the fact that Don Mattingly, his bench coach and arguably his closest confidant with the Yankees, moved into a special assignment instructor's role after initially taking the job as hitting coach. Mattingly is going through personal problems and wanted to stay home during the season.

Notes and Quotes
--SS Rafael Furcal heads to spring training fresh from having gone 10-for-25 with a home run, five runs and four RBIs in the Caribbean World Series, but his Aguilas team lost to Licey for the championship. Furcal is expected to be at full strength this season after being slowed most of last year by a severely sprained ankle he suffered in spring training. A healthy Furcall will make a mega-difference in the Dodger order.

--RHP Jason Schmidt is throwing off a mound now for the first time since undergoing major shoulder surgery last June. Club officials are hopeful Schmidt will be ready to join the starting rotation by the start of the season, but trainer Stan Conte said Schmidt won't be ready to begin spring training on the same program with all the other pitchers and there is some feeling his salad days are far behind him.

--RHP Rudy Seanez finally re-signed with the Dodgers just a week before the start of spring training. He accepted an incentive-laden, one-year deal that will pay him $700,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster. He can earn up to an additional $600,000 based on appearances. This is the baseball version of the EverReady Bunny, just wind him up and, despite his age, let him go.

--RHP Jason Johnson, 34, a 10-year major league veteran who pitched last year for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League, signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers and was invited to spring training. If numbers are any indication, an additional starter to replace overpaid Estiban Loiaza should not be hard to find. The club has 35 pitchers coming to camp.

By The Numb3rs: 434 -- Consecutive games played for Dodgers LF Juan Pierre, the longest active streak in baseball. But that streak might be history after manager Joe Torre watches opposing base runners run as free as the wind when a ball is hit into his outfield area.

An outfield of Andre Ethier in left and Matt Kemp in right would more than make up for 60+ steals by Pierre. Just to be precise, Pierre actually has appeared in 821 consecutive games, but one was as a pinch runner, which by major league rules doesn't extend the streak.

Quote to Note: "I feel the organization and (owner) Frank McCourt have continued to make progress and tried to build a winner. We brought in a new coaching staff and a couple of new players. We're excited, and why shouldn't we be? We have a good team." -- Dodgers 2B Jeff Kent during a stop at a local Little League field on the club's annual winter caravan.

Roster Report-- Arrivals: RHP Hiroki Kuroda (free agent from Hiroshima Carp), C Gary Bennett (free agent from Cardinals), CF Andruw Jones (free agent from Braves), RHP Mike Koplove (minor league free agent from Indians), LHP Tom Martin (minor league free agent from Rockies), LHP Mike Myers (minor league free agent from White Sox), RHP Chan Ho Park (minor league free agent from Astros).

Departures>: LF Luis Gonzalez (free agent, signed with Marlins), LHP Mark Hendrickson (non-tendered, signed with Marlins, RHP Roberto Hernandez (free agent, unsigned), INF Shea Hillenbrand (free agent, unsigned), RHP D.J. Houlton (contract sold to Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), C Mike Lieberthal (retired), INF Olmedo Saenz (free agent, unsigned), LHP David Wells (free agent, unsigned), LHP Randy Wolf (free agent, signed with Padres), C Chad Moeller (free agent, signed minor league deal with Nationals), RHP Chin-hui Tsao (free agent, signed minor league deal with Royals), INF Wilson Valdez (contract sold to Kia Tigers).

Spring Focus: The third base battle between Garciaparra and LaRoche will be intense. But if LaRoche wins the job, it will officially kick off the beginning of a new era in Dodgers baseball in which all four of the club's long-awaited position-player prospects -- LaRoche, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, James Loney -- will be regulars in the lineup together for the first time.
   Projected rotation:
   1. RHP Brad Penny
   2. RHP Derek Lowe
   3. RHP Chad Billingsley
   4. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
   5. RHP Jason Schmidt
If the absence of a left-hander in the rotation is a concern, club officials are not talking about it. If Schmidt isn't ready, he likely will be replaced in the rotation by another righty, Esteban Loaiza.
This rotation is solid through the to four, with Billingsley having long been considered the organization's top pitching prospect and Kuroda having been pursued by as many as 20 teams after he announced over the winter he was coming to the United States. Penny and Lowe are both entering their walk years and thus will have added incentive to pitch well.
   Projected bullpen:
   RHP Takashi Saito (closer)
   RHP Jonathan Broxton
   RHP Scott Proctor
   LHP Joe Beimel
   LHP Hong-Chih Kuo [?]
   RHP Yhency Brazoban [?]
   RHP Rudy Seanez
There are going to be a lot of unhappy big-league veterans at the end of spring training, because the Dodgers are bringing five of them to camp on minor league contracts, and simple math suggests there won't be a spot for any of them, especially now that Seanez is back in the fold. Saito has become one of the game's most reliable closers over the past two seasons, but Broxton has the overpowering stuff to step into the role if Saito falters or suffers an injury.
Brazoban and Kuo are coming off injuries, but they are expected to be healthy by the start of spring training. Beimel and Proctor were a solid lefty-righty combination down the stretch.
   Projected lineup:
   1. SS Rafael Furcal
   2. LF C Russell Martin
   3. CF Andruw Jones
   4. 2B Jeff Kent
5. C Russell Martin    6. RF Matt Kemp
   7. 1B James Loney
   8. 3B Nomar Garciaparra/Andy LaRoche
The Dodgers finished next to last in the National League with 129 home runs last year, and Jones should have a big impact on improving that number even though he is coming off a "down" year in which he hit only 26 (which would have led the Dodgers) homers and drove in 94 runs while batting .222 for Atlanta. The lineup could be made better still if Pierre could draw enough walks to move into the leadoff spot, which would allow manager Joe Torre to drop Furcal to the two hole, where Furcal's bat-handling skills would come in handy hitting ahead of Jones. But Pierre's on-base percentage has not been above .331 over the last three seasons and that is unlikely to improve.
Any lineup that has Loney (who hit .331 in 2007) hitting seventh is a dangerous one. But even with the addition of Jones, the aging Kent will have to produce in the cleanup spot if the Dodgers are to win.   Projected reserves:
   C Gary Bennett
   INF Mark Sweeney
   OF Delwyn Young
If LaRoche beats out Garciaparra, Garciaparra will be the other reserve infielder. If Garciaparra wins the third base job.
Young has never been counted among the organization's top prospects, but he has exceeded expectations at almost every level. He went 13-for-34 (including 4-for-12 as a pinch hitter) in two big-league stints last year, and he somehow found time in between to tie the modern Pacific Coast League record with 54 doubles for Class AAA Las Vegas.
Waiting in the Wings: RHP James McDonald burst onto the organizational scene last year, going a combined 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA at Class A Inland Empire and Class AA Jacksonville. He is going to big-league camp for the first time after being added to the roster this winter.
RHP Jonathan Meloan, a potential closer, was a victim of too many butterflies in his big-league debut, posting an 11.05 ERA in five appearances, but he went a combined 7-2 with a 2.03 ERA at Jacksonville and Class Las Vegas. He has overpowering stuff and probably will be back in the majors sometime this year either as a starter or reliever.

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